When we think about learning, we often picture educational classrooms where students listen intently to their teacher. However, in psychology, learning means something else.
Psychologists define learning as a relatively permanent change in behavior that is based on experience. The psychology of learning emphasizes various topics related to how animals learn and interact with their environments.
Behavioral psychology describes three major types of learning: classical conditioning, operant conditioning, and observational learning. In this overview article, we’ve explained what exactly classical conditioning is (using real-life examples).
In the 1890s, a Russian physiologist named Ivan Pavlov conducted experiments to analyze the digestive response in dogs, which led to one of the most important discoveries in psychology — classical conditioning.
Ivan Pavlov’s Experiments
Pavlov did an experiment with dogs. He would show them food and ring a bell at the same time. Over time, the dogs learned that when the bell rings, they get food. As a result, they started to associate the bell sound with getting food and began to drool when they heard it, anticipating a meal.
Under normal conditions, the smell and sight of the food cause a dog to salivate. Thus, in this case, food is an Unconditioned Stimulus (UCS) and salivation is an Unconditioned Response (UCR).
The word “unconditioned” refers to the fact that no learning took place to link the stimulus with the response — the dog saw the food and automatically got so excited that he started to salivate (like a reflex).
In Pavlov’s experiment, no one trained dogs to salivate over some steak. However, when they paired an unconditioned stimulus (such as food) with something that was previously neutral (such as the bell’s sound), that Neutral Stimulus (NS) became a Conditioned Stimulus (CS). And that’s how classical conditioning was discovered.
There are three stages in classical conditioning:
Before Conditioning: At this stage, there is no link between UCS and CS. The UCS naturally triggers a UCR. The UCR cannot be learned or taught; it is a completely innate reaction.
During Conditioning: The NS is paired with UCS. After a while, this pairing causes the initial NS to become a CS.
After Conditioning: Once the UCS and CS are linked, the CS is alone capable of triggering a response, which is now called a Conditioned Response (CR). This means the dog has learned to associate a particular response with a previously natural stimulus.
Classical conditioning doesn’t only work on dogs: human behavior is also influenced by it, but we often fail to recognize those changes. To better explain this phenomenon, we have gathered some of the best examples of classical conditioning that happen in our everyday lives.
Table of Contents
13. Celebrities In Advertisements
Unconditioned Stimulus (UCS): Celebrities
Unconditioned Response (UCR): Your positive associations with celebrities
Conditioned Stimulus (CS): Products and services
Conditioned Response (CR): You start liking/purchasing the company’s product
Whether it is a famous actor promoting soft drinks or an influencer showcasing products on social media, celebrity endorsement is quite hard to ignore. These days, celebrity advertising often involves generating buzz or engagement with their social networks.
Companies take advantage of our positive associations with celebrities in order to increase the sales of their products and services. Robert Downey Jr., for instance, was the brand ambassador of OnePlus from 2019 to 2022. Previously, he was promoting HTC phones.
When potential customers see a OnePlus smartphone, they may associate it with the positive feelings they have for Robert Downey Jr. from his role as Iron Man.
Engineered for excellence and crafted for perfection | Robert Downey Jr. presents the OnePlus 7 Pro. pic.twitter.com/osnf2ScU08
— OnePlus India (@OnePlus_IN) May 16, 2019
12. Children Getting Injection
UCS: A child getting an injection
UCR: He/she starts crying
CS: The doctor wearing a white coat
CR: The child starts crying whenever he/she sees anyone wearing a white jacket
Since immunization is the most important and cost-effective strategy for the prevention of childhood disabilities and sickness, it’s a basic need for all children. Kids around the world often get routine vaccinations, and although they might cry during the process, it’s a common part of staying healthy.
Sometimes, children can link the experience of getting shots with the doctor’s white coat. Over time, they may start crying whenever they see someone else wearing a white jacket because they associate it with the discomfort of vaccinations.
11. Students Dislike A Subject Because Of Bad Teacher
UCS: A teacher who regularly humiliates students
UCR: Students hate the teacher
CS: He/she teaches science
CR: Students start disliking the science subject
Some teachers regularly punish students for small mistakes and humiliate them in front of the class. Such situations prevent students from acquiring a liking for the teacher as well as the subject(s) taught by him/her. This is because studying the same subject reminds them of their past (bad) experiences in the classroom.
