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What is Conditioning?

Updated on September 2, 2009

Conditioning, in psychology, the process by means of which a response comes to elicited by a stimulus other than that which normally elicits it.

Thus, if stimulus A elicits response B, conditioning is the process by which stimulus C comes to elicit response B.

This is usually accomplished by repeatedly presenting stimulus C just before or with stimulus A a number of times. Stimulus C is then presented alone and response B occurs.

This phenomenon was first demonstrated experimentally by Pavlov, a Russian physiologist, in 1901.

Ivan Pavlov
Ivan Pavlov

Types of Conditioning

The two main types of conditioning are classical and operant. Classical conditioning is an experimental procedure in which a stimulus that normally evolves a natural response - a puff of air in the eye, for instance, producing a blunk - repeatedly paired with another stimulus, such as the sound of a buzzer, that does not usually evoke that response. The result is that the new stimulus will eventually evolve the old response when presented by itself. This is called a conditioned reflex, or response.

At the end of the 19th century, the Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov trained a dog to salivate to the sound of a bell. His original experiments followed this procedure: show a dog food - dog salivates; ring bell and show dog the food - dog salivates; ring the bell - dog salivates. After the first two stimuli had been paired together many times, the dog eventually produced saliva at the sound of the bell alone.

Pavlov's technique is now called classical conditioning, as opposed to operant, or instrumental, conditioning, which is a form of training in which an individual's spontaneous activities are either rewarded (reinforced) or punished. According to this theory, behavior that is followed by a reinforcing stimulus, such as feeding a hungry animal, will tend to be repeated. The later developments of the work by Pavlov and his school have been important in understanding the operation of the nervous system.

The American psychologist Edward Lee Thorndike was the first to clarify the nature of instrumental conditioning in 1911. The early work carried out on rats and pigeons, but has applications to humans.

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