Classical Conditioning In Learning: Stages And Examples

Exploring Classical Conditioning In Learning: Stages And Examples

The Principles Of Classical Conditioning In Learning

Physiologist Ivan Pavlov was experimenting with dogs’ digestion when he accidentally discovered that they associated different sounds with feeding. Since he rang a bell at feeding time, the dogs learned to associate that sound with food. So, while at first they would salivate only when presented with their food, they later began salivating when they heard neutral noises they associated with it. Thus, the classical conditioning theory was born.

Based on Pavlov’s experiment, classical conditioning in learning is characterized by five principles: acquisition, extinction, spontaneous recovery, generalization, and discrimination. The first refers to the introduction of the neutral stimulus, while the second indicates the gradual disappearance of the conditioned response. Ultimately, there is discrimination, which helps someone tell the difference between the conditioned and other, unconditioned stimuli.

Basic Terms You Should Know

  • Neutral stimulus: Something that can trigger a behavioral change that originally created no response. In the case of Pavlov’s experiment, the bell is initially neutral, since the dogs didn’t respond to it.
  • Unconditioned stimulus: The trigger that makes someone have an automatic response. In the experiment, this is the dogs’ food.
  • Unconditioned response: It refers to the automatic response to a stimulus, like salivating when looking at your favorite food.
  • Conditioned stimulus: When the neutral stimulus is associated with a particular response, it becomes conditioned. For example, the dog learned to link the bell with food.
  • Conditioned response: The conditioned stimulus leads to a conditioned response, which is the learned behavior, i.e., the dogs salivating when the bell is rung.

The 3 Stages

1. Before Conditioning

This is the phase where the unconditioned stimulus creates an unconditioned response. In the experiment, presenting dogs with food caused automatic salivation. The neutral stimulus is introduced for the first time in this phase. For example, the bell is the neutral stimulus that aims to help dogs associate its sound with feeding time. However, no behavioral change is fostered at this point.

2. During Conditioning

Initially, the neutral stimulus does not cause any response. But with time, dogs learn to associate the sound of a bell with their food approaching. For this learned behavior to occur, the neutral stimuli must be presented before the unconditioned stimuli. So, the bell must be rung before presenting the food so that the dogs automatically know what to expect without actually seeing the food.

3. After Conditioning

The last stage of classical conditioning in learning is when the new behavior has been fostered. The neutral stimulus and unconditioned behavior become conditioned. However, such a connection can disappear, meaning if someone rings a bell but brings no food to the dogs for a while, the dogs will stop associating those two things.

Applications Of Classical Conditioning In Real Life

Phobias And Mental Health

Phobias are typically irrational fears based on a specific event or occurrence of the past. Classical conditioning helps individuals learn how to dissociate their fear from the main source. For example, someone may avoid elevators after getting trapped in one. Through counterconditioning, individuals are forced to face their fears and realize that no negative outcome appears. As a result, their phobia disappears over time. This approach may also help with anxiety, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), and other mental health disorders. For instance, aversion therapy helps people identify a behavior they wish to stop, associate it with something negative, and, therefore, avoid it.

Aversion To Taste

In one experiment, rats were exposed to flavored water and radiation at the same time. Their response was to get nauseated by the water. Therefore, they associated the unconditioned stimulus (radiation) with the automatic response of nausea. Even when flavored water was presented without radiation, the rats still experienced feelings of nausea. This type of aversion can have significant survival benefits for animals and people who need to avoid certain foods so they don’t get sick.


Advertisers often utilize classical conditioning to attract customers’ attention and increase their sales. As an example, food commercials tend to depict happy families cooking and eating together in harmony, accompanied by upbeat music. As a result, consumers learn to associate these products with pleasantness and fun. Their emotions toward the company become positive, motivating them to try out their products.


Utilizing classical conditioning in learning can help students associate school with positive emotions. Take a student who needs to make a presentation in front of the entire classroom, for example. If they are stressed, they might connect the presentation with negative feelings. However, if their teacher emphasizes it as a transformational experience where everyone is looking forward to hearing their opinions, their mindset will shift. They will start associating public speaking with an opportunity to share common interests and discuss them further.

Classical Vs. Operant Conditioning

Classical conditioning focuses more on creating connections between neutral stimuli and unconditioned responses. On the other hand, operant conditioning concentrates on the consequences that follow an action. These reactions can be both positive and negative and influence one’s future behavior. For example, when a dog undergoes training, its owner gives it treats as positive reinforcement. If they make a mistake, they may be verbally reprimanded. Based on both reactions, the dog will learn to modify its behavior in order to receive a treat instead of a reprimand. The same principle applies to humans, as they typically act based on what will bring positive rather than negative results.

Weaknesses Of Classical Conditioning

While Pavlov’s dog is a great example and approach for pet training, it may not always be as effective with humans. A few psychologists believe that people may often choose not to follow the behavior they’ve learned through classical conditioning. Also, ethical concerns are being raised since this process removes free will and manipulates people’s choices, such as in the cases of commercial and political advertising. Lastly, classical conditioning appears to be insufficient in providing an understanding of reasoning, behavior, and problem solving.


Classical conditioning can benefit people who want to learn about themselves and their behavioral patterns. Understanding its principles, stages, and applications sheds light on how it can shape the learning process, but its limitations and ethical considerations call for further exploration into the complexities of human behavior and cognition.