Classical Conditioning

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  1. 0:10 What is Classical Conditioning?
  2. 2:11 How Classical Conditioning Works
  3. 3:53 Generalization
  4. 4:33 Extinction
  5. 5:09 Conditioning in the Classroom
  6. 6:31 Lesson Summary
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Taught by

Polly Peterson

Can you be conditioned to associate something new with something else you naturally respond to? In this lesson, we'll take a look at a famous psychological experiment that tested how brains have the ability to automatically react to new stimuli if it's conditioned correctly.

What is Classical Conditioning?

You are driving down a dark and curvy road when you narrowly miss a collision with a large truck that has edged over into your lane. You experience a rapid pulse, sweating palms, and your stomach begins to churn. After this near miss, you continue driving down the road. A few days later, as you approach the same curve, you begin to experience the same reactions (your heart beats faster, your palms begin to sweat) but there are no other vehicles around. What happened to you in this scenario?

Pavlov's Dogs

The dogs were conditioned to salivate when food arrived and at the sound of the bell.
pavlovs dogs

The scenario you encountered can be explained by the research of behaviorists, such as Ivan Pavlov and John Watson. You may recognize the name Pavlov, as he was famous for his conditioning experiments using bells and food. Pavlov observed that when food was presented, a dog would begin to salivate. Pavlov began pairing the food and a bell and after subsequent trials, just the bell was enough to cause salivation of the dog.

Watson's 'Little Albert'

John Watson built on the conditioning work of Pavlov and maintained that emotions may be transferred from an object or an event to another person if the circumstances are right. Watson and his colleagues tested this principle in a well-known experiment referred to as 'Little Albert.'

A young child named Little Albert was presented with a white rat, which would not normally elicit a fear reaction in him. Every time Albert was presented with the rat, a laboratory assistant behind the young boy struck a large steel bar with a hammer, which caused him to jump and cry. This procedure was repeated several times. On the eighth trial, the white rat alone elicited crying and Albert crawling away.

This procedure is known as classical conditioning. Let's discuss this using definitions and terms. Classical conditioning is defined as a form of learning in which a new, involuntary response is acquired as a result of two stimuli being presented at the same time.

How Classical Conditioning Works

The bell represented a trained, or conditioned, response.
conditioned response

Classical conditioning includes two requirements. First, a natural relationship must exist between a stimulus, such as an object or an event, and a reaction. Second, the stimulus that elicits the reaction is paired with a neutral stimulus, typically for several trials. The outcome is that the previously neutral stimulus will, on its own, elicit the fear reaction.

Let's look at a diagram of what happened in the 'Little Albert' experiment:

First, there was a loud noise, which naturally elicits the fear reaction. Second, a loud noise was paired with a white rat, which then elicited the fear reaction. Finally, after multiple trials, the white rat alone was able to elicit the fear reaction.

Let's add some terminology to our diagram.

The loud noise is what we refer to as an unconditioned stimulus (US); this is the stimulus that unconditionally, naturally, and automatically triggers a response. The fear reaction is the unconditioned response (UR). The white rat in this example is our neutral stimulus (NS), meaning in normal situations, it would not trigger an automated response. When the loud noise and the white rat are paired over time, the white rat becomes the conditioned stimulus (CS) and the conditioned response is the fear reaction.

There are other types of reactions in classical conditioning. Through paired associations, negative emotions, such as fear and anxiety, and pleasant feelings, such as happiness and nostalgia, may be conditioned to a variety of objects and events.

Behaviorists have described a number of phenomena related to the conditioning processes. Let's talk about two - generalization and extinction.


Generalization occurs when a person learns a response to a particular stimulus and then makes the same response to similar stimuli. For example, if a person was conditioned to fear dogs, generalization might take the form of that person fearing all four-legged animals, such as a horse or a goat. In the classroom, another example of generalization would be a student being embarrassed in one classroom and then generalizing the humiliation to other classrooms as well.


The second phenomenon is extinction. This is the gradual disappearance of an acquired response by the absence of the unconditioned stimulus. For example, Shelli constantly gets out of her seat during class and receives a reprimand each time from her teacher. The reprimand reinforces Shelli's behavior because she gets attention. The teacher decides to start ignoring Shelli when she gets out of her seat. Soon, Shelli's 'out of seat' rate begins to decline as she is not receiving attention for her poor behavior anymore.

Classical Conditioning in the Classroom

Classical conditioning has a strong presence in the classroom. A crucial step in developing a learner's appreciation of subjects such as science, math, and literature, are to ensure the learner's early experiences are associated with pleasant reactions. Unfortunately, if a teacher is unaware of classical conditioning and its concepts, a learner's initial experiences may become associated with negative emotional reactions leading to undesired behaviors in the classroom.

One strategy that teachers can use is to make use of pre-established relationships that normally elicit pleasant reactions. Think about the first day of school. There are already some common established relationships that exist. New, unfamiliar situations, such as the first day of school, elicit the anxiety reaction. If a teacher were to pair a difficult assignment on the first day of school, that child may elicit anxiety reactions for the rest of the school year.

However, consider this: activities such as coloring or drawing normally elicit pleasant feelings or feelings of relaxation. So if a teacher were to allow students to color or draw during their first day of school, it might ease the children into the new situation, and hopefully an association of pleasantness and relaxation would occur with school.

Lesson Summary

In summary, classical conditioning refers to the pairing of natural stimulus-response situations, with a neutral stimulus in order to develop a new relationship. In the classroom, teachers should be aware of natural and pre-established relationships of their learners in order to associate new experiences with pleasant reactions, as opposed to those new experiences, which would elicit reactions of fear and anxiety.

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