Lecture: Learning
Reading Assignment 11:
Classical Conditioning (pp. 156-166)
Click for Objectives for Reading Assignment 11

The eleventh reading assignment introduces students to Classical Conditioning and several principles related to it. It has always been my experience that students are better able to grasp information when the complex is demystified. The psychological terms “conditioned” and “conditioning” serve, in my opinion, to mystify what could easily be relayed to the reader. Before proceeding with this discussion, we should demystify these terms. I often make a promise to my classes that the terms conditioning and conditioned can be used interchangeably with the terms learning and learned in any psychological context. Throughout this discussion, when terms are introduced, such as Unconditioned Stimulus or Conditioned Response you should read and interpret them as unlearned stimulus or learned response respectively.

At this point, I wish to diverge from the above example and take an opportunity to communicate some additional terminology relevant for this discussion. Behaviorism is highly embedded in Empiricism. It relies heavily on observations rather than assumptions. As a result, some of the following definitions are circular in nature and they cannot be defined without referencing one another. You cannot state what an Unconditioned Stimulus is without referring to the existence of an Unconditioned Response and vice versa. This circular dependence is not a drawback but rather a desired limitation on the discipline. We should never assume that we have identified an Unconditioned Stimulus without observing the occurrence of the Unconditioned Response and vice versa. I am reminded of this every morning (circa. 2012), when I prepare to shower my children. I test the shower water to ensure that it is suitable. More times than not, their response to the water temperature is different from mine and I must adjust it to their liking. I recall on one or more occasions their reactions to coming in contact with the water. People’s bodies and tolerances are different and we must always remember that one person’s Unconditioned Stimulus may not serve as another’s. We often make mistakes when we assume, which is why the circular definitions exist to prevent us from assuming which goes against the very nature of Empiricism.

Classical Conditioning

In order to understand Learning, we must first understand Ivan Pavlov’s proposed model of Classical Conditioning. An example of Classical Conditioning can be illustrated by the following story. Consider a person that is taking a shower and the water suddenly turns hot. The likely response to the sudden change in the water temperature is either a scream or contorting one’s body to minimize contact with the water. The hot water, in this story, is the Unconditioned Stimulus (UCS) or the Unlearned Stimulus. Hot water is a stimulus that would cause similar reactions without any prior learning or following our first encounter with it; as a result, we refer to the hot water as an Unconditioned Stimulus. As stated previously, the hot water is likely to automatically elicit either a scream or a quick contortion of your body to avoid the path of the water. The scream/contortion is the Unconditioned Response (UCR) or the Unlearned Response; as it did not require any previous experience for it to occur.

Imagine that you are newborn baby and you hear the sound of a toilet flushing for the very first time. That sound would elicit nothing more than your awareness to the sound; if you could move your head to see what you just heard you would. On that first occurrence it is nothing more than a Neutral Stimulus. As we gain more experiences with the sound of a toilet flushing, we come to learn a bit more about it. It typically means that someone has just used the bathroom. If this occurs, then the flushing of a toilet would no longer be considered a Neutral Stimulus (as it does more than peak our interest) or a Unconditioned Stimulus (as we have come to learn something about what it represents). The flushing of a toilet has now become a learned Stimulus or a Conditioned Stimulus (CS). However, there are many things that the sound of a toilet flushing can represent. It also represents the fact that you are not alone, that someone that you thought was sleeping is awake up (at least for the moment), or that you shouldn't use that same bathroom for 35…to 45 minutes.

Now, let us return to the original story about taking a shower. One additional thing that we might have come to learn about the sound of a toilet flushing is that it results in a change in water temperature when taking a shower. After one or two unfortunate pairings of taking a shower when someone flushes the toilet, you begin to associate the sound of a toilet flush also with a rush of hot water. These pairings are necessary for Classical Conditioning to occur and are often referred to as Conditioning Trials. If the pairings are successful, the sound of someone flushing the toilet may now elicit a response. It may lead to clinching up, avoiding the water flow, jumping out of the shower, screaming, or any form of anger. Any of the fore mentioned responses to the sound of the toilet flushing are learned responses; more appropriately referred to as a Conditioned Response. In this case, the Conditioned Response is the response to the toilet flush. Everyone may react differently to the toilet flush, based on their past behavior or personality; however, the learned response that occurs in response to hearing the toilet flush is a part of the classical conditioning process.

