Classical or Respondent Conditioning

In the early twentieth century, Ivan Pavlov, a Russian scientist, unwittingly stumbled upon an important discovery for the field of behavioral psychology. While studying digestion in dogs, he discovered that after being fed a few times, the animals would salivate before actually receiving food. The dogs were associating external cues such as the sound of the food cabinet being opened with being fed, so they would salivate upon hearing these sounds before they saw the food.

This phenomenon is called classical conditioning or respondent conditioning. Pavlov found that by pairing a previously neutral stimulus, such as the sound of a cabinet being opened, with a stimulus that generates an automatic response, such as presenting meat, which automatically causes dogs to salivate, a dog will come to associate the neutral stimulus with the automatic response. After many pairings of the neutral stimulus (sound) with the automatic stimulus (meat), the response to the neutral stimulus, without the presence of the automatic or unconditional stimulus, produced salivation on its own. So, eventually, just hearing the cabinet being opened was sufficient for Pavlov's dogs to begin salivating.

Under natural circumstances, food causes a dog to salivate. This response is not learned or conditioned so the food is called an unconditioned stimulus while salivation is called an unconditioned response because it occurs without any prior conditioning or learning. After multiple pairings of the sound with food, however, the sound alone would cause the dogs to salivate. The sound has now become a conditioned stimulus and the salivation is the conditioned response because the dogs have been conditioned to salivate to the sound.

Pavlov later found that he did not even need to pair the conditioned stimulus (sound) directly with the unconditioned stimulus (food) in order to cause a conditioned response. He found that if he first conditioned the dogs to salivate at the sound, and then paired the sound with a wooden block, the dogs would eventually salivate at the sight of the block alone even though the block itself was never paired with the food. This is called second-order conditioning; a second neutral stimulus is paired with the conditioned stimulus and eventually becomes a conditioned stimulus as well.

In the 1920s John Watson, an American psychologist, applied the principles of classical conditioning to human beings. He conducted an experiment on an eleven-month-old baby, ''Little Albert,'' in which a startling noise occurred as Albert was presented with a white rat. Startling noises are unconditionally upsetting to infants, causing them to cry and crawl away, while young children are not afraid of white rats. After multiple pairings of the rat and the startling noise, however, Little Albert developed a fear of the rat, crying and crawling away even if the loud noise did not occur. Watson thus showed that classical conditioning also works with humans and that it works for spontaneous emotional responses as well as physiological ones.

Manipulating Classical Conditioning

Researchers have found many phenomena associated with classical conditioning. In some cases a neutral stimulus very similar to the conditioned stimulus will elicit the conditioned response even if it has never been paired with the unconditioned stimulus before; this phenomenon is known as generalization. An example of generalization in Pavlov's dogs would be the dogs salivating to a sound of a different pitch than the one that was paired with food. Discrimination training can eliminate generalization by presenting the generalized stimulus without the unconditioned stimulus (food).

It is possible to erase the effects of conditioning by presenting the conditioned stimulus without the unconditioned stimulus. In other words, after successfully conditioning a dog to salivate to a sound, experimenters can eliminate the effects of the conditioning by presenting the sound many times without presenting the food. This process is called extinction. After a period following extinction, the original conditioned response might return again; this phenomenon is called spontaneous recovery, and it can be eliminated through a new series of extinction trials.

Classical Conditioning and Psychopathology

Behavioral theorists believe that certain psychological disorders are a result of a form of classical conditioning. Watson's experiment on Little Albert suggests that phobias might be learned through pairing a neutral or harmless stimulus with an unconditionally frightening event, thus causing the person to associate fear with the harmless stimulus. Treatment for phobias involves extinguishing the association between fear and the neutral stimulus through so-called systematic desensitization and flooding.

In systematic desensitization, patients are slowly presented with the feared object in stages, beginning with the least-feared situation and ending with a situation that provokes the most fear. The therapist teaches the patient to remain relaxed as the feared object approaches so eventually the patient associates it not with fear but with calmness and relaxation. One example is the case of Little Albert, in which Watson attempted to extinguish the baby's fear of the white rat by giving him food (a stimulus that elicited pleasure) while showing the white rat. In this case, the white rat ceases to be paired with a fear-inducing stimulus and instead becomes linked to a pleasure-inducing stimulus.

In flooding, the therapist attempts to alter the pair that has been classically conditioned. In this case, however, the patient agrees to be surrounded by the fear-inducing stimulus and not attempt to escape the situation. Flooding functions like extinction because the stimulus is present without the aversive response, so association weakens between the neutral stimulus and the fear response. After a long period, the patient ceases to be afraid of the stimulus.

Thus, classical or respondent conditioning is a purely behavioral type of learning. Animals or people conditioned in this manner do not consciously learn the associations between the stimuli and the responses. Instead, because the pairings occur repeatedly, the conditioned stimulus elicits the conditioned response unconsciously. In some instances, however, these responses are not automatic; instead, certain outcomes will induce the animals or humans to repeat the behavior while other outcomes cause them not to repeat the behavior.

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