11 Best Examples Of Classical Conditioning In Real Life

When we think about learning, we often picture educational classrooms where students are listening 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 on 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 is classical conditioning using real-life examples.

In the 1890s, a Russian physiologist named Ivan Pavlov did experiments on the digestive response in dogs, which led to one of the most important discoveries in psychology — classical conditioning.

Pavlov showed dogs some food and rang a bell at the same time. After a while, dogs started associating the bell with the food. They gradually learned that when the bell rings, they get food. Eventually, dogs began salivating by just hearing the bell. They would expect food at the sound of a bell. 

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 world “unconditioned” refers to the fact that no learning took place to link the stimulus with the response — 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 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 previously 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.

11. 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 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, has been the brand ambassador of OnePlus since 2019. Previously, he was promoting HTC phones.

Potential customers then see a smartphone manufactured by OnePlus and start to experience the same positive feeling as when they see Iron Man star Robert Downey Jr.

10. 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. Many children receive regular immunizations all over the world, and they may cry because of these injections.

Some children start associating the doctor’s white coat with this painful experience. After a while, they begin to cry whenever they see anyone wearing a white jacket.

9. 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.

Some students get so affected that they start hating the entire school system. This behavior might even continue throughout their academic career.

8. Fear Of Dog’s Bark

UCS: A man is bitten by 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.

7. Phone Ringtone/Buzz

UCS: You hear a tone/buzz from your mobile
UCR: You check for notification and consume content
CS: A familiar notification chime heard in a public area
CR: You instinctively reach for your phone

We clutch our phone as if it was a treasure we can’t lose. Why do such modern electronic devices have such a pull on us?

Actually, the smartphone we carry is associated with ways to meet our psychological needs for autonomy, competence, and relatedness. It gives us access to endless content (in the form of news, entertainment, and knowledge) as well as connects us with other people. Since these things have been paired on a regular basis, the rings and buzzes 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? That is classical conditioning in action.

6. 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.

Then, the next time you receive a bad report card, you already know what would happen if you show it to your parents. You feel sad because you have already anticipated those negative consequences. Some students even get depressed thinking about it.

5. 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.

Most of the time, when we cross a food street or walk past a particular restaurant, we automatically develop a desire to eat, even though we don’t feel hungry. Similarly, some people get a desire to eat at a specific time of the day (for example, lunchtime), even though they are not hungry.

4. 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

Vomiting and nausea are two of the most feared cancer treatment-related side-effects for people with cancer and their families. Patients who receive chemotherapy often vomit during or shortly after the procedure. After multiple chemotherapy sessions, some patients begin to feel sick at the sight of the treatment room.

Read: 14 Best Examples Of Radiation And Their Effects

3. 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 have a positive effect on your demeanor.

2. Wildlife Conservation

UCS: Meat
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.

Read: 17 Deadliest Animals In The World

1. Combat Phobias and Anxieties

UCS: Dogs
UCR: A cynophobic person gets scared of dogs
CS: Therapist performing relaxation technique
CR: Person feels comfortable being around dogs

Classical conditioning is also used in therapy to combat different types of phobias anxieties, such as a fear of dogs. The 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.

Read: 26 of the Most Interesting Psychological Experiment

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.

Written by
Varun Kumar

Varun Kumar is a professional science and technology journalist and a big fan of AI, machines, and space exploration. He received a Master's degree in computer science from Indraprastha University. To find out about his latest projects, feel free to directly email him at [email protected] 

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