In summary, the Unconditioned Stimulus is the hot water itself because no previous learning is needed to react negatively to it. The Conditioned Stimulus is the sound of the toilet flushing, as at one point in one’s life it was a Neutral Stimulus. The Unconditioned Response is the automatically elicited response to the hot water, while the Conditioned Response is the automatically elicited response to the sound of the flushing toilet.

Types of Conditioned Responses

There are two types of Conditioned Response. They are the Conditioned Emotional Response (CER) and the Conditioned Taste Aversion (CTA). The Conditioned Emotional Response is one of the factors that creates the quality and diversity of life experiences. For instance, if someone jumps into a pool and nearly drowns, that person might have a fear of getting in the pool again. While an individual that had a very memorable and positive experience at a pool party, might experience euphoria like thoughts or feelings to the idea of attending one in the future. A Conditioned Taste Aversion often occurs when a person eats something and then feels nauseated afterwards. Unlike other forms of Classical Conditioning, that need repeated pairings or Conditioning Trials, the Conditioned Taste Aversion often occurs after one pairing and may last for up to a lifetime. This makes sense, however, as the stakes of ingesting a type of food that can lead to illness is not a risk worth taking – even now with all of the benefits of modern medicine.

Principles of Classical Conditioning

Several principles of Classical Conditioning will be discussed in this reading assignment. The first principle is that of Extinction. The Extinction of a Conditioned Response occurs when the Conditioned Stimulus no longer predicts the Conditioned Response. For example, imagine that the fore mentioned story above is true at the home that you grew up in. However, you quickly come to learn that while attending college the same rule does not hold true. If you hear the sound of a toilet flush while taking a shower at your college dorm room, it may not predict an oncoming surge of hot water. As a result, the learned response will extinguish over the course of time that you live on campus. However, you may move off campus or return home during the break. The campus environment has extinguished your Conditioned Response to the sound of a toilet flush; as a result, you let your guard down and stood in the water stream - completely exposed to the surge of hot water. Even though the learned response was extinguished due to the time taking showers on campus, you are likely to fully regain your Conditioned Response to the sound of a toilet flush. This relearning of a previously extinguished learned response is referred to as Spontaneous Recovery.

The next two concepts can be thought of as two sides of the same coin: Stimulus Discrimination and Generalization. Imagine that you have a little sibling that is typically responsible for flushing the toilet on these occurrences or they at least are there to witness your reaction to it. Most siblings find pleasure in each other’s pain, and this sibling is no different. They wish to play a trick on you with their new smartphone that plays audio clips. They downloaded the recording of a toilet flushing, snuck into the bathroom, and played it while you were taking a shower. The question is whether or not you would respond similarly to the audio recording as you would to the actual flushing of the toilet. The concept of Stimulus Discrimination refers to an organism’s ability to restrict its responding to the Conditioned Stimulus and not to respond to other stimuli may have similar in characteristics. The flip side of that coin is Generalization, which refers to an organism’s tendency to respond to a stimulus similar to that used during training.

Last, but not least, are the concepts of Habituation, Blocking, and Preparedness to Learn. All of which, contribute to a complete understanding of Classical Conditioning and how it works. Applications of Classical Conditioning have been made in the laboratory and more importantly, outside the laboratory, which testifies to it being a form of real-world learning worthy of investigation.



A. Lefton, L.A. & Brannon, L. (2003). Psychology (8th Ed.). Allyn & Bacon: Pearson Education, Inc.
Draft of Summary
Arbouet, M. (2012, Fall). Assignment 2.3. Draft of summary submitted in partial fulfillment of Introduction to Experimental (RPS 410).

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