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Classical Conditioning & How It Works (With Real Examples)

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Imagine this: you’re in the middle of a busy workday when a specific sound catches your attention—a ping from your messaging app. Suddenly, a surge of urgency washes over you as if your brain has been wired to respond. This is classical conditioning at work!

In this article, we’ll dive into what classical conditioning is, how it’s different from operant conditioning, examples in everyday life, what the critics have to say, and tips you can use to promote learning.

What is Classical Conditioning? (Definition)

Classical conditioning1, also known as Pavlovian conditioning, is way our brains learn; over time, your brain can become conditioned to certain sensations, which then cause you to behave in a certain way when you’re exposed to those sensations. Have you ever noticed how sometimes a specific smell, sound, or situation can cause you to react in a certain way? This is classical conditioning coming into play.

For example, imagine if every time you heard a particular sound, you got a piece of candy. After hearing the sound many times, just the sound alone could make you feel happy or excited, even if the candy isn’t there. That’s because your brain learned to connect the sound with the happy feeling. It’s like magic, but it’s actually your brain learning!

The discovery of classical conditioning is commonly credited to Ivan Pavlov2’s%20Experiment&text=Pavlov%20was%20conducting%20research%20on,slightly%20before%20their%20food%20arrived., who accidentally came upon the theory while studying the digestion of dogs. He then conducted some experiments, where he found that dogs could be conditioned to salivate at the sound of a bell if it was repeatedly paired with the presentation of food. 

Another famous example of classical conditioning is the Little Albert experiment, where a young boy was conditioned to fear a white rat after it was repeatedly paired with a loud noise.

What is the Difference Between Classical Conditioning and Operant Conditioning?

Classical conditioning is associating stimuli to trigger a reflexive response, while operant conditioning3 is associating behaviors with consequences to modify voluntary behavior. The difference is between learning via a stimulated response (classical) and learning via consequences (operant). Let’s break it down!

Classical conditioning is based on the idea that an organism learns to associate a neutral stimulus with a naturally occurring stimulus to produce a reflexive or involuntary response. In classical conditioning, the focus is on the association between stimuli.  

The key points of classical conditioning:

  • Involves the association between stimuli
  • Focuses on eliciting reflexive or involuntary responses
  • Learning occurs through the pairing of stimuli

Operant conditioning, also known as instrumental conditioning, is based on the idea that an organism learns to associate its behaviors with the consequences that follow those behaviors. In operant conditioning, the focus is on the association between behaviors and their outcomes.

For example, if a child cleans their room (behavior) and receives praise or a reward (positive consequence), they are more likely to clean their room in the future. Conversely, if the child is scolded or loses a privilege (negative consequence) for not cleaning their room, they are less likely to repeat the behavior.

The key points of operant conditioning:

  • Involves the association between behaviors and their consequences
  • Focuses on voluntary or learned behaviors
  • Learning occurs through the consequences that follow behaviors

Let’s look more closely at the components of classical conditioning.

The Four Principles of Classical Conditioning 

Classical conditioning involves four key components4

  • Unconditioned stimulus (UCS): a stimulus that naturally elicits a response, such as food
  • Unconditioned response (UCR): the natural response to the UCS, such as salivation in response to food
  • Conditioned stimulus (CS): a neutral stimulus repeatedly paired with the UCS, such as a bell
  • Conditioned response (CR): the learned response to the CS, such as salivation in response to the sound of a bell

These components work together in the conditioning process, where the CS becomes associated with the UCS, eventually leading to the CR. 

Let’s look at an example of the components of classical conditioning in an everyday situation.

Everyday Examples of Classical Conditioning 

Here is an example scenario identifying the four elements of classical conditioning:

When Alex studies, he enjoys listening to his favorite music. Recently, he also decided to start using an essential oil diffuser with a lavender scent while studying. Over time, he developed a conditioned response to the specific scent of lavender, which became associated with his focused and productive study state.

  • Unconditioned stimulus example (UCS): The natural stimulus that elicits a response is the scent of lavender. Initially, this scent has no particular significance to Alex’s studying.
  • Unconditioned response example (UCR): Alex’s focused and productive study state while listening to their favorite music is the natural response that occurs without conditioning. This is their innate reaction when studying.
  • Conditioned stimulus example (CS): The neutral stimulus repeatedly paired with the UCS is the scent of lavender. Alex uses the lavender essential oil as a room fragrance every time they listen to their favorite study music.
  • Conditioned response example (CR): The learned response that occurs due to the conditioning is Alex entering a focused and productive study state when they encounter the scent of lavender. After repeated pairing of the scent with their studying routine, the scent alone becomes enough to trigger their concentration and focus.

