Conditioning, in psychology, is a behavioral process whereby a response becomes more frequent or more predictable in a given environment as a result of reinforcement, with reinforcement typically being a stimulus or reward for a desired response.
We are also positively and/or negatively conditioned in every day life by the environments we grow up in, especially our home and neighborhood environments. We will get more specifically into this aspect of conditioning in next month's newsletter. But, for now, enjoy learning how the conditioning actually happens.
How Pavlov's experiments with dogs demonstrated that our behavior
can be changed using conditioning.
One of the most revealing studies in behavioral psychology was carried out by Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov (1849-1936) in a series of experiments today referred to as 'Pavlov's Dogs'. His research would become renowned for demonstrating the way in classical conditioning could be used to cultivate a particular association between the occurrence of one event in the anticipation of another.
Pavlov's Dog Experiments
Pavlov came across classical conditioning unintentionally during his research into animals' gastric systems. Whilst measuring the salivation rates of dogs, he found that they would produce saliva when they heard or smelt food in anticipation of feeding. This is a normal reflex response which we would expect to happen as saliva plays a role in the digestion of food.
However, the dogs also began to salivate when events occurred which would otherwise be unrelated to feeding. By playing sounds to the dogs prior to feeding them, Pavlov showed that they could be conditioned to unconsciously associate neutral, unrelated events with being fed.
Pavlov's dogs were each placed in an isolated environment and restrained in a harness, with a food bowl in front of them and a device was used to measure the rate at which their saliva glands made secretions. These measurements would then be recorded onto a revolving drum so that Pavlov could monitor salivation rates throughout the experiments.
He found that the dogs would begin to salivate when a door was opened for the researcher to feed them.
This response demonstrated the basic principle of classical conditioning. A neutral event, such as opening a door (a neutral stimulus, NS) could be associated with another event that followed - in this case, being fed (known as the unconditioned stimulus, UCS). This association could be created through repeating the neutral stimulus along with the unconditioned stimulus, which would become a conditioned stimulus, leading to a conditioned response: salivation.
Pavlov continued his research and tested a variety of other neutral stimuli which would otherwise be unlinked to the receipt of food. These included precise tones produced by a buzzer, the ticking of a metronome and electric shocks.
The dogs would demonstrate a similar association between these events and the food that followed.
NEUTRAL STIMULUS (NS, eg. tone) > UNCONDITIONED STIMULUS (UCS, eg. receiving food)
when repeated leads to:
CONDITIONED STIMULUS (CS, eg. tone) > CONDITIONED RESPONSE (CR, eg. salivation)
The implications for Pavlov's findings are significant as they can be applied to many animals, including humans.
For example, when you first saw someone holding a balloon and a pin close to it, you may have watched in anticipation as they burst the balloon. After this had happened multiple times, you would associate holding the pin to the balloon with the 'bang' that followed. Like Pavlov's dogs, classical conditioning was leading you to associate a neutral stimulus (the pin approaching a balloon) with bursting of the balloon, leading to a conditioned response (flinching, wincing or plugging one's ears) to this now conditioned stimulus.
The "Little Albert" Experiment
A rather horrible and very unethical way Watson proved that fear was not innate and that it could be learned in humans. The video to your right is a bit awkward at times but does explain the experiment pretty well and does draw attention to how this experiment does make the field of Psychology look a bit Nuts to allow something like this even though it was many years ago.
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