Critical Thinking Activity Steps In Classical Conditioning The Cr

Classical Conditioning

by Saul McLeod, updated 2014

Behaviorism as a movement in psychology appeared in 1913 when John Broadus Watson published the classic article psychology as the behaviorist views it.

John Watson proposed that the process of classical conditioning (based on Pavlov’s observations) was able to explain all aspects of human psychology.

Everything from speech to emotional responses was simply patterns of stimulus and response. Watson denied completely the existence of the mind or consciousness. Watson believed that all individual differences in behavior were due to different experiences of learning. He famously said:

"Give me a dozen healthy infants, well-formed, and my own specified world to bring them up in and I'll guarantee to take any one at random and train him to become any type of specialist I might select - doctor, lawyer, artist, merchant-chief and, yes, even beggar-man and thief, regardless of his talents, penchants, tendencies, abilities, vocations and the race of his ancestors” (Watson, 1924, p. 104).

Classical Conditioning Examples

Classical conditioning theory involves learning a new behavior via the process of association. In simple terms, two stimuli are linked together to produce a newly learned response in a person or animal. There are three stages of classical conditioning. At each stage the stimuli and responses are given special scientific terms:

Stage 1: Before Conditioning:

In this stage, the unconditioned stimulus (UCS) produces an unconditioned response (UCR) in an organism. In basic terms, this means that a stimulus in the environment has produced a behavior / response which is unlearned (i.e., unconditioned) and therefore is a natural response which has not been taught. In this respect, no new behavior has been learned yet.

For example, a stomach virus (UCS) would produce a response of nausea (UCR). In another example, a perfume (UCS) could create a response of happiness or desire (UCR).

This stage also involves another stimulus which has no effect on a person and is called the neutral stimulus (NS). The NS could be a person, object, place, etc. The neutral stimulus in classical conditioning does not produce a response until it is paired with the unconditioned stimulus.

Stage 2: During Conditioning:

During this stage a stimulus which produces no response (i.e., neutral) is associated with the unconditioned stimulus at which point it now becomes known as the conditioned stimulus (CS).

For example, a stomach virus (UCS) might be associated with eating a certain food such as chocolate (CS). Also, perfume (UCS) might be associated with a specific person (CS).

Often during this stage, the UCS must be associated with the CS on a number of occasions, or trials, for learning to take place. However, one trail learning can happen on certain occasions when it is not necessary for an association to be strengthened over time (such as being sick after food poisoning or drinking too much alcohol).

Stage 3: After Conditioning:

Now the conditioned stimulus (CS) has been associated with the unconditioned stimulus (UCS) to create a new conditioned response (CR).

For example, a person (CS) who has been associated with nice perfume (UCS) is now found attractive (CR). Also, chocolate (CS) which was eaten before a person was sick with a virus (UCS) now produces a response of nausea (CR).

Little Albert Experiment (Phobias)

Ivan Pavlov showed that classical conditioning applied to animals.  Did it also apply to humans? In a famous (though ethically dubious) experiment, Watson and Rayner (1920) showed that it did.

Little Albert was a 9-month-old infant who was tested on his reactions to various stimuli. He was shown a white rat, a rabbit, a monkey and various masks. Albert described as "on the whole stolid and unemotional" showed no fear of any of these stimuli. However, what did startle him and cause him to be afraid was if a hammer was struck against a steel bar behind his head. The sudden loud noise would cause "little Albert to burst into tears.

When Little Albert was just over 11 months old, the white rat was presented, and seconds later the hammer was struck against the steel bar.  This was done seven times over the next seven weeks, and each time Little Albert burst into tears. By now little Albert only had to see the rat and he immediately showed every sign of fear. He would cry (whether or not the hammer was hit against the steel bar) and he would attempt to crawl away.

In addition, the Watson and Rayner found that Albert developed phobias of objects which shared characteristics with the rat; including the family dog, a fur coat, some cotton wool and a Father Christmas mask! This process is known as generalization.

Watson and Rayner had shown that classical conditioning could be used to create a phobia. A phobia is an irrational fear, i.e., a fear that is out of proportion to the danger. Over the next few weeks and months, Little Albert was observed and ten days after conditioning his fear of the rat was much less marked. This dying out of a learned response is called extinction. However, even after a full month it was still evident, and the association could be renewed by repeating the original procedure a few times.

