How Cognition Affects Conditioning Processes

Instructor: Natalie Boyd

Natalie is a teacher and holds an MA in English Education and is in progress on her PhD in psychology.

Conditioning causes behavior changes through association. Because conditioning can often happen automatically and subconsciously, many people are surprised to learn that cognition is involved. Read on to find out how.


Julian is studying how people change their behavior. He believes that mental processes, like thinking or attitude, are always involved in behavior change. His friend Louise disagrees, though; she says that sometimes, people can change automatically, without thinking about it.

What Julian and Louise are debating is the role that cognition, or mental processes, play in behavior change. Cognition covers a lot of ground. It can involve conscious thinking, subconscious processing of information, or many other things.

So, who's right? What role does cognition play in behavior change? To answer that question, let's look at how cognition and conditioning interact.

Cognition & Classical Conditioning

You might remember from another lesson that conditioning is a type of learning that occurs when people associate two things. There are two major types of conditioning, classical and operant, and cognition is different in each of them.

Let's first look at classical conditioning. This is the process where two things become associated (or linked) in a person's mind. The most famous classical conditioning experiment involved a man named Pavlov and some dogs. Every time that Pavlov gave dinner to the dogs, he rang a bell. After a while, just ringing the bell caused the dogs to drool. They had come to associate the bell with food.

Classical conditioning happens in humans, too. For example, when Louise was a little girl, she put her hand on a hot stove and burned herself. After that, she was scared of the stove. She associated the stove with the pain of being burned.

Often, classical conditioning happens subconsciously. It doesn't matter if Louise knows why she's scared of the stove (or if Pavlov's dogs know why they drool at the sound of the bell). It's happening below the surface of the conscious mind, in a mostly automatic process.

So, does that mean that cognition isn't involved? Not at all! Cognition can happen subconsciously, as well as consciously. In the case of classical conditioning, the cognitive process involved is association, or having two things linked in the mind. When Louise forms an association between pain and the stove, that's a cognitive process.

Cognition & Operant Conditioning

Classical conditioning isn't the only way that people change their behavior. There's also operant conditioning, which involves changing behavior based on rewards and punishments. For example, when Julian got good grades in school, his parents took him out for pizza. After that, he wanted to get good grades even more. He studied harder and did all his work, all so he could get pizza again.

As we already discussed, classical conditioning involves associating two things. In operant conditioning, a person is associating a behavior with either a reward or a punishment. Julian learns to associate good grades with the reward of pizza.

To unlock this lesson you must be a Member.
Create your account

Register to view this lesson

Are you a student or a teacher?

Unlock Your Education

See for yourself why 30 million people use

Become a member and start learning now.
Become a Member  Back
What teachers are saying about
Try it risk-free for 30 days

Earning College Credit

Did you know… We have over 200 college courses that prepare you to earn credit by exam that is accepted by over 1,500 colleges and universities. You can test out of the first two years of college and save thousands off your degree. Anyone can earn credit-by-exam regardless of age or education level.

To learn more, visit our Earning Credit Page

Transferring credit to the school of your choice

Not sure what college you want to attend yet? has thousands of articles about every imaginable degree, area of study and career path that can help you find the school that's right for you.

Create an account to start this course today
Try it risk-free for 30 days!
Create an account