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Reaction in Classical Conditioning. What is Classical Conditioning and How Does Classical Conditioning Work?

Updated on January 25, 2013

What is Classical Conditioning?

Classical conditioning has been a subject which psychologist have examined since Pavlov discovered the concept while siphoning saliva from dogs in his famous experiment. It has since been studied under a wide range of applications from provoking the reaction of fear infants with rodents to training to establishing discipline within the armed services to training an unsuspecting population to spend hours watching commercials under the premiss of entertainment. The pairing of a stimulus which previously had no effect over an organism with a stimulus which causes a specific reaction is the cornerstone of the theory behind classical conditioning.

What is Involved in Classical Conditioning?

The recipe for classical conditioning includes an unconditioned stimulus, an unconditioned response and a conditioned stimulus (Olson & Hergenhahn, 2009). These ingredients are mixed together by pairing the unconditioned stimulus with the conditioned stimulus. The unconditioned stimulus is something which alone elicits an automatic reaction (Olson & Hergenhahn, 2009). This reaction to the unconditioned stimulus is the unconditioned response. By repeatedly pairing the unconditioned stimulus with the conditioned stimulus the eventual result is that the conditioned stimulus will begin to produce the the same response (Olson & Hergenhahn, 2009).

Say that Again in English...

You take something that already causes a reaction and you make it happen at the same time as something that currently causes no reaction. This is pairing the two things together. If you do this once nothing will happen. You have to repeat it several times. After frequent repetitions you create a conditioned stimulus. This is the thing that did not cause a reaction at first but now will cause the same reaction as the stimulus that it was paired with even if it happens alone.

The Conditioned Response

This result is known as a conditioned response. The order in which the conditioned stimulus and unconditioned stimulus are paired in an important part of this process. The conditioned stimulus must be presented before the unconditioned stimulus (Olson & Hergenhahn, 2009). The conditioned response is the goal of these pairings and is the result of the association developed between the conditioned stimulus and the unconditioned stimulus. The result is that the conditioned stimulus alone without the unconditioned stimulus will eventually produce the response (Olson & Hergenhahn, 2009).

Gradual Decline and Extinction of the Response

Continued exposure to the conditioned stimulus without the unconditioned stimulus will result in a gradual decline in the frequency of the conditioned response (Olson & Hergenhahn, 2009). Eventually the conditioned response will cease to occur as a result of exposure to the conditioned stimulus (Olson & Hergenhahn, 2009). This cessation of the conditioned response is called extinction (Olson & Hergenhahn, 2009).

Reinforcement and Spontaneous Recovery

While the conditioned response will gradually go away on it's own there is a way to reinforce the response and keep the learned behavior recurring. To reinforce the conditioned response the unconditioned stimulus must be paired occasionally with the conditioned stimulus (Olson & Hergenhahn, 2009). So once the conditioned response is learned you need to sometimes pair the conditioned stimulus with the unconditioned stimulus in order to keep the association. There is also a concept called spontaneous recovery. This is the temporary return of a conditioned response after extinction has been performed (Olson & Hergenhahn, 2009). It doesn't always happen and it rarely lasts but it is common. It simply means that an association on some level still lingers in the mind but since this association isn't very strong the response isn't expected to have any lasting effects.

Second and Third Order Conditioning

The conditioned stimulus can also be used to develop a new conditioned stimulus in the same way that it was developed. The new conditioned stimulus is presented before the first conditioned stimulus until the new conditioned stimulus when presented alone produces the same conditioned response (Olson & Hergenhahn, 2009). The unconditioned stimulus is now called the primary reinforcer and the first unconditioned stimulus is called the secondary reinforcer (Olson & Hergenhahn, 2009). It is possible to continue this path and develop the new conditioned stimulus into a secondary reinforcer by pairing it with a third conditioned stimulus until the conditioned response occurs when the third conditioned stimulus is presented alone (Olson & Hergenhahn, 2009). The process of developing the second conditioned stimulus is called second order conditioning (Olson & Hergenhahn, 2009). The process of developing the third conditioned stimulus is called third order conditioning (Olson & Hergenhahn, 2009). The conditioned response with the third conditioned stimulus is much weaker and less frequent than response to the unconditioned stimulus.

Creating Generalizations

The principle of generalization states that the conditioned response can be produced by any stimulus that is similar to the conditioned stimulus (Olson & Hergenhahn, 2009). There is a correlation between the degree of similarity between the two stimuli and the frequency with which the conditioned response is produced (Olson & Hergenhahn, 2009). The closer another stimulus is in similarity to the conditioned stimulus the more likely it is to produce the conditioned response (Olson & Hergenhahn, 2009). Say you condition a child to cry at the sight of a red tomato. The child may also cry if you show him a red apple. Even showing the child a strawberry may produce the same result. At some point if the conditioning is strong enough you'll be able to make the child cry at the sight of anything that is red.

What is a Reflexive Action and a Dynamic Stereotype?

Reflexive action simply means reflex. A conditioned response is a reflexive action. By creating a conditioned response you are creating a reflex. The person or animal reacts reflexively to the stimulus you have conditioned it to. In studying these reflexive actions Pavlov described the cortical mosaic which is the pattern of excitations and inhibitions which occur in the cortex in response to events that the organism experiences within it's environment (Olson & Hergenhahn, 2009). A dynamic stereotype is developed when events occur in the environment so consistently that the organism forms a neurological representation of the events and the responses to those events become more rapid and automatic (Olson & Hergenhahn, 2009). The more something happens the more familiar it becomes and the more quickly we recognize it. The more familiar we are with something the faster we react to it. The more you associate a certain song as good music and with certain feelings the more quickly you'll turn up the volume and rock out.

First Consider the Desired Reaction

The first thing to consider in training a behavior through classical conditioning is the behavioral response that is desired. Suppose the desired response is for a dog to stand on his hind legs with his front paws in the air. A dog will automatically do this when a person holds his hand with a piece of food out over the dog. The unconditioned stimulus is the trainer extending the food. This motion should be paired with the desired conditioned stimulus such as the verbal command “stand.” The dog will eventually make an association between the verbal command and the desired behavior. At this point the trainer will simply have to say the word “stand” and the dog will perform the behavior of standing as a conditioned response.

Eliciting Specific Responses

The cornerstone of this theory is the pairing of unconditioned stimulus with a conditioned stimulus. Myriad other responses can be trained this way. These pairings establish the associations which cause the organism to exhibit the conditioned response whenever the conditioned stimulus is presented. The example given illustrates how to elicit a behavior from a dog but the concept of classical conditioning works with essentially every organism. Understanding the theory of classical conditioning can give insight into how to elicit specific responses from any animal or human subject.


Olson, M and Hergenhahn, B (2009). An Introduction to Theories of Learning (8th ed.). Retrieved from the University of Phoenix eBook Collection database.

Copyright Notice

© Copyright 2012. Wesley Meacham- This article is copyright protected and is the property of Wesley Meacham. All images in this article, unless otherwise stated, are the property of Wesley Meacham. Please do not copy this article in whole or in part without giving credit to the original author.


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