Classical Conditioning in the Classroom

The implications of classical conditioning in the classroom are less important than those of operant conditioning, but there is a still need for teachers to try to make sure that students associate positive emotional experiences with learning.

If a student associates negative emotional experiences with school, then this can obviously have bad results, such as creating a school phobia.

For example, if a student is bullied at school they may learn to associate the school with fear. It could also explain why some students show a particular dislike of certain subjects that continue throughout their academic career. This could happen if a student is humiliated or punished in class by a teacher.

Critical Evaluation

Classical conditioning emphasizes the importance of learning from the environment, and supports nurture over nature. However, it is limiting to describe behavior solely in terms of either nature or nurture, and attempts to do this underestimate the complexity of human behavior. It is more likely that behavior is due to an interaction between nature (biology) and nurture (environment).

A strength of classical conditioning theory is that it is scientific. This is because it's based on empirical evidence carried out by controlled experiments. For example, Pavlov (1902) showed how classical conditioning could be used to make a dog salivate to the sound of a bell.

Classical conditioning is also a reductionist explanation of behavior. This is because a complex behavior is broken down into smaller stimulus-response units of behavior.

Supporters of a reductionist approach say that it is scientific. Breaking complicated behaviors down to small parts means that they can be scientifically tested. However, some would argue that the reductionist view lacks validity. Thus, while reductionism is useful, it can lead to incomplete explanations.

A final criticism of classical conditioning theory is that it is deterministic. This means that it does not allow for any degree of free will in the individual. Accordingly, a person has no control over the reactions they have learned from classical conditioning, such as a phobia.

The deterministic approach also has important implications for psychology as a science. Scientists are interested in discovering laws which can then be used to predict events. However, by creating general laws of behavior, deterministic psychology underestimates the uniqueness of human beings and their freedom to choose their own destiny.

 View the complete article as a PDF document


Pavlov, I. P. (1897/1902). The work of the digestive glands. London: Griffin.

Watson, J. B. (1913). Psychology as the behaviorist views it. Psychological Review, 20, 158–177.

Watson, J. B., & Rayner, R. (1920). Conditioned emotional reactions. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 3(1), pp. 1–14.

Watson, J. B. (1924). Behaviorism. New York: People's Institute Publishing Company.

How to reference this article:

McLeod, S. A. (2014). Classical conditioning. Retrieved from

Learning Objectives

  1. Describe how Pavlov’s early work in classical conditioning influenced the understanding of learning.
  2. Review the concepts of classical conditioning, including unconditioned stimulus (US), conditioned stimulus (CS), unconditioned response (UR), and conditioned response (CR).
  3. Explain the roles that extinction, generalization, and discrimination play in conditioned learning.

Pavlov Demonstrates Conditioning in Dogs

In the early part of the 20th century, Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov (1849–1936) was studying the digestive system of dogs when he noticed an interesting behavioral phenomenon: The dogs began to salivate when the lab technicians who normally fed them entered the room, even though the dogs had not yet received any food. Pavlov realized that the dogs were salivating because they knew that they were about to be fed; the dogs had begun to associate the arrival of the technicians with the food that soon followed their appearance in the room.

With his team of researchers, Pavlov began studying this process in more detail. He conducted a series of experiments in which, over a number of trials, dogs were exposed to a sound immediately before receiving food. He systematically controlled the onset of the sound and the timing of the delivery of the food, and recorded the amount of the dogs’ salivation. Initially the dogs salivated only when they saw or smelled the food, but after several pairings of the sound and the food, the dogs began to salivate as soon as they heard the sound. The animals had learned to associate the sound with the food that followed.

Pavlov had identified a fundamental associative learning process called classical conditioning. Classical conditioning refers to learning that occurs when a neutral stimulus (e.g., a tone) becomes associated with a stimulus (e.g., food) that naturally produces a behavior. After the association is learned, the previously neutral stimulus is sufficient to produce the behavior.

