Classical conditioning refers to learned behaviors when a neutral stimulus is associated with a learned response. For example, when a dog sees a leash, it learns that it’s time to go for a walk.
It’s often contrasted with operant conditioning, where a behavior is encouraged or discouraged by a ‘trainer’ or ‘teacher’ through explicit rewards and punishments. In classical conditioning, there are no rewards or punishments involved – just learning through repetition.
Examples of classical conditioning include learning that a place is pleasurable because you’ve had good experiences there, learning to associate a pleasant smell with a person you love, and having an instant emotional reaction to the theme song to your favorite sit-com.
Definition of Classical Conditioning
A famous Russian physiologist was examining the gastric juices of saliva in dogs. His goal was to understand the digestive process, and since it starts in the mouth, this is where he started.
To get the dog to salivate he would show it some food. He had inserted some tubes in the dog’s mouth to collect the fluids. However, it seems that the dog would often start to salivate before being shown the food. This was a point of irritation to Pavlov.
After a while, he noticed that the dog would salivate when it heard the sound of his assistant’s footsteps. His assistant usually brought the food into the laboratory.
The scenario described above has a scientific name: it is called classical conditioning (CC). Simply put, classical conditioning is when a neutral object (footsteps) is associated with another object (food) that triggers a natural response (salivation), then the neutral object will also evoke the natural response.
This is how much of learning takes place. It is a process of learning by association. Of course, there are lots of other factors involved, but generally speaking, this is how learning works.
Although you may not have noticed it before, classical conditioning is one of the most fundamental processes of learning that affect all species.
Examples of Classical Conditioning
1. A Dog Leans a Leash Means Going for a Walk
A lot of good examples of classical conditioning come from pets. We spend a lot of time with our pets and we can see their quirky behavior on a daily basis. Classical conditioning provides an explanation for that quirkiness.
For example, many dog owners will use a leash whenever they take their dog for a walk. After a short while, the dog has learned to going outside means wearing the leash. From the dog’s perspective, leash equals going outside.
Now, every time the owner touches the leash, even if it is to move it somewhere or clean it, the dog gets excited. It has associated the leash with going outside; a classic case of learning by association.
2. Pleasant Classroom Environments
Teachers utilize the principles of classical conditioning in many ways. One of those ways is by creating a relaxing and positive classroom environment. Most teachers will spend a lot of time decorating the walls of their classroom.
This starts with choosing pleasant color schemes. One or two of the walls will have a bulletin board that can be decorated with something bright and cheery. Teachers might also put some plants and flowers on the window seals or even large transparent stickers of flora on the windows.
By creating a pleasant classroom environment, the teacher hopes that students will associate learning with a positive feeling. Beautiful images around the room is paired with the learning process.
3. Fond Memories with Musical Backgrounds
Music can be a very powerful stimulus. Sometimes in our lives we may have experiences that are very significant, such as meeting the love of our life for the first time. If that moment happens while a certain song is playing, then the two may become associated.
Then, whenever that song is heard it can trigger our memory of meeting that person. The association between the song and event of meeting can last a very long time, even decades.
Even after the relationship has terminated, the memory can still persist and be triggered by that particular song. It’s unfortunate, but that is the way classical conditioning works.
4. Taste Aversion
Imagine that one day you are walking in the forest. You are feeling a bit hungry but did not pack a lunch. You see some tasty-looking red small red berries on a bush nearby. So, you pluck a handful off and eat them.
About 20 minutes later you start to feel very ill and get sick. Really sick. From that day forward, whenever you see any kind of food that is small, round, and red, you avoid it like the plague. In fact, your reaction is almost like a reflex.
You might even develop a dislike for strawberries and tomatoes. Maybe even the sight of the inside of a watermelon makes you feel queasy.
5. The Grumpy Boss
Working with a boss that is usually grumpy and has a generally unpleasant demeanor can make for an uneasy work setting. As soon as he/she enters the room they begin to distribute various commands and complaints. They may point out flaws in previous assignments and constantly be nagging staff about approaching deadlines.
It won’t take long for this kind of boss to create an unhappy office setting. In fact, just the very sight of them can generate a feeling of anxiety and avoidance. Even in settings outside of the office, such as social gatherings, people may still feel apprehensive about interacting with them.
From a classical conditioning perspective, this is perfectly understandable. The presence of the boss has been repeatedly associated with an unpleasant emotional state. Over and over again.
