Principle of Conditioning: Definition & Explanation

Instructor: Sarah Lavoie

Sarah has taught Psychology at the college level and has a master's degree in Counseling Psychology.

In this lesson we will learn that the term conditioning is a type of learning by association. Read more about the definition and history of conditioning and test your understanding with a quiz.


Learning by association is one of the most common types of learning. Learning by association happens in humans and animals. Let's use a young girl named Sally as an example to explain learning by association. Ever since she's been old enough, Sally's father has brought her on enjoyable outdoor activities in the winter. Before starting the fun, Sally's father always puts strawberry lip balm on his daughter to protect her from the cold. Many years later Sally buys a strawberry lip balm for her trip to the beach. But when she pulls the cover off, all she can think of is snow. What happened?

Sally has learned by association. Sally's consistent experiences with strawberry lip balm and winter fun with her father have made her associate that very fruity scent with something that it isn't commonly associated with; cold, snowy winter. Sally might also think of her father, snowshoes and a number of other things that were paired together, or associated, when she was younger.

In the early 1900's, psychologists were starting to make their own associations about learning. They found that they could elicit responses in animals by particular methods of association called conditioning. Since then, we have also found that it works for humans too! So how does conditioning work?

Ivan Pavlov's Dogs

Statue of Ivan Pavlov and his dog
statue of Ivan Pavlov and his dog

Ivan Pavlov was a famous psychologist of the early 20th century who performed an experiment that resulted in the creation of the term classical conditioning.

Although Pavlov did the thinking, his dogs did the work. Pavlov experimented with his dogs by first presenting them with food. The dogs would naturally salivate. Then, Pavlov began to present food to his dogs only after ringing a bell. This combination of bell with food went on for a while until Pavlov found that the bell, presented alone without food, also made his dogs salivate.

Terms in Classical Conditioning

A stimulus is anything that causes a response in a human or animal. The original stimulus used by Ivan Pavlov was the bowl of dog food. This stimulus did not need to be associated with anything to produce an effect; drooling was a reflex for the dog, a natural, unlearned response to the sight and smell of food. Therefore, the food is called the unconditioned stimulus, as it already produced an effect without association. The natural response of the dog, drooling, is called the unconditioned response. Just remember that unconditioned means naturally occurring before the experiment.

Now Pavlov added a bell to his experiment. A bell by itself is just a stimulus, and for Pavlov's dogs, the sound of a bell was not attached to any particular significance. Once the bell was rung with the presentation of food over and over again, the bell became a stimulus for drooling! Remember, a stimulus can be anything that creates a response. The bell became a conditioned stimulus once it was a signal to the dogs that food was coming. Salivation to the sound of the bell was a response that was conditioned to happen by Dr. Pavlov. Therefore, salivation was the conditioned response as well.

diagram of Pavlov

B.F. Skinner's Rats

Around the same time that Pavlov was making dogs salivate, another very famous psychologist named B.F. Skinner was helping rats learn to do something that rats don't often do: push levers. Skinner made a device that is now known as the Skinner box. This device was a rat-sized box with a lever in it. The lever would release a pellet of food, which is a great teaching tool for any animal. Skinner would put a rat inside the box and help it learn how to push the lever for food. How did he help the rats learn? He used a procedure that we call shaping. Since rats don't care about levers, Skinner would reinforce any behavior that got the rat closer to the goal, pressing the lever. It was very much like a game of 'hot and cold' using the universal language of food! Eventually, the rats associated the lever with food and began to learn that pressing the lever was what they needed to do when they were in the box. Skinner no longer reinforced them for behaviors close to what he wanted - the rats had learned what they needed to do. And operant conditioning was born.

Operant Conditioning

Operant conditioning, as first performed by B.F. Skinner, is defined as a type of learning where a voluntary behavior can be changed by its consequences. As we know, most every behavior has a consequence. When we study, we get good grades. When we work, we are rewarded with money. These consequences are reinforcers of our study and work behavior because they make us work and study more frequently. Would you work for free? Most likely not. If the reinforcer of the paycheck stopped, most likely you would stop working. Unlike the dog who can't help but salivate when presented with food, we can decide to stop working if we are not getting reinforced with money.

B.F. Skinner was able to use reinforcements to lead and shape the rats' behavior until it worked the way he desired. The reinforcer was the rats getting food. So, a reinforcer is a positive or rewarding event that will increase the chances of the reinforced behavior happening again. The example of the rats being given food for pressing the lever is called positive reinforcement. This simply means that a reward is given to the rats. We use positive reinforcement with dogs when they learn to sit and we give them a bone. But it is also positive reinforcement when they speak or shake and we pet them for it. In petting, we are doing something to the dog that it likes and will make the dog speak or shake again the next time we ask.

There is also a term called negative reinforcement. It sounds nonsensical, but really it is just another type of reinforcement. This time, by adding the word 'negative', it simply means that we are increasing behavior by removing something that is unpleasant. Skinner found a way to add a very loud noise inside his box that the rats didn't like. When the rat pressed the lever, the noise would stop. Therefore he was using negative (taking something bad away) reinforcement (to increase the rat's behavior).

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