As you can see in Figure 7.3 “4-Panel Image of Whistle and Dog”, psychologists use specific terms to identify the stimuli and the responses in classical conditioning. The unconditioned stimulus (US) is something (such as food) that triggers a natural occurring response, and the unconditioned response (UR) is the naturally occurring response (such as salivation) that follows the unconditioned stimulus. The conditioned stimulus (CS) is a neutral stimulus that, after being repeatedly presented prior to the unconditioned stimulus, evokes a similar response as the unconditioned stimulus. In Pavlov’s experiment, the sound of the tone served as the conditioned stimulus that, after learning, produced the conditioned response (CR), which is the acquired response to the formerly neutral stimulus. Note that the UR and the CR are the same behavior—in this case salivation—but they are given different names because they are produced by different stimuli (the US and the CS, respectively).

Figure 7.3 4-Panel Image of Whistle and Dog

Top left: Before conditioning, the unconditioned stimulus (US) naturally produces the unconditioned response (UR). Top right: Before conditioning, the neutral stimulus (the whistle) does not produce the salivation response. Bottom left: The unconditioned stimulus (US), in this case the food, is repeatedly presented immediately after the neutral stimulus. Bottom right: After learning, the neutral stimulus (now known as the conditioned stimulus or CS), is sufficient to produce the conditioned responses (CR).

Conditioning is evolutionarily beneficial because it allows organisms to develop expectations that help them prepare for both good and bad events. Imagine, for instance, that an animal first smells a new food, eats it, and then gets sick. If the animal can learn to associate the smell (CS) with the food (US), then it will quickly learn that the food creates the negative outcome, and not eat it the next time.

Figure 7.2 Ivan Pavlov

Ivan Pavlov’s research made substantial contributions to our understanding of learning.

The Persistence and Extinction of Conditioning

After he had demonstrated that learning could occur through association, Pavlov moved on to study the variables that influenced the strength and the persistence of conditioning. In some studies, after the conditioning had taken place, Pavlov presented the sound repeatedly but without presenting the food afterward. Figure 7.4 “Acquisition, Extinction, and Spontaneous Recovery” shows what happened. As you can see, after the intial acquisition (learning) phase in which the conditioning occurred, when the CS was then presented alone, the behavior rapidly decreased—the dogs salivated less and less to the sound, and eventually the sound did not elicit salivation at all. Extinction refers to the reduction in responding that occurs when the conditioned stimulus is presented repeatedly without the unconditioned stimulus.

Figure 7.4 Acquisition, Extinction, and Spontaneous Recovery

Acquisition: The CS and the US are repeatedly paired together and behavior increases. Extinction: The CS is repeatedly presented alone, and the behavior slowly decreases. Spontaneous recovery: After a pause, when the CS is again presented alone, the behavior may again occur and then again show extinction.

Although at the end of the first extinction period the CS was no longer producing salivation, the effects of conditioning had not entirely disappeared. Pavlov found that, after a pause, sounding the tone again elicited salivation, although to a lesser extent than before extinction took place. The increase in responding to the CS following a pause after extinction is known as spontaneous recovery. When Pavlov again presented the CS alone, the behavior again showed extinction until it disappeared again.

Although the behavior has disappeared, extinction is never complete. If conditioning is again attempted, the animal will learn the new associations much faster than it did the first time.

Pavlov also experimented with presenting new stimuli that were similar, but not identical to, the original conditioned stimulus. For instance, if the dog had been conditioned to being scratched before the food arrived, the stimulus would be changed to being rubbed rather than scratched. He found that the dogs also salivated upon experiencing the similar stimulus, a process known as generalization. Generalization refers to the tendency to respond to stimuli that resemble the original conditioned stimulus. The ability to generalize has important evolutionary significance. If we eat some red berries and they make us sick, it would be a good idea to think twice before we eat some purple berries. Although the berries are not exactly the same, they nevertheless are similar and may have the same negative properties.