6. The Aroma of Food Cooking
The smell of cooking food can trigger the feeling of being hungry. For example, at an outdoor concert there may be several food vendors hoping to cash-in on attendance.
While most people are intently listening to the band on stage and enjoying the show, one of the vendors begins cooking hamburgers and onions on the grill. As the smell permeates the crowd, people start to feel hungry.
The smell of the hamburgers and onions being cooked on the grill is one that most people have experienced many times before. The aroma has been associated with delicious food on many occasions. After a while, the aroma will trigger a hunger response because of this association.
7. Favorite School Subjects
The personality and teaching style of a teacher can have a huge impact on students. Although the material is exactly the same, one teacher may have a fun and engaging style while another may be overly stern and critical.
It is easy to see how students may react to these two different scenarios. Students that learn from the fun teacher will begin to like the subject, maybe even look forward to each class. However, students taught by the critical teacher may develop an aversion to the subject. Soon it will become their least favorite class.
This is a perfect example of how CC works in education. Students associate the subject with the teacher that teaches it.
8. Game Management
Raising sheep and other livestock can be a very profitable business, unless predators such as coyotes and wolves eat your profits. Over that last 50 years there have been many attempts to devise methods of preventing predators from attacking livestock, without actually having to kill the predators.
One interesting technique involves lacing a carcass with a chemical that induces sickness when digested. So, when a coyote approaches an already dead sheep, consumes the meat, and later gets ill, it should prevent further attacks.
The principles of CC apply because the predator will associate getting sick with eating the animal. Therefore, they will not attack that kind of livestock in the future because it has been associated with illness.
9. Celebrities in Advertising
Many celebrities have a very specific public persona. This image could come from always playing a character on a TV show or starring in a particular genre of film. So, when people see a particular celebrity, the image and reputation of that character is activated in their mind.
Some celebrities have an image of being honest, some are considered humorous, while others may have an image of being strong and tough.
Advertising agencies often use celebrities in their ad campaigns. The idea is to get consumers to associate the feelings they have for the celebrity, to their product. For example, if you want to sell insurance, find a celebrity with an honest image to be a spokesperson for your brand.
10. Learned Phobias
A phobia is when we fear something. It could be a place, a sound, or any number of things. Understanding the development of a phobia is an exercise in identifying the components of CC.
For example, initially, a person may have no fear of heights. Then one day, while hiking along a high mountain trail, they slip. They tumble down the hill and get hurt badly.
From that day on, they may develop a strong aversion to hiking. Just the thought of hiking on a mountain may be enough to make them feel anxious. In fact, it is quite possible that they refuse to ever go hiking again.
In terms of CC, they have learned to associate falling and getting hurt with hiking. Even though they have been hiking many times before, that one instance of getting hurt was enough to make them permanently apprehensive.
Classical vs Operant Conditioning
The other type of conditioning is operant conditioning, which is far more popular in education these days. Whereas classical conditioning functions through unconditioned stimulus and response, operant conditioning is more explicit and intentional. Examples of operant conditioning include giving stickers for good behavior, treats for dogs, and even parking fines for not following city parking rules.
When Pavlov first discovered the principles of classical conditioning, no one knew it would have so many applications to so many facets of our everyday lives. Learning by association explains the process of learning for humans and animals.
The process is straightforward. A neutral object/situation (conditioned stimulus) is associated with another object/situation (unconditioned stimulus) that triggers a response (unconditioned response). Over time, or even with just one pairing, the previously neutral stimulus will trigger the unconditioned response.
Advertisers recruit celebrities to endorse products, our preferences and dislikes of certain school subjects, and when we get hungry all involve CC. It also has implications for more serious matters such as the development of phobias and the control of livestock predators.
Related: 10 Conditioned Response Examples
Till, Brian & Busler, Michael. (1998). Matching products with endorsers: Attractiveness versus expertise. Journal of Consumer Marketing. 15. 576-586. 10.1108/07363769810241445.
Pavlov, I.P. Conditioned reflexes. London: Oxford University Press; 1927.
Reynolds, J.C., & Tapper, S.C. (1996). Control of mammalian predators in game management and conservation. Mammal Review, 26, 127-155.Watson, John B., and Rosalie Rayner. “Conditioned emotional reactions.” Journal of Experimental Psychology 3.1 (1920): 1.