Classical Conditioning: An In-depth Overview

Classical conditioning is among the most primary concepts that’s explained in psychology. Most folks are aware that classical conditioning revolves around associative learning whereas others are familiar with Pavlov’s famous dog experiment.

In this guide, we’ll be providing you an in-depth overview of classical conditioning and what it’s all about.

What is Classical Conditioning?

How do we define classical conditioning?

Classical conditioning is a process that involves learning a new behavior through association. Basically, it occurs when two stimuli (a neutral and unconditioned stimulus) are linked to create a learned response. This process undergoes three stages that we will be discussing later in this guide. The term was discovered by Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov which later contributed to various aspects of behaviorism in psychology.

For instance, if a kid is regularly bullied in school, he/she may begin to associate the school with fear. This may also cause the student’s performance to hinder, causing him/her to develop a disliking towards certain subjects. A similar response may be evoked if the child is humiliated by a teacher or teased by their peers.

This is a learned behavior that they have picked up from experience. What’s important to understand is that classical conditioning does not involve voluntary behavior and instead focuses on reflexive or automatic responses.

Classical Conditioning: Key Terms to Understand

Since this is an in-depth guide, we’ll be using some complex terminologies that are associated with classical conditioning. Here are some key terms that you must know about:

Stimulus – Anything that evokes a response or affects behavior.

Response – Behavior that’s caused because of the stimulus.

Unconditioned Stimulus (UCS) – A natural stimulus that prompts an unconditioned response similar to a natural reflex action. An unconditioned stimulus naturally triggers a response. For instance, when you look at your favorite food, you may immediately start to feel hungry. In this case, the sight of food is the unconditioned stimulus.

Conditioned Stimulus (CS) – A stimulus that has an effect because of its association with an unconditioned stimulus.

Conditioned Response (CR) – Behavior that is elicited by a conditioned stimulus.

Unconditioned Response (UCR) – This is a kind of response that naturally occurs because of an unconditioned stimulus. For instance, feeling hunger at the sight of food is an unconditioned response.

Classical Conditioning: Step by Step Explanation

As mentioned earlier, classical conditioning is the association between two stimuli which leads to a learned response. The elaborate process has three primary steps:

Step 1: Prior Conditioning

The classical conditioning process cannot be initiated without a naturally occurring stimulus that’ll produce some kind of response. For instance, salivation is a natural response to the sight of food which is the stimulus in this condition.

In this primary phase, the unconditioned stimulus leads to an unconditioned response. It should be noted that a neutral stimulus is also present which does not produce an effect at this stage. A response is only evoked when a UCS is paired with the neutral stimulus.

Step 2: During Conditioning

This is the actual classical conditioning phase in which the neutral response is continuously exposed to the unconditioned stimulus. This pairing creates an association between the UCS and neutral stimulus.

After this stage, the neutral stimulus is transformed into a conditioned stimulus (CS) as the subject is now conditioned to evoke a response to this stimulus. In the later stages, this CS was given rise to a conditioned response.

For better clarity, let’s dive a little deeper into the example we were discussing before. Suppose the sight of food was followed by the sound of a whistle. Here, the whistle sound may seem totally unrelated but if the same sound is paired with the sight of food multiple times, it will lead to a conditioned response. In this example, the whistle sound is the conditioned stimulus.

Step 3: After Conditioning

After an association is made amongst the UCS and CS, the (previously totally unrelated) unconditioned stimulus will generate a response without an unconditioned stimulus. The end response is termed as the conditioned response (CR).

As mentioned earlier, the CR is a learned response that is evoked by the neural stimulus. In our previous examples, feeling hungry after listening to the sound of the whistle would be considered as a conditioned response.

Classical Conditioning Psychology: Conclusion

We hope this guide has taught you everything you need to know about classical conditioning. Want to learn more, check out our guide for classical conditioning examples. Happy learning!