Ivan Pavlov
Baby Albert
B.F. Skinner
Operant Conditioning
Conditioning a Response
Applying Behavioralism

Conditioning a response to a stimulus


What do you do when you hear a bell ring? Well most people will walk to their door to open it, or pick up their phone if its a phone bell ringing. Well now what do we do when the tone of the phone ring is similar to your cell phone. With so many similar cell phones on the street today itís no wonder we see hundreds of heads turn whenever we hear one ring.

Here is a cool site on this subject!


The easiest place to start is with a little example. Consider a hungry dog who sees a bowl of food. Something like this might happen:

Food ---> Salivation

The dog is hungry, the dog sees the food, the dog salivates. This is a natural sequence of events, an unconscious, uncontrolled, and unlearned relationship. See the food, then salivate.

Now, because we are humans who have an insatiable curiosity, we experiment. When we present the food to the hungry dog (and before the dog salivates), we ring a bell. Thus,



Food ---> Salivation

We repeat this action (food and bell given simultaneously) at several meals. Every time the dog sees the food, the dog also hears the bell. Ding-dong, Alpo.

Now, because we are humans who like to play tricks on our pets, we do another experiment. We ring the bell (Ding-dong), but we don't show any food. What does the dog do? Right,

Bell ---> Salivate

The bell elicits the same response the sight of the food gets. Over repeated trials, the dog has learned to associate the bell with the food and now the bell has the power to produce the same response as the food. (And, of course, after you've tricked your dog into drooling and acting even more stupidly than usual, you must give it a special treat.)

This is the essence of Classical Conditioning. It really is that simple. You start with two things that are already connected with each other (food and salivation). Then you add a third thing (bell) for several trials. Eventually, this third thing may become so strongly associated that it has the power to produce the old behavior.

Now, where do we get the term, "Conditioning" from all this? Let me draw up the diagrams with the official terminology.

Food ---------------------> Salivation

Unconditioned Stimulus ---> Unconditioned Response

"Unconditioned" simply means that the stimulus and the response are naturally connected. They just came that way, hard wired together like a horse and carriage and love and marriage as the song goes. "Unconditioned" means that this connection was already present before we got there and started messing around with the dog or the child or the spouse.

"Stimulus" simply means the thing that starts it while "response" means the thing that ends it. A stimulus elicits and a response is elicited. (This is circular reasoning, true, but hang in there.) Another diagram,

Conditioning Stimulus



Food -----------------------> Salivation

Unconditioned Stimulus------> Unconditioned Response

We already know that "Unconditioned" means unlearned, untaught, preexisting, already-present-before-we-got-there. "Conditioning" just means the opposite. It means that we are trying to associate, connect, bond, link something new with the old relationship. And we want this new thing to elicit (rather than be elicited) so it will be a stimulus and not a response. Finally, after many trials we hope for,

Bell ---------------------> Salivation

Conditioned Stimulus ---> Conditioned Response

Let's review these concepts.

Unconditioned Stimulus: a thing that can already elicit a response.

Unconditioned Response: a thing that is already elicited by a stimulus.

Unconditioned Relationship: an existing stimulus-response connection.

Conditioning Stimulus: a new stimulus we deliver the same time we give the old stimulus.

Conditioned Relationship: the new stimulus-response relationship we created by associating a new stimulus with an old response.

There are two key parts. First, we start with an existing relationship, Unconditioned Stimulus ---> Unconditioned Response. Second, we pair a new thing (Conditioning Stimulus) with the existing relationship, until the new thing has the power to elicit the old response.


The example we used here is from the first studies on classical conditioning as described by Ivan Pavlov, the famous Russian physiologist. Pavlov discovered these important relationships around the turn of the century in his work with dogs (really). He created the first learning theory which precedes the learning theory most teachers know quite well, reinforcement theory. 

The point is this: Classical conditioning says nothing about rewards and punishments which are key terms in reinforcement theory. Consider our basic example,

Conditioning Stimulus



Food ---------------------> Salivation

Unconditioned Stimulus ---> Unconditioned Response

There is nothing in here about rewards or punishments, no terminology like that, not even an implication like that. Classical conditioning is built on creating relationships by association over trials. Some people confuse Classical Conditioning with Reinforcement Theory. To keep them separated just look for the presence of rewards and punishments.


Another way to look at this is


Classical conditioning was the first type of learning to be discovered and studied within the behaviorist tradition (hence the name classical). The major theorist in the development of classical conditioning is Ivan Pavlov, a Russian scientist trained in biology and medicine (as was his contemporary, Sigmund Freud). Pavlov was studying the digestive system of dogs and became intrigued with his observation that dogs deprived of food began to salivate when one of his assistants walked into the room. He began to investigate this phenomena and established the laws of classical conditioning. Skinner renamed this type of learning "respondent conditioning" since in this type of learning, one is responding to an environmental antecedent.

Major concepts

Classical conditioning is Stimulus (S) elicits >Response (R) conditioning since the antecedent stimulus (singular) causes (elicits) the reflexive or involuntary response to occur. Classical conditioning starts with a reflex: an innate, involuntary behavior elicited or caused by an antecedent environmental event. For example, if air is blown into your eye, you blink. You have no voluntary or conscious control over whether the blink occurs or not.

The specific model for classical conditioning is:

  1. Unconditioned Stimulus (US) elicits > Unconditioned Response (UR): a stimulus will naturally (without learning) elicit or bring about a relexive response
  2. Neutral Stimulus (NS) ---> does not elicit the response of interest: this stimulus (sometimes called an orienting stimulus as it elicits an orienting response) is a neutral stimulus since it does not elicit the Unconditioned (or reflexive) Response.
  3. The Neutral/Orientiing Stimulus (NS) is repeatedly paired with the Unconditioned/Natural Stimulus (US).
  4. The NS is transformed into a Conditioned Stimulus (CS); that is, when the CS is presented by itself, it elicits or causes the CR (which is the same involuntary response as the UR; the name changes because it is elicited by a different stimulus. This is written CS elicits > CR.

In classical conditioning no new behaviors are learned. Instead, an association is developed (through pairing) between the NS and the US so that the animal / person responds to both events / stimuli (plural) in the same way; restated, after conditioning, both the US and the CS will elicit the same involuntary response (the person / animal learns to respond reflexively to a new stimulus).

The following is a restatement of these basic principles using figures of Pavlov's original experiments as an example.

Before conditioning

In order to have classical or respondent conditioning, there must exist a stimulus that will automatically or reflexively elicit a specific response. This stimulus is called the Unconditioned Stimulus or UCS because there is no learning involved in connecting the stimulus and response. There must also be a stimulus that will not elicit this specific response, but will elicit an orienting response. This stimulus is called a Neutral Stimulus or an Orienting Stimulus.

During conditioning

During conditioning, the neutral stimulus will first be presented, followed by the unconditioned stimulus. Over time, the learner will develop an association between these two stimuli (i.e., will learn to make a connection between the two stimuli.)

After conditioning

After conditioning, the previously neutral or orienting stimulus will elicit the response previously only elicited by the unconditioned stimulus. The stimulus is now called a conditioned stimulus because it will now elicit a different response as a result of conditioning or learning. The response is now called a conditioned response because it is elicited by a stimulus as a result of learning. The two responses, unconditioned and conditioned, look the same, but they are elicited by different stimuli and are therefore given different labels.

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