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Classical Conditioning in Psychology: Definition, Principles & Examples

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  • 0:10 What is Classical…
  • 2:11 How Classical…
  • 3:53 Generalization
  • 4:33 Extinction
  • 5:09 Conditioning in the Classroom
  • 6:31 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Patrick Burke
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

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 becoming embarrassed in one classroom and then generalizing the humiliation to other classrooms as well.

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