In this example, Alex has successfully associated the conditioned stimulus (CS) of the lavender scent with their focused and productive study state. Now, even if they are not actively listening to their favorite study song, simply encountering the smell of lavender is enough to induce the conditioned response (CR) of entering a focused study state.

Perhaps there are classical conditioning examples in your life that you don’t even realize! 

  • For instance, maybe your best friend has a specific ringtone that brings you joy whenever you hear it, even if you hear it on someone else’s phone. 
  • Classical conditioning can also work negatively. For instance, perhaps whenever you hear the ping from the messaging app at work, you feel a sense of panic because you’ve associated it with your boss needing immediate attention, even when it’s just a friendly colleague dropping in to say hi.

Common Applications for Classical Conditioning

Classical conditioning has many applications in different contexts, including marketing, education, and therapy.

  • Advertisement and marketing: Advertisers5 often use classical conditioning to create positive associations with their products, such as pairing a product with a celebrity or a catchy jingle. For example, when you think of the brand Nike, who’s the first person that comes to mind? It’s very likely you just thought of Michael Jordan! 
  • Education: Classical conditioning can create positive associations with learning by pairing a subject with a fun activity. 
  • Therapy: Classical conditioning can treat phobias and anxiety disorders by exposing patients to feared stimuli in a safe and controlled environment.
  • Forming habits: Classical conditioning can also help develop healthy habits. For example, in James Clear’s book Atomic Habits, he talks about creating a habit loop using a cue, craving, response, and reward—essentially creating positive (or negative) associations to change your behavior.

It is important to note that while classical conditioning can be a powerful tool, it can also be used in unethical ways. For example, the Little Albert experiment has been criticized for its ethical concerns, as it intentionally induced fear in a young child. (PSA: Please use the tools of psychology with care!)

6 Tips to Apply Classical Conditioning in Your Life

Classical conditioning can be a helpful tool to influence behavior. That said, it’s important to understand the principles and design the conditioning process carefully to achieve the desired outcomes effectively and ethically. 

Here are some potential ways to use classical conditioning in your everyday life.

#1 Overcome fears 

By gradually exposing yourself to the feared stimulus (conditioned stimulus) in a controlled and safe way while simultaneously experiencing relaxation and positive emotions, it is possible to recondition the fear response (conditioned response). This technique, known as systematic desensitization6, can help individuals overcome their fears and phobias.

Overcoming fear action steps:

  • Think about something that makes you scared or worried. Maybe it’s public speaking.
  • Take small steps to face that fear, starting with something not too scary. Perhaps you start a conversation with a stranger at the checkout line at the store.
  • Breathe deeply and think positive thoughts while facing your fear.
  • Do something fun or enjoyable after facing fear to make yourself happy and proud.
  • Keep practicing and facing your fear with small steps. You may not eliminate your fear, but you may become more comfortable over time.

#2 Form healthy eating habits

By pairing a desired healthy food item with a pleasurable or rewarding stimulus, such as a favorite song or a positive social interaction, it is possible to develop a positive association (conditioned response) with the food7 This can help promote healthier eating habits and make nutritious choices more appealing.

Healthy eating habit action steps:

  • Pick a healthy food you want to eat more often.
  • Pair it with something you love, like listening to your favorite song while eating or enjoying a meal with friends or family.
  • Keep eating healthy food with your favorite thing to make it even more enjoyable.
  • Notice how good you feel when you eat healthy food and how it helps your body.
  • Try increasing how often you eat healthy food; soon, it may become a habit you love!

Looking for ways to build better habits and set goals? Check out this helpful resource!

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#3 Enhance productivity and focus

Associating a specific environmental cue or ritual (conditioned stimulus) with a focused and productive state of mind can help improve productivity. For example, consistently working in a designated study area or listening to a particular type of music8 while engaging in work can create an association that triggers a focused and productive mindset (conditioned response).

Enhanced productivity action steps:

  • Identify a specific environmental cue or ritual you associate with being focused and productive. Perhaps it’s calming music.
  • Consistently create that cue or engage in that ritual when you need to be productive.
  • Use the cue or ritual to signal to your brain that it’s time to enter a focused and productive mindset.
  • Maintain a consistent and dedicated workspace or study area to strengthen the association between the environment and productivity.
  • Experiment with different environmental cues, such as certain types of music or scents, to find what helps you enter a focused state.

#4 Change your behavior

Classical conditioning can be utilized to modify unwanted behaviors9 By pairing an unpleasant stimulus (such as an unpleasant sound or physical sensation) with the behavior one wants to change (conditioned stimulus), a negative association (conditioned response) can be developed, discouraging the behavior from occurring.

