Classical conditioning is a type of learning that happens unconsciously.

When you learn through classical conditioning, an automatic conditioned response is paired with a specific stimulus. This creates a behavior.

The best-known example of this is from what some believe to be the father of classical conditioning: Ivan Pavlov. In an experiment on canine digestion, he found that over time dogs were salivating not only when their food was presented to them, but when the people who fed them arrived.

To test his theory that the dogs were salivating because they were associating the people with being fed, he began ringing a bell and then presenting the food so they’d associate the sound with food.

These dogs learned to associate the bell ringing with food, causing their mouths to salivate whenever the bell rang — not just when they encountered the food.

Conditioning is beneficial in an evolutionary sense because it’s helped us create expectations to prepare for future events. For instance, getting ill from a certain food helps us associate that food with sickness. In turn, that helps prevent us from getting sick in the future.

We’re all exposed to classical conditioning in one way or another throughout our lives.

In our day to day, advertisers often use it to push their products. For example, beauty commercials use actors with clear, smooth skin to lead consumers to associate their product with healthy skin.

Below we break down classical conditioning, give some examples, and help you better understand how it’s used in health and well-being.

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The classic example of Pavlov’s dog. Illustration by Ruth Basagoitia

Terms to know

  • Unconditioned stimulus. This is the thing that triggers an automatic response. Food is the unconditioned stimulus in Pavlov’s dog experiment.
  • Unconditioned response. This is what response naturally occurs when you experience the unconditioned stimulus, such as salivating from the food.
  • Conditioned stimulus. This is considered a neutral stimulus. When you’re presented with it over and over before the unconditioned stimulus (e.g., food), it will start to evoke the same response. The bell before the food is the conditioned stimulus.
  • Conditioned response. This is the acquired response to the conditioned stimulus (the bell), which is often the same response as the unconditioned response. So, the dogs salivated for the bell the same way they salivated for the food in front of them.
  • Extinction. This term is used when you start presenting the conditioned stimulus (the bell) over and over but without the unconditioned stimulus (the food). Over time, the dogs would unlearn their conditioning that the bell means food is coming.
  • Generalization. This refers to when you can generalize similar things and respond the same way. Dogs began salivating at sounds similar to bells because they were generalizing what they learned.
  • Discrimination. The opposite of generalization, this is our ability to tell the difference when something is similar but not identical, so it won’t produce the same response. A horn sound, for instance, wouldn’t make the dogs salivate.
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Stages of Pavlovian conditioning

Before conditioning

Before conditioning is when the unconditioned stimulus and unconditioned response come into play. This is the natural response that wasn’t taught.

For instance, food produces salivating, or a stomach virus produces nausea.

At this point, the conditioned stimulus is still called the neutral stimulus because it currently has no effect.

During conditioning

We begin to associate the neutral stimulus with the unconditioned response.

For instance, you may associate a specific type of food with a stomach virus, or the bell ringing before getting food may be associated with receiving food.

After conditioning

Once you’ve learned to associate the conditioned stimulus with the unconditioned response, it becomes the conditioned response.

So, the specific type of food now produces nausea (even if it wasn’t necessarily what caused the stomach virus), and the bell creates salivation.

In this way, you’ve unconsciously learned to associate the new stimulus (whether situation, object, person, etc.) with the response.

Try it for yourself

“The Office” has a great (and funny!) example of classical conditioning:

There are many ways you can experiment with conditioning in your daily life. Here are some tips to consider:

  • Create a good environment with nice lighting and clean surfaces for your home office to make it a more positive working environment. A good working environment can condition you to get more work done.
  • Create a bedtime routine to condition yourself to sleep earlier. You can do this by dimming lights and avoiding screens 30 minutes before bed. This can create an atmosphere of sleep.
  • Train a pet to do basic obedience behaviors or special tricks by asking them to do the task and rewarding them in the same way over and over. You can even use Pavlov’s trick and try a certain bell to let them know when dinner is coming (and that they should sit and wait patiently).
  • Teach good behaviors to children by rewarding them with a small treat or new toy. If they struggle with sharing, reward them when they make an effort to share.

There are many different examples of classical conditioning and how we can learn in our daily lives.

Example 1

For the last few years, you receive your paycheck every Friday. Even though you have a new job where you receive your paycheck on different days, you still feel good on Fridays. You’ve been conditioned to associate it with the positivity of receiving that paycheck.

Example 2

You used to smoke in a certain outside area at work but have recently quit smoking. Every time you go to this outside break area, your body craves a cigarette.

Example 3

During a thunderstorm, a tree breaks and falls onto your house, causing major damage. Now whenever you hear thunder, you feel anxiety.

While classical conditioning has to do with automatic, learned responses, operant conditioning is a different type of learning.

In operant conditioning, you learn a behavior by the consequence of that behavior, which in turn affects your future behavior.

So, when a behavior has a satisfying result, you learn to associate it with that result and work to have it repeated. On the flip side, a negative result will cause you to avoid that behavior to avoid that result.

In dog training, good behavior is rewarded with treats, making it more likely for your dog to be a good boy or girl in order to get the treat.

On the other hand, bad behavior may not be rewarded, or it may receive punishment. That will make your dog less likely to do it in the future.

While classical conditioning is considered unconscious learning, operant conditioning is what most people would consider a habit. It’s about reinforcement and is considered more controlled. Classical conditioning is considered more of a reflex.

Phobias

Classical conditioning is used both in understanding and treating phobias. A phobia is an excessive, irrational fear to something specific, like an object or situation.

When you develop a phobia, classical condition can often explain it.

For example, if you have a panic attack in a certain place — like an elevator — you may begin to associate elevators with panic and begin avoiding or fearing all elevator rides. Experiencing a negative stimulus can affect your response.

The important thing to remember is that phobias are based on irrational fears. Just as classical conditioning may have played a part in “learning” that phobia, it can also help treat it by counterconditioning.

If someone is exposed to the object or situation they fear over and over without the negative outcome, classical conditioning can help unlearn the fear. Once you’ve gone in 100 elevators and experienced no panic, you should no longer associate it with panic.

PTSD

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a severe anxiety disorder that develops after you experience a traumatic event. It can cause you to feel danger even when you’re safe.

This severe anxiety is learned through conditioning. People with PTSD have strong associations surrounding the trauma.

Drug use

Conditioning comes into play with people recovering from substance use disorders.

People who have used drugs in certain environments or with certain people are often unconsciously conditioned to associate the pleasure of the drug use with these things.

This is why many doctors will recommend people in substance use recovery to avoid situations and environments they associate with the substance use to avoid triggering a relapse.

Classical conditioning in therapies

Two types of mental health therapies are often considered counterconditioning:

Exposure therapies are often used for anxiety disorders and phobias. The person is exposed to what they fear. Over time they’re conditioned to no longer fear it.

Aversion therapy aims to stop a harmful behavior by replacing a positive response with a negative response. This is often used for misuse of substances, such as alcohol.

A doctor can prescribe someone a drug that makes them sick if they consume alcohol, so the person associates drinking with feeling ill.

This type of therapy is often not effective on its own. Instead, a combination of conditioning therapies are used.

Classical conditioning is a type of unconscious, automatic learning. While many people think of Pavlov’s dog, there are hundreds of examples in our daily lives that show how classical conditioning affects us.

Classical conditioning is used in advertisements, learning and treating fears or phobias, reinforcement of good behaviors, and even to help protect you, like against poisons or certain foods. It can also help in pet training.