In behavioral psychology, a conditioned response refers to a Pavlovian response to a conditioned stimulus. In simple terms, it is the response we choose to give in a situation because we think is the correct response.
Examples of conditioned responses include a cat running for food when a bell rings, a student shouting out the correct answer when a teacher asks a times tables question, and even the learned response of “you’re welcome!” when someone says “thank you.”
A conditioned response is often contrasted to an unconditioned response, where our reaction isn’t learned but simply a natural or physiological response to a stimulus (e.g. jumping at the sound of thunder).
Conditioned Response Definition
A conditioned response is not a natural reaction to something. It is a reaction that we have learned through repetition, positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement, or punishments.
The concept comes from the behaviorism school of thought in psychology. It was developed as part of Ivan Pavlov’s, B.F Skinner’s, Edward Thorndike’s, and John Watson’s theories of classical conditioning and operant conditioning.
It is regularly used in animal training as well as in human classrooms. In animal training, we teach a dog to roll over when it hears the phrase “roll!”. Naturally, a dog wouldn’t respond this way. However, it has been conditioned to have this response thanks to positive reinforcements, such as treats whenever the dog does the trick.
Conditioned responses in education are related to rote learning. An example is when a school teacher says “four times four” and students respond “sixteen!” Here, students aren’t actually doing the sums every time. Instead, they have learned (or been conditioned) to give this response whenever they hear the phrase “four times four”. It’s a conditioned, rote-learned response.
Conditioned Response Examples
- Pavlov’s Classic Experiment: A dog associates the sound of a bell with food, causing it to salivate and run for food when the bell rings.
- Polite Social Response: People learn to automatically say “you’re welcome” when they hear “thank you” as a result of social conditioning. Here, they are exhibiting respondent conditioning.
- Potty Training: Children learn to associate the sensation of needing to use the bathroom with going to the toilet, resulting in a conditioned response to use the potty.
- Recess Bell Association: Students are conditioned to run for the door when they hear the recess bell, as it signals a break from class.
- Multiplication Mastery: Memorizing times tables through repetition allows for quick, automatic recall of answers when prompted with multiplication problems.
- Sitcom Intro Excitement: Hearing the intro music of a favorite sitcom triggers excitement and anticipation for the upcoming episode.
- Name Recognition: People develop a conditioned response to immediately turn their attention when they hear their own name being called.
- Phone Ring Reflex: Hearing a phone ring triggers a conditioned response to reach for and check one’s own phone.
- Sunburn Prevention: After experiencing painful sunburns, a person becomes conditioned to wear sunscreen consistently to avoid future burns.
- Canine Command Compliance: A dog learns to roll over when given a specific command through repeated practice and positive reinforcement.
1. Running for Food when a Bell Rings (For Cats and Dogs)
One of the easiest things to teach an animal is that a bell means food. To do this, simply ring a bell every time you give your pet some food. Through repetition, the animal will come to associate the bell with food.
After a while, you can ring the bell and the animal will come running for its feed.
In this situation, the food is the unconditioned stimulus (something animals naturally like). The bell is the conditioned stimulus (a stimulus that comes to be supplemented for the natural one – food). Lastly, the animal running for the bell is the conditioned response. It’s the response that the animal has learned.
2. Recess Bell (Running for the Door)
Response: Running for the Door
While we like to think we’re a bit smarter than animals, the conditioned stimulus and response association is just as strong for humans as it is for dogs and cats.
At school, we all learn that a ringing bell means it’s the end of the session. Often, it means we are allowed to go and get something to eat.
Here, the same bell-food stimulus and response association is made, but for humans! The bell is a neutral stimulus. It doesn’t naturally mean “food”. But we’ve come to learn that it’s a sign that it is time to eat. The conditioned response is for the students to pack away their books and stationery, excitedly racing for the door to escape from the classroom.
3. Learning your Times Tables (Reciting the Answer)
Rote learning is a key learning theory that was dominant in the 20th Century. It involved getting students to learn the correct answer to a question by heart, allowing them to provide the answer during rapid-fire questioning by the teacher.
This learning style required students to deliver a conditioned response to a set question. For example, the teacher would say “four times four” and the student would quickly respond with “sixteen”.
While in this example, there is no ‘natural stimulus’ that is being replaced by a conditioned stimulus, it still has the hallmarks of the conditioned response mechanism. It requires repetition, rewards, and punishment for a learned response to be generated.
Today, critics of this method highlight that students don’t necessarily learn why four times four equals sixteen. The process of learning is not prioritized, and instead, only the correct answer matters.
4. Sit-Com Theme Music
Response: Turn up the volume
Sit-coms play the same theme song at the beginning of each episode. An example from when I was growing up is the television show Friends. When the music came on in the background, I instantly knew it was signifying.
The same goes with news broadcasts: at 6pm every night, the regal intro music plays before the newscaster starts reading from the teleprompter.
In each of these situations, the music has no inherent meaning. However, culturally, we have come to be conditioned into knowing that each song means a certain show is about to come onto television, and our response is conditioned by this cultural meaning attached to the stimulus. It may be to sit down and pay attention, or even change channel if you don’t like the show.
5. Saying You’re Welcome (When Someone Says Thank You)
Stimulus: “Thank you”
Response: “You’re Welcome”
Have you ever found yourself stuttering a natural response to a common refrain? We tend to have speech patterns that we learn through immersion in a language. Commonly, people will respond to “thank you” with “you’re welcome”, a sneeze with “bless you”, and someone tripping over with “are you okay?”
In other languages, it’s the same. For example, in Spanish, thank you (gracias) gets a cusory ‘de nada’ (literally: “it’s nothing”) in reply.
Here, we are providing a conditioned response to a common stimulus. We have learned this response through exposure to the repeated use of these phrases in association with one another in common discourse.
6. Potty Training
Stimulus: Need to Pee
Response: Going to the Bathroom
Potty training also requires a child to develop a conditioned response to a natural urge. Babies don’t develop the conditioned response of heading to a bathroom when we have the urge to pee. They need to learn it.
Parents often use rewards like treats and stickers to facilitate this process. When a child tells their parent that they need to pee, and then they go to the bathroom, then they are rewarded with a sticker.
Over time, the child develops a conditioned response: the urge to pee leads to an automatic response to head off to the bathroom. Even after removing the reward (a sticker every time), the behavior remains.
7. Responding to your Own Name
Stimulus: Someone calls your name
Response: You turn to face them
We don’