Classical Conditioning

Learning Objectives

  • Explain how classical conditioning occurs
  • Identify the NS, UCS, UCR, CS, and CR in classical conditioning situations

Does the name Ivan Pavlov ring a bell? Even if you are new to the study of psychology, chances are that you have heard of Pavlov and his famous dogs.

Pavlov (1849–1936), a Russian scientist, performed extensive research on dogs and is best known for his experiments in classical conditioning (Figure 1). As we discussed briefly in the previous section, classical conditioning is a process by which we learn to associate stimuli and, consequently, to anticipate events.

A portrait shows Ivan Pavlov.

Figure 1. Ivan Pavlov’s research on the digestive system of dogs unexpectedly led to his discovery of the learning process now known as classical conditioning.

Pavlov came to his conclusions about how learning occurs completely by accident. Pavlov was a physiologist, not a psychologist. Physiologists study the life processes of organisms, from the molecular level to the level of cells, organ systems, and entire organisms. Pavlov’s area of interest was the digestive system (Hunt, 2007). In his studies with dogs, Pavlov surgically implanted tubes inside dogs’ cheeks to collect saliva. He then measured the amount of saliva produced in response to various foods. Over time, Pavlov (1927) observed that the dogs began to salivate not only at the taste of food, but also at the sight of food, at the sight of an empty food bowl, and even at the sound of the laboratory assistants’ footsteps. Salivating to food in the mouth is reflexive, so no learning is involved. However, dogs don’t naturally salivate at the sight of an empty bowl or the sound of footsteps.

These unusual responses intrigued Pavlov, and he wondered what accounted for what he called the dogs’ “psychic secretions” (Pavlov, 1927). To explore this phenomenon in an objective manner, Pavlov designed a series of carefully controlled experiments to see which stimuli would cause the dogs to salivate. He was able to train the dogs to salivate in response to stimuli that clearly had nothing to do with food, such as the sound of a bell, a light, and a touch on the leg. Through his experiments, Pavlov realized that an organism has two types of responses to its environment: (1) unconditioned (unlearned) responses, or reflexes, and (2) conditioned (learned) responses.

In Pavlov’s experiments, the dogs salivated each time meat powder was presented to them. The meat powder in this situation was an unconditioned stimulus (UCS): a stimulus that elicits a reflexive response in an organism. The dogs’ salivation was an unconditioned response (UCR): a natural (unlearned) reaction to a given stimulus. Before conditioning, think of the dogs’ stimulus and response like this:

Meat powder (UCS) → Salivation (UCR)

In classical conditioning, a neutral stimulus is presented immediately before an unconditioned stimulus. Pavlov would sound a tone (like ringing a bell) and then give the dogs the meat powder (Figure 2). The tone was the neutral stimulus (NS), which is a stimulus that does not naturally elicit a response. Prior to conditioning, the dogs did not salivate when they just heard the tone because the tone had no association for the dogs. Quite simply this pairing means:

Tone (NS) + Meat Powder (UCS) → Salivation (UCR)

When Pavlov paired the tone with the meat powder over and over again, the previously neutral stimulus (the tone) also began to elicit salivation from the dogs. Thus, the neutral stimulus became the conditioned stimulus (CS), which is a stimulus that elicits a response after repeatedly being paired with an unconditioned stimulus. Eventually, the dogs began to salivate to the tone alone, just as they previously had salivated at the sound of the assistants’ footsteps. The behavior caused by the conditioned stimulus is called the conditioned response (CR). In the case of Pavlov’s dogs, they had learned to associate the tone (CS) with being fed, and they began to salivate (CR) in anticipation of food.

Tone (CS) → Salivation (CR)
Two illustrations are labeled “before conditioning” and show a dog salivating over a dish of food, and a dog not salivating while a bell is rung. An illustration labeled “during conditioning” shows a dog salivating over a bowl of food while a bell is rung. An illustration labeled “after conditioning” shows a dog salivating while a bell is rung.

Figure 2. Before conditioning, an unconditioned stimulus (food) produces an unconditioned response (salivation), and a neutral stimulus (bell) does not produce a response. During conditioning, the unconditioned stimulus (food) is presented repeatedly just after the presentation of the neutral stimulus (bell). After conditioning, the neutral stimulus alone produces a conditioned response (salivation), thus becoming a conditioned stimulus.

Try It

See if you can identify all of the “parts” of a classical conditioning situation in the following questions.