Lewicki (1985) conducted research that demonstrated the influence of stimulus generalization and how quickly and easily it can happen. In his experiment, high school students first had a brief interaction with a female experimenter who had short hair and glasses. The study was set up so that the students had to ask the experimenter a question, and (according to random assignment) the experimenter responded either in a negative way or a neutral way toward the students. Then the students were told to go into a second room in which two experimenters were present, and to approach either one of them. However, the researchers arranged it so that one of the two experimenters looked a lot like the original experimenter, while the other one did not (she had longer hair and no glasses). The students were significantly more likely to avoid the experimenter who looked like the earlier experimenter when that experimenter had been negative to them than when she had treated them more neutrally. The participants showed stimulus generalization such that the new, similar-looking experimenter created the same negative response in the participants as had the experimenter in the prior session.

The flip side of generalization is discrimination—the tendency to respond differently to stimuli that are similar but not identical. Pavlov’s dogs quickly learned, for example, to salivate when they heard the specific tone that had preceded food, but not upon hearing similar tones that had never been associated with food. Discrimination is also useful—if we do try the purple berries, and if they do not make us sick, we will be able to make the distinction in the future. And we can learn that although the two people in our class, Courtney and Sarah, may look a lot alike, they are nevertheless different people with different personalities.

In some cases, an existing conditioned stimulus can serve as an unconditioned stimulus for a pairing with a new conditioned stimulus—a process known as second-order conditioning. In one of Pavlov’s studies, for instance, he first conditioned the dogs to salivate to a sound, and then repeatedly paired a new CS, a black square, with the sound. Eventually he found that the dogs would salivate at the sight of the black square alone, even though it had never been directly associated with the food. Secondary conditioners in everyday life include our attractions to things that stand for or remind us of something else, such as when we feel good on a Friday because it has become associated with the paycheck that we receive on that day, which itself is a conditioned stimulus for the pleasures that the paycheck buys us.

The Role of Nature in Classical Conditioning

As we have seen in Chapter 1 “Introducing Psychology”, scientists associated with the behavioralist school argued that all learning is driven by experience, and that nature plays no role. Classical conditioning, which is based on learning through experience, represents an example of the importance of the environment. But classical conditioning cannot be understood entirely in terms of experience. Nature also plays a part, as our evolutionary history has made us better able to learn some associations than others.

Clinical psychologists make use of classical conditioning to explain the learning of a phobia—a strong and irrational fear of a specific object, activity, or situation. For example, driving a car is a neutral event that would not normally elicit a fear response in most people. But if a person were to experience a panic attack in which he suddenly experienced strong negative emotions while driving, he may learn to associate driving with the panic response. The driving has become the CS that now creates the fear response.

Psychologists have also discovered that people do not develop phobias to just anything. Although people may in some cases develop a driving phobia, they are more likely to develop phobias toward objects (such as snakes, spiders, heights, and open spaces) that have been dangerous to people in the past. In modern life, it is rare for humans to be bitten by spiders or snakes, to fall from trees or buildings, or to be attacked by a predator in an open area. Being injured while riding in a car or being cut by a knife are much more likely. But in our evolutionary past, the potential of being bitten by snakes or spiders, falling out of a tree, or being trapped in an open space were important evolutionary concerns, and therefore humans are still evolutionarily prepared to learn these associations over others (Öhman & Mineka, 2001; LoBue & DeLoache, 2010).

Another evolutionarily important type of conditioning is conditioning related to food. In his important research on food conditioning, John Garcia and his colleagues (Garcia, Kimeldorf, & Koelling, 1955; Garcia, Ervin, & Koelling, 1966) attempted to condition rats by presenting either a taste, a sight, or a sound as a neutral stimulus before the rats were given drugs (the US) that made them nauseous. Garcia discovered that taste conditioning was extremely powerful—the rat learned to avoid the taste associated with illness, even if the illness occurred several hours later. But conditioning the behavioral response of nausea to a sight or a sound was much more difficult. These results contradicted the idea that conditioning occurs entirely as a result of environmental events, such that it would occur equally for any kind of unconditioned stimulus that followed any kind of conditioned stimulus. Rather, Garcia’s research showed that genetics matters—organisms are evolutionarily prepared to learn some associations more easily than others. You can see that the ability to associate smells with illness is an important survival mechanism, allowing the organism to quickly learn to avoid foods that are poisonous.

