7 junio, 2024

Conditioned stimulus: what it is, characteristics, examples

We explain what a conditioned stimulus is in psychology, its characteristics, and we give several examples.

What is a conditioned stimulus?

A conditioned stimulus It is all that internal or external stimulus that initially does not cause any reaction in an organism. However, through a process of classical conditioning, it is made to create a response. The conditioned stimulus is the counterpart of the unconditioned stimulus.

The study of how both elements are related is the basis of conditioning and behavioral psychology. It was studied for the first time by the scientist Ivan Pavlov, in his famous experiment in which he managed to cause salivation in dogs by ringing a bell.

Understanding how conditioned stimuli work and how to create them is of great importance to many disciplines. This knowledge is used in marketing and advertising, in learning and in psychology.

The most common example of a conditioned stimulus is the sound of a bell presented to a dog. In the first place, the sound of the bell is a neutral stimulus; Presenting it alone does not produce salivation. If the sound of the bell is presented together with food (this produces salivation), the dog will associate the sound with the food. Finally, the dog will salivate when he hears only the sound of the bell.

Characteristics of conditioned stimuli

They start out as something neutral

By their very nature, conditioned stimuli do not cause any type of response spontaneously. On the contrary, the reactions only appear once the organism has been subjected to a process of classical conditioning.

This process does not have to occur in a calculated way: in our day to day we find ourselves with many situations that cause the creation of conditioned stimuli in our mind. However, if created consciously, the associations tend to be more powerful and long-lasting.

They elicit the same response as the unconditioned stimulus to which they are associated.

The classical conditioning process consists of getting an animal or person to associate a neutral stimulus with another that causes a response.

For example, it is possible to associate a sound, a color or a sensation with a certain type of food; In this way, every time the conditioned stimulus is presented, we would feel hungry and we would start to salivate.

In fact, this was the type of association that was made in the first ever experiment on classical conditioning. In it, Pavlov presented dogs with a bowl of food while ringing a bell. Meanwhile, he measured the amount of saliva the animals produced to see what their hunger response was.

Initially, the bell was not capable of producing any type of salivation in dogs. However, after repeating the association of the sound with food a certain number of times, just by hearing it the animals began to generate saliva, just as if they were looking at the food bowl.

Can elicit responses of varying intensity

Not all conditioned stimuli are equally powerful. Depending on factors such as the associations used, or the number of times the conditioned and unconditioned stimuli are presented together, the intensity of the responses can vary enormously.

Therefore, much of the study of behavioral psychology has to do with what is the best way to produce powerful responses in certain organisms. It must be taken into account that, in different species, the strategies to follow will also vary.

They are capable of creating a second conditioned stimulus

If, for example, we associate the color green (conditioned stimulus) with the feeling of hunger (unconditioned stimulus), theoretically this color could be used to create a second, weaker association.

Thus, once the first conditioning process has been carried out, we could use the color green to create a second conditioned stimulus that would also cause the body to feel hungry.

However, research indicates that it would not be possible to carry out this process a third time, since the association would then be too weak.

The association can disappear

Conditioned stimuli do not have to be conditioned forever. In general, if the unconditioned stimulus is not presented at the same time for a certain number of times, the response provoked in the organism will eventually disappear.

This process is known as extinction. It is of great importance in the treatment of certain psychological problems, as well as being related to the other type of conditioning that exists, which is based on reinforcements and punishments.

Many factors influence conditioning.

Creating a conditioned stimulus is not especially easy. Usually, several conditions have to be in place for something previously neutral to create a powerful response in the body.

One of the most important factors is that the unconditioned response must be very strong. Therefore, the conditioning created usually has to do with very primary instincts, such as hunger, sexual response, fear or disgust.

On the other hand, the conditioned stimulus and the unconditioned stimulus will associate better if they previously had a certain relationship. For example, it is easier to condition the hunger response to the image of a hamburger than to the photograph of a mountain.

Finally, the way in which both stimuli are presented also influences whether they are conditioned or not. In general, the unconditioned stimulus has to be presented before the conditioned one, although the most effective order will depend on the particular nature of both.

Examples of conditioned stimuli

Next we will see two examples of conditioned stimuli and the type of response to which they can be associated.

Example 1

Imagine that one day you are riding a bicycle down the street and suddenly a dog attacks you. From then on, you are likely to associate the place where the incident occurred with the situation. Therefore, the street (which was previously neutral) would have become a conditioned stimulus (since it would cause you fear).

Example 2

One of the most curious types of classical conditioning is what is known as “acquired taste aversion”. In this a person tries a new type of food (initially a neutral stimulus), but after consuming it, it becomes ill after a short time.

From that moment on, just by smelling or tasting that type of food, the person will feel disgust and rejection for it. Thus, a new conditioned stimulus would have been created spontaneously, even if the ingestion of the food had nothing to do with the discomfort suffered afterwards.

Other examples

You drink milk and after a while you get sick. At first, milk was a neutral stimulus, but it becomes a conditioned stimulus when associated with the unconditioned stimulus (pain or illness).
A hotel concierge answers every time he hears a bell. The sound of the bell has been associated with the sight of clients needing help, making the bell a conditioned stimulus.
Students listen to the sound of a bell just before eating. As the days go by and the association is repeated, just the sound of the bell makes the students hungry.

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