Watch It

View the following video to learn more about Pavlov and his dogs:

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Real World Application of Classical Conditioning

How does classical conditioning work in the real world? Let’s say you have a cat named Tiger, who is quite spoiled. You keep her food in a separate cabinet, and you also have a special electric can opener that you use only to open cans of cat food. For every meal, Tiger hears the distinctive sound of the electric can opener (“zzhzhz”) and then gets her food. Tiger quickly learns that when she hears “zzhzhz” she is about to get fed. What do you think Tiger does when she hears the electric can opener? She will likely get excited and run to where you are preparing her food. This is an example of classical conditioning. In this case, what are the UCS, CS, UCR, and CR?What if the cabinet holding Tiger’s food becomes squeaky? In that case, Tiger hears “squeak” (the cabinet), “zzhzhz” (the electric can opener), and then she gets her food. Tiger will learn to get excited when she hears the “squeak” of the cabinet. Pairing a new neutral stimulus (“squeak”) with the conditioned stimulus (“zzhzhz”) is called higher-order conditioning, or second-order conditioning. This means you are using the conditioned stimulus of the can opener to condition another stimulus: the squeaky cabinet (Figure 3). It is hard to achieve anything above second-order conditioning. For example, if you ring a bell, open the cabinet (“squeak”), use the can opener (“zzhzhz”), and then feed Tiger, Tiger will likely never get excited when hearing the bell alone.

A diagram is labeled “Higher-Order / Second-Order Conditioning” and has three rows. The first row shows an electric can opener labeled “conditioned stimulus (CS)” followed by a plus sign and then a dish of food labeled “unconditioned stimulus (UCS)” followed by an equal sign and a picture of a salivating cat labeled “unconditioned response (UCR).” The second row shows a squeaky cabinet door labeled “second-order stimulus” followed by a plus sign and then an electric can opener labeled “conditioned stimulus (CS)” followed by an equal sign and a picture of a salivating cat labeled “conditioned response (CR).” The third row shows a squeaky cabinet door labeled “second-order stimulus” followed by an equal sign and a picture of a salivating cat labeled “conditioned response (CR).”

Figure 3. In higher-order conditioning, an established conditioned stimulus is paired with a new neutral stimulus (the second-order stimulus), so that eventually the new stimulus also elicits the conditioned response, without the initial conditioned stimulus being presented.

Everyday Connection: Classical Conditioning at Stingray City

A photograph shows a woman standing in the ocean holding a stingray.

Figure 4. Kate holds a southern stingray at Stingray City in the Cayman Islands. These stingrays have been classically conditioned to associate the sound of a boat motor with food provided by tourists. (credit: Kathryn Dumper)

Kate and her husband Scott recently vacationed in the Cayman Islands, and booked a boat tour to Stingray City, where they could feed and swim with the southern stingrays. The boat captain explained how the normally solitary stingrays have become accustomed to interacting with humans. About 40 years ago, fishermen began to clean fish and conch (unconditioned stimulus) at a particular sandbar near a barrier reef, and large numbers of stingrays would swim in to eat (unconditioned response) what the fishermen threw into the water; this continued for years. By the late 1980s, word of the large group of stingrays spread among scuba divers, who then started feeding them by hand. Over time, the southern stingrays in the area were classically conditioned much like Pavlov’s dogs. When they hear the sound of a boat engine (neutral stimulus that becomes a conditioned stimulus), they know that they will get to eat (conditioned response).

As soon as Kate and Scott reached Stingray City, over two dozen stingrays surrounded their tour boat. The couple slipped into the water with bags of squid, the stingrays’ favorite treat. The swarm of stingrays bumped and rubbed up against their legs like hungry cats (Figure 4). Kate and Scott were able to feed, pet, and even kiss (for luck) these amazing creatures. Then all the squid was gone, and so were the stingrays.

Classical conditioning also applies to humans, even babies. For example, Sara buys formula in blue canisters for her six-month-old daughter, Angelina. Whenever Sara takes out a formula container, Angelina gets excited, tries to reach toward the food, and most likely salivates. Why does Angelina get excited when she sees the formula canister? What are the UCS, CS, UCR, and CR here?

So far, all of the examples have involved food, but classical conditioning extends beyond the basic need to be fed. Consider our earlier example of a dog whose owners install an invisible electric dog fence. A small electrical shock (unconditioned stimulus) elicits discomfort (unconditioned response). When the unconditioned stimulus (shock) is paired with a neutral stimulus (the edge of a yard), the dog associates the discomfort (unconditioned response) with the edge of the yard (conditioned stimulus) and stays within the set boundaries.

Watch It

For a humorous look at conditioning, you can watch an example from the television show The Office. Jim conducts an experiment in which he offers Dwight a breath mint every time Jim’s computer makes a specific sound. After repeating this several times, he eventually conditions Dwight to automatically expect a breath mint upon hearing that sound.  See if you can identify the NS, UCS, UCR, CS, and CR.

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Think It Over

Can you think of an example in your life of how classical conditioning has produced a positive emotional response, such as happiness or excitement? How about a negative emotional response, such as fear, anxiety, or anger?


classical conditioning: learning in which the stimulus or experience occurs before the behavior and then gets paired or associated with the behavior
conditioned response (CR): response caused by the conditioned stimulus
conditioned stimulus (CS): stimulus that elicits a response due to its being paired with an unconditioned stimulus
higher-order conditioning: (also, second-order conditioning) using a conditioned stimulus to condition a neutral stimulus
neutral stimulus (NS:) stimulus that does not initially elicit a response
unconditioned response (UCR): natural (unlearned) behavior to a given stimulus
unconditioned stimulus (UCS): stimulus that elicits a reflexive response


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