Changing behavior action steps:

  • Think about something you do that you want to improve or change.
  • Use a gentle reminder, like a positive image, to remind you why you want to change. Perhaps you create a vision board to help you associate positive imagery with what you want to change.
  • Whenever you catch yourself doing that behavior, look at your positive reminders, and take a moment to reflect on why you want to change.
  • Pay attention to how that behavior makes you feel and consider the positive benefits of changing it.
  • Start practicing a new behavior that aligns with your goals and values, and remember to be patient and kind to yourself throughout the process. 
  • Celebrate each step you take towards the new behavior or habit, and reward yourself with something you enjoy. 

#5 Reduce your stress and relax

Creating a relaxing environment or engaging in relaxing activities while pairing them with a calming stimulus, such as a specific scent or soothing music, can help condition a relaxation response. This can be beneficial for managing stress, promoting relaxation, and improving overall well-being.

Reducing stress action steps:

  • Create a cozy and peaceful space just for yourself.
  • Use calming things like soft music or a nice smell to help you relax.
  • Spend time in your cozy space and do relaxing activities like deep breathing or meditation.
  • Feel the calmness and peace in your body when you do these activities.
  • Visit your cozy space regularly and keep doing relaxing activities to help yourself feel calm.

#6 Pair your brand with a reward

This tip applies to people in the workplace who work in marketing, advertising, or branding. By pairing your brand with something that produces a reward, you give your audience a positive association with your company. For example, Coca-Cola10 often associates their ads with Christmas themes to connect its brand with the joy of the season. 

Pairing your brand with a reward action steps:

  • Identify a positive and desirable reward or association your target audience would appreciate.
  • Create advertisements or marketing campaigns that associate your brand with the reward or positive association.
  • Consistently present your brand alongside this association in various promotional materials or experiences.
  • Pay attention to the positive emotions and associations that customers have when they receive the reward or interact with your brand.
  • Continuously reinforce the connection between your brand and the reward to strengthen the positive association in the minds of your audience.

Criticisms of Classical Conditioning

Some critics of classical conditioning argue that it oversimplifies human behavior, lacks consideration of cognition and individual differences, and may not account for cognitive processes and mental representations.

  • Oversimplification: Critics argue11 that classical conditioning provides an oversimplified view of human behavior by focusing solely on the association between stimuli and responses. It seems to neglect the complex cognitive processes, thoughts, and emotions that influence behavior.
  • Ignoring cognition and mental processes: Classical conditioning does not necessarily account for the role of cognitive processes12, such as perception, memory, attention, and language, in learning and behavior. It also doesn’t necessarily consider how individuals interpret and process information, which can impact their responses.
  • Limited applicability to complex behaviors: Classical conditioning most effectively explains reflexive or involuntary responses. However, it is less useful in explaining complex, voluntary behaviors that involve decision-making and conscious processing12
  • Individual differences: Classical conditioning does not account for individual differences13 in learning and behavior. People may have different predispositions, motivations, and cognitive abilities that influence how they respond to stimuli and acquire associations.
  • Generalization and discrimination: While classical conditioning explains how associations are formed, it does not fully address how individuals learn to generalize or discriminate14 between similar stimuli. It overlooks the role of cognitive processes in differentiating and categorizing stimuli.
  • Lack of free will: Critics argue15 that classical conditioning undermines the notion of free will by suggesting that external stimuli and responses solely determine behavior. It neglects the role of conscious decision-making and personal agency in human behavior.
  • Ethical concerns: Classical conditioning has been criticized for its potential ethical concerns16, especially in experiments involving human participants. Using aversive stimuli or manipulating emotions without informed consent raises ethical questions.
  • Limited explanatory power: While classical conditioning provides valuable insights into 
  • some aspects of learning and behavior, it may not fully explain the complexity and richness of human behavior. Other theories and approaches, such as cognitive psychology17 and social learning theory18, offer complementary perspectives.

While classical conditioning has limitations, it remains a valuable tool for understanding learning and behavior.

Classical Conditioning Takeaways

In summary, take note of these key takeaways as you improve your ability to learn!

  • Classical conditioning is a type of learning where a neutral stimulus becomes associated with a stimulus that naturally elicits a response, leading to the neutral stimulus eliciting the same response.
  • While classical conditioning is helpful to understand, it’s important to note that some critics argue that it tends to oversimplify human behavior.
  • Classical conditioning can be observed in everyday life, such as forming positive associations with certain scents, sounds, or situations.
  • Classical conditioning has applications in various fields, including advertising and marketing, education, therapy, and habit formation.
  • Classical conditioning can be used to overcome fears, form healthy habits, enhance productivity and focus, change unwanted behaviors, reduce stress, promote relaxation, and create positive associations with brands.
  • It’s important to use classical conditioning ethically and consider its application’s potential implications and ethical concerns.

Looking for better ways to learn and absorb information? You might also like 15 Effective Ways You Can Learn How to Learn.

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