Classical conditioning has also been used to help explain the experience of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), as in the case of P. K. Philips described in the chapter opener. PTSD is a severe anxiety disorder that can develop after exposure to a fearful event, such as the threat of death (American Psychiatric Association, 1994). PTSD occurs when the individual develops a strong association between the situational factors that surrounded the traumatic event (e.g., military uniforms or the sounds or smells of war) and the US (the fearful trauma itself). As a result of the conditioning, being exposed to, or even thinking about the situation in which the trauma occurred (the CS), becomes sufficient to produce the CR of severe anxiety (Keane, Zimering, & Caddell, 1985).

Figure 7.5

Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) represents a case of classical conditioning to a severe trauma that does not easily become extinct. In this case the original fear response, experienced during combat, has become conditioned to a loud noise. When the person with PTSD hears a loud noise, she experiences a fear response even though she is now far from the site of the original trauma.

PTSD develops because the emotions experienced during the event have produced neural activity in the amygdala and created strong conditioned learning. In addition to the strong conditioning that people with PTSD experience, they also show slower extinction in classical conditioning tasks (Milad et al., 2009). In short, people with PTSD have developed very strong associations with the events surrounding the trauma and are also slow to show extinction to the conditioned stimulus.

Key Takeaways

  • In classical conditioning, a person or animal learns to associate a neutral stimulus (the conditioned stimulus, or CS) with a stimulus (the unconditioned stimulus, or US) that naturally produces a behavior (the unconditioned response, or UR). As a result of this association, the previously neutral stimulus comes to elicit the same response (the conditioned response, or CR).
  • Extinction occurs when the CS is repeatedly presented without the US, and the CR eventually disappears, although it may reappear later in a process known as spontaneous recovery.
  • Stimulus generalization occurs when a stimulus that is similar to an already-conditioned stimulus begins to produce the same response as the original stimulus does.
  • Stimulus discrimination occurs when the organism learns to differentiate between the CS and other similar stimuli.
  • In second-order conditioning, a neutral stimulus becomes a CS after being paired with a previously established CS.
  • Some stimuli—response pairs, such as those between smell and food—are more easily conditioned than others because they have been particularly important in our evolutionary past.

Exercises and Critical Thinking

  1. A teacher places gold stars on the chalkboard when the students are quiet and attentive. Eventually, the students start becoming quiet and attentive whenever the teacher approaches the chalkboard. Can you explain the students’ behavior in terms of classical conditioning?
  2. Recall a time in your life, perhaps when you were a child, when your behaviors were influenced by classical conditioning. Describe in detail the nature of the unconditioned and conditioned stimuli and the response, using the appropriate psychological terms.
  3. If posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a type of classical conditioning, how might psychologists use the principles of classical conditioning to treat the disorder?


American Psychiatric Association. (2000). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (4th ed., text rev.). Washington, DC: Author.

Garcia, J., Ervin, F. R., & Koelling, R. A. (1966). Learning with prolonged delay of reinforcement. Psychonomic Science, 5(3), 121–122.

Garcia, J., Kimeldorf, D. J., & Koelling, R. A. (1955). Conditioned aversion to saccharin resulting from exposure to gamma radiation. Science, 122, 157–158.

Keane, T. M., Zimering, R. T., & Caddell, J. M. (1985). A behavioral formulation of posttraumatic stress disorder in Vietnam veterans. The Behavior Therapist, 8(1), 9–12.

Lewicki, P. (1985). Nonconscious biasing effects of single instances on subsequent judgments. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 48, 563–574.

LoBue, V., & DeLoache, J. S. (2010). Superior detection of threat-relevant stimuli in infancy. Developmental Science, 13(1), 221–228.

Milad, M. R., Pitman, R. K., Ellis, C. B., Gold, A. L., Shin, L. M., Lasko, N. B.,…Rauch, S. L. (2009). Neurobiological basis of failure to recall extinction memory in posttraumatic stress disorder. Biological Psychiatry, 66(12), 1075–82.

Öhman, A., & Mineka, S. (2001). Fears, phobias, and preparedness: Toward an evolved module of fear and fear learning. Psychological Review, 108(3), 483–522.

This is a derivative of Introduction to Psychology by a publisher who has requested that they and the original author not receive attribution, which was originally released and is used under CC BY-NC-SA. This work, unless otherwise expressly stated, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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