6 junio, 2024

Classical Conditioning: Theory, Principles, Examples

He classical conditioning It is a learning and teaching tool based on the association of stimuli that are not initially related to each other. This tool is one of the foundations of behaviorism, and its applications have proven to be very useful in many different contexts.

Classical conditioning was discovered by Ivan Pavlov, a Russian physiologist who was studying the response of animals to food. In one of the most famous experiments in the entire history of psychology, this researcher realized that the dogs he worked with responded the same to the sound of a bell as to the presence of food, because they had associated both stimuli. .

During the following decades, classical conditioning was considered one of the most important processes of human learning, to such an extent that John Watson (one of the most influential psychologists of the 20th century) believed that it was possible to explain all aspects of the human mind based on to this phenomenon.

Today we know that there are many more processes that affect our way of thinking, our personality and our emotions; but classical conditioning is still one of the most important. In this article we will study its most essential features in detail.


classical conditioning theory

Classical conditioning is a form of learning in which a stimulus that initially did not cause any response in the organism becomes associated with another that did. In this way, the individual acts the same against the element that was previously neutral as if it were the one that caused the response naturally.

The classical conditioning learning process occurs by repeatedly presenting both stimuli together. In Ivan Pavlov’s famous experiment, he rang a bell every time he brought food to his dogs. In this way, the animals ended up showing the same reaction to the sound as to the food itself.

Originally it was thought that this process could be behind all the learning that we carry out in our lives. John Watson tried to test this theory in his famous «Little Albert» experiment, in which he made a child afraid of stuffed animals through classical conditioning.

Today we know that there are many other learning processes, and that classical conditioning is only one of them. However, it is one of the most studied and the easiest to control, which is why it is of great importance in many different areas.

Elements of classical conditioning

To properly understand classical conditioning theory it is necessary to become familiar with some of the terms it commonly uses. Next we will see some of the most important ones.

Neutral stimulus (EN)

The neutral stimulus is one that naturally does not cause any type of response in the organism. In Pavlov’s experiment it was the sound of the bell: before carrying out the conditioning process, the dogs did not react to it in any way.

The neutral stimulus can be practically any phenomenon or element. However, today we know that classical conditioning works best when there are certain types of relationships between NE and US (unconditioned stimulus).

Neutral response (NR)

Before carrying out the conditioning process, the organism does not show any type of response to the neutral stimulus. Using the technical term this is what is known as a neutral response.

Generally, the neutral response implies a total lack of activity on the part of the organism, and the presence of little intense or even completely neutral emotions.

Unconditioned stimulus (US)

The unconditioned stimulus is one of the most important elements of classical conditioning. It is a phenomenon that causes a reaction in the body without the need for a prior learning process. This response may be innate, or may have been previously acquired by various circumstances.

In traditional classical conditioning experiments most of the EIs involved food. This causes a very powerful physiological response in the body, so it is a good candidate to become an effective unconditioned stimulus.

However, food is not the only type of unconditioned stimulus that can be used. Any element that causes a strong response in the body, such as fear, pleasure, anxiety, disgust or joy, is likely to function correctly as an EI.

Unconditioned Response (IR)

The unconditioned response is the one provoked by the US in a natural way, without the need for there to be a learning process involved. Generally, IR is related either to basic instincts such as the search for sex, hunger and thirst, or to primary emotions.

Conditioned stimulus (CE)

Once the classical conditioning process is carried out, the neutral stimulus begins to generate a response similar to that produced by the US. At this time, it is known as a conditioned stimulus.

Thus, in Pavlov’s experiment, the sound of the bell would be a neutral stimulus at the beginning of the process; but the moment the salivation of the dogs was activated, it would become a conditioned stimulus.

Conditioned response (CR)

In the same way as in the previous case, the neutral response would become known as a conditioned response once the classical conditioning process has been carried out. The CR is usually very similar to the IR, although it generally has a lower intensity.

Principles of classical conditioning


Acquisition is the process of converting the neutral stimulus into a conditioned stimulus, in such a way that it provokes the CR once it is no longer presented together with the unconditioned stimulus.

The conditions of the acquisition process will vary greatly depending on the nature of the CE and the EN. Some of the factors that change in each case are the number of repetitions necessary for the association to occur and the strength of the conditioned response.


In most cases, the conditioned stimulus ceases to elicit a response after some time has elapsed without its being present together with the unconditioned stimulus. This is what is known as response extinction.

spontaneous recovery

Spontaneous recovery is a phenomenon related to classical conditioning in which a conditioned stimulus that had ceased to elicit a response due to extinction elicits it again some time later, after a rest period.

Spontaneous recovery will not occur in all cases, and in any case it will also end up disappearing if the conditioned stimulus is not presented together with the unconditioned stimulus in the future.

stimulus generalization

In some experiments related to classical conditioning, it was found that organisms underwent a conditioned response to stimuli that were slightly different from the conditioned one. This phenomenon was called “stimulus generalization”, and it is of great importance when applying this technique practically.

For example, if an experiment similar to Pavlov’s was done with people, it would be quite possible that not only the sound of the bell produced the conditioned response: it is possible that the mere sight of it would also trigger a salivation reaction in the study subjects. .

stimulus discrimination

In many ways, stimulus discrimination is the opposite process of generalization. It consists of the association of an EN with a specific RI, and another similar one with a totally different response.

In this way, for example, the sound of a bell could be associated with the presentation of food, and the sound of a doorbell (similar but different to the first EN) with the application of a painful stimulus.


fear of dogs

Most phobias are caused by a classical conditioning process that happens by accident. In the case of a phobia of dogs, it could occur in a manner similar to the following:

– The person suffers a traumatic episode (IS) in the presence of a dog (EN). For example, he might have been bitten as a child when encountering a particularly aggressive dog.

– As a consequence, I would associate anxiety (IR) with dogs, which would become conditioned stimuli. Thus, every time he was in the presence of one of these animals he would suffer this same emotion, which would have become a conditioned response.

taste aversion

One of the most common phenomena associated with classical conditioning is acquired taste aversion. When a person eats a type of food and then gets sick, he will tend to associate the discomfort with the food even when it had nothing to do with it.

Thus, it is possible that a person feels disgust (CR) for a type of food that was initially indifferent (EN), having suffered discomfort at the time of consuming it (EI, RI).

Differences with Operant Conditioning

Classical and operant conditioning are often considered to be two sides of the same coin. However, although both processes are the basis of learning in most species, they are actually two quite different phenomena.

As we have already seen, in classical conditioning a specific response is associated with a stimulus that in principle did not cause any type of reaction in the organism. In the operant, on the contrary, the appearance of a response that already existed is made more or less probable through the use of punishments and rewards.


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“Classical Conditioning and How It Relates to Pavlov’s Dog” in: Health Line. Retrieved on: June 1, 2020 from Health Line: healthline.com.
«Classical conditioning» in: Wikipedia. Retrieved on: June 1, 2020 from Wikipedia: en.wikipedia.org.

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