For some students, these negative encounters can have a lasting impact, leading them to develop a dislike for the entire school system. This aversion might persist throughout their academic journey.
10. Fear Of Dog’s Bark
UCS: A man is bitten by a barking dog multiple times at the same location
UCR: A horrible and frightening experience
CS: He walks past the same location or hears a bark
CR: He gets unnerved and starts trembling
Let’s say a man is bitten by a barking dog more than once at the same location. This would be a frightening experience, particularly if he were bitten at a young age. He might develop an irrational and persistent fear of barking dogs.
Now, whenever this person hears a barking noise or walks past the same location, he gets unnerved and starts to tremble. The fear he feels is a conditioned response.
9. Phone Ringtone/Buzz
UCS: You hear a tone/buzz from your mobile
UCR: You check for notifications and consume content
CS: A familiar notification chime heard in a public area
CR: You instinctively reach for your phone
We often cling to our phones like they’re precious treasures we can’t afford to lose. The reason for this strong attachment to modern electronic devices is tied to meeting our psychological needs for autonomy, competence, and connection.
Our smartphones provide constant access to a variety of content, from news and entertainment to knowledge, while also keeping us connected with other people. Due to the regular pairing of these benefits, the sounds and vibrations of our phones trigger automatic, reflexive responses.
Have you ever been in a public area and heard the same notification tone as yours? Did you instinctively reach for your phone? This is an example of classical conditioning in action, where our behaviors become conditioned responses to certain cues.
8. A Bad Report Card
UCS: A report card filled with bad grades
UCR: Your parents yell at you
CS: You receive another bad report card
CR: You feel sad thinking about the negative consequences
The report card that you get from school determines the quality of schoolwork by evaluating your performance during the term or year that has just finished. Maybe each time you brought home a poor report card, your parents would yell at you, or they would compare your grade with your cousins/friends.
The next time you receive a poor report card, you might already anticipate the negative reactions from your parents. You feel sad because you have already anticipated those negative consequences. Some students even end up feeling depressed just thinking about the potential consequences of sharing their report card.
7. Food Aroma Makes You Feel Hungry
UCS: The smell of the food
UCR: The feeling of hunger in response to the smell
CS: You cross a food street
CR: You develop a desire to eat
What happens when you smell one of your favorite foods? If you haven’t eaten for hours, you will immediately feel very hungry. This happens to all of us.
Sometimes, just passing by a food street or a specific restaurant can trigger a sudden craving for food, even if you weren’t hungry before. Similarly, certain people may feel the urge to eat at a particular time of day, like lunchtime, even if they don’t currently feel hungry.
6. Romantic Relationships
UCS: Genuine romantic gestures from the partner
UCR: Natural positive emotional response to those gestures
CS: Specific actions that have become associated with positive emotions
CR: Positive emotional response triggered by those specific actions
In the context of romantic relationships, classical conditioning comes into play when specific actions, like surprises from a partner, become associated with positive emotions. Initially, these positive feelings naturally connect with the partner’s romantic gestures.
However, with repeated experiences where such actions consistently coincide with positive emotions, the brain starts linking the actions themselves with the positive feelings. Over time, the partner’s certain actions, even when not astonishing, can trigger the same positive emotional response.
5. Cancer Patients Feel Sick Before Chemotherapy Sessions
UCS: Cancer patients receive chemotherapy
UCR: They get side effects like vomiting and nausea
CS: Treatment room
CR: Patients begin to feel sick
For people with cancer and their families, vomiting and nausea are among the most feared side effects of cancer treatment. It’s common for patients undergoing chemotherapy to experience vomiting either during or shortly after the procedure.
After several sessions of chemotherapy, some patients even start feeling sick just by being in the treatment room.
This is a perfect example of how environmental cues associated with a particular experience (chemotherapy, in this case) can become triggers for physiological responses even without the direct administration of the treatment.
4. Christmas Music
UCS: Christmas holiday
UCR: Happiness and excitement
CS: The music
CR: You get into the holiday spirit
The taste of peppermint, the look of lights strung on houses, the smell of pine, and the sound of Christmas music — these are things people associate with end-of-the-year holidays.
When you listen to popular Christmas songs, your mind starts recalling those happy memories associated with holidays. Some studies show that listening to joyful music can positively affect your demeanor.
3. Wildlife Conservation
UCR: Lions eat meat
CS: Beef meat treated with a deworming agent
CR: Lions feel sick, and thus, they refuse to eat meat
Classical conditioning can be used to support wildlife conservation efforts. In a study, African lions were conditioned to dislike the taste of beef. This is done to keep lions from preying on cattle, which should, in turn, prevent farmers from killing the lions.
Eight lions were given beef meats treated with a deworming agent. This made lions temporarily sick to their stomachs (it was just a bad case of indigestion). After repeating this multiple times, the lions were once again offered untreated meat. As expected, they refused to eat it. Now that lions have developed an aversion to beef meat, they would be highly unlikely to prey on cattle.
2. Combat Phobias and Anxieties
UCR: A cynophobic person gets scared of dogs
CS: Therapist performing relaxation technique
CR: The person feels comfortable being around dogs
Classical conditioning is also used in therapy to combat different types of phobias and anxieties, such as the fear of dogs. In this context, a therapist might frequently show the person pictures and videos of dogs while performing relaxation methods so that the person can form a link between dogs and relaxation.
Similarly, if primary students hate a particular subject, the teacher couples that subject with a pleasant and fun environment so that students can learn to enjoy while studying that subject.
1. Placebo Effect
Everyday evidence of the mind’s reality: the placebo effect
The placebo effect — you get better because you think you will — may be getting stronger, as researchers manipulate it more effectively.https://t.co/5z8a02IZkz
— Denyse O’Leary (@itsdesign) November 23, 2023
UCS: The actual painkiller
UCR: The natural response to the painkiller, which is the reduction of pain.
CS: The placebo pill
CR: The physiological response to the placebo
Imagine a scenario where a person takes a pain relief medication and experiences a reduction in pain (this is a natural, unconditioned response).
If, over time, this person is given a placebo alongside the real medication, the brain starts linking the placebo with pain relief due to the repeated pairing. Gradually, the person may start feeling relief simply from taking the placebo, even though it has no actual medicinal effects.
This shift in the response (from the actual medication to the placebo) is a perfect example of classical conditioning,
More to Know
Why is it important to understand classical conditioning?
By understanding the principles of classical conditioning, you can consciously work towards modifying your own behaviors or influencing the behaviors of others in a positive way. It may help you become more self-aware and identify factors that contribute to your emotional responses and behaviors.
Moreover, it can help you make more deliberate and informed decisions that align with your values and long-term goals.
Several fears and phobias are rooted in classical conditioning. By understanding the reasons behind those responses, one can take steps to overcome irrational fears, leading to a less restricted and more fulfilling life.
What is the difference between classical conditioning and operant conditioning?
While classical conditioning involves learning through associations, operant conditioning focuses on learning through consequences and rewards.
|Classical Conditioning||Operant Conditioning|
|Involves automatic, reflexive responses.||Involves learned behaviors influenced by consequences.|
|Pavlov’s Dogs – Bell ringing (CS) before food (UCS) leads to salivation (CR).||Skinner’s Box – Rat’s lever-pressing (behavior) results in food (reinforcement).|
|The learner is a passive recipient of stimuli.||The learner actively engages in behaviors.|
|Consequences play no role.||The consequences of a behavior determine whether it will be repeated.|
How long does it take for classical conditioning to occur?
The speed at which classical conditioning occurs varies on multiple factors, including the complexity of the association, the nature of the stimuli, and individual differences.
The more times the conditioned stimulus is paired with the unconditioned stimulus, the stronger the association becomes. Also, strong and distinct stimuli may lead to faster conditioning than weak and ambiguous stimuli.
In simple cases, classical conditioning can occur relatively quickly (sometimes within a few pairings), while in more complex scenarios with less salient stimuli, it may take more repetitions for a strong association to form. The process is dynamic, and there is no fixed number.
Can classical conditioning be unlearned or reversed?
Yes, it can be unlearned or reversed through a process called extinction.
During the extinction phase, the conditioned stimulus is presented continuously without the unconditioned stimulus. For instance, if a bell was previously associated with food to trigger salivation, presenting the bell without the food will gradually reduce salivation.
As the association between the two weakens over time, the conditioned response becomes weaker and may eventually disappear. However, it’s important to note that extinction doesn’t erase the initial learning entirely.