Classical Conditioning

What is classical conditioning?

Classical conditioning is defined as a type or form of learning during which a stimulus is conditioned to mark the occurrence of a second stimulus. A behavior is therefore learned through conditioning these responses using two different stimuli. Classical conditioning is also known as Pavlovian conditioning or respondent conditioning; Pavlovian conditioning refers to the work of Ivan Pavlov in the field of classical conditioning. Although examples of classical conditioning as a form of learning can be found before Pavlov’s iconic work in the field, the most prominent experiments on classical conditioning were done in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Classical conditioning requires two stimuli. The first stimulus is usually something which affects the body in a biological manner. The first stimuli are usually something which includes food or pain, but almost anything which elicits a biological response may be used. For example, food may be given or taken away, pain may be inflicted or stopped, a noise made be played or stopped, and so on. This first stimulus must be something which causes a response without conditioning, which is called an unconditioned response. For example, the stimulus of a pinprick to the finger would cause the unconditioned response of pain.

The second stimulus involved in classical conditioning is a stimulus which does not have any particular response or association–at least at first, before the conditioning has occurred. The goal of classical conditioning is to condition the subject, animal or human, to respond to the second neutral stimulus with the same response as the first biological response-based stimulus. This is achieved by conditioning the subject to associate the second neutral stimulus with the first stimulus which causes an unconditioned response.
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The most common example of classical conditioning can be found in Ivan Pavlov’s iconic experiment involving a series of dogs as test subjects. The dogs in this experiment were exposed to the sound of a ringing bell which was then followed by food. In this case, the biologically based stimulus was the food; the food produced the unconditioned response of salivation or drooling in the dogs. The second neutral stimulus was the ringing bell, which was previously not associated with any particular reaction. When the dogs had been exposed again and again to the combination of the ringing bell followed by food, this produced the conditioned response of salivation whenever the dogs heard the sound of the ringing bell. The dogs, therefore, learned to associate the sound of the ringing bell with the arrival of food. The conditioned response—salivation to the ringing bell—was achieved through this association.

Types of classical conditioning

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There are several different types of classical conditioning. Forward conditioning, simultaneous conditioning, second-order conditioning, and backward conditioning are the most commonly used types of classical conditioning in research, teaching, and other related experiments and procedures.

Second-order conditioning refers to a type of classical conditioning which involves a two-step process. First, a neutral stimulus and biologically based stimulus are conditioned together using regular forward conditioning. Afterwards, a second neutral stimulus is then conditioned to response to the first conditioned stimulus. For example: The bell, or neutral stimulus from the first conditioning, would be presented to the subject and followed by food in order to associate the ringing of the bell with food. The second neutral stimulus, a light switch, would then be conditioned to respond to the ringing of the bell. In time, both the bell and the light switch would elicit the conditioned response of drooling or salivation in the dogs.

Forward conditioning refers to one of two types of classical conditioning. The first type, called delay conditioning, refers to classical conditioning during which the conditioned stimulus–such as the ringing bell–is presented to the subject and then overlapped with the presentation of the unconditioned response, such as the arrival of food. The second type, trace conditioning, refers to classical conditioning during which the conditioned stimulus is presented, followed by a period without any stimulus, and then the unconditioned stimulus is presented to the subject.

Simultaneous conditioning refers to classical conditioning during which the conditioned stimulus and unconditioned stimulus are both presented at the exact same time to the subject. For example, the bell would be rung at the same time that the food was presented.

Backward conditioned refers to a type of classical conditioning during which the unconditioned stimulus is presented first, followed by the conditioned stimulus. For example, food would be presented first, followed by the ringing of the bell, rather than the other way around.

The type of classical conditioning which is used will typically depend on the context of the situation. Forward conditioning is generally considered to have the fastest success rate of all the types of conditioning and as such, it is usually used when speed is desired or essential to the learning process. Forward conditioning is commonly used to train animals, such as guard dogs or assistance animals, because animals have been shown to respond well to regular forward conditioning.

Although classical conditioning can be a successful way to teach a subject something—whether it is to associate the sound of a bell with food or to associate a certain word with a specific command, and so on—it is not always fool proof. Extinction refers to the phenomena which can occur when a conditioned stimulus such as the ringing of a bell, is presented to the subject without the unconditioned stimulus. For example, the bell would be rung but food would not be presented to the dog afterward. If this occurs enough time, studies have shown that the conditioned response—in this case, drooling in response to hearing the bell ring—will fade and eventually disappear altogether. The “extinction” refers to the fact that the conditioned response has become extinct in the subject and no longer occurs in response to the conditioned stimulus. It is possible to reteach a subject a conditioned response which has gone extinct, however, with patience and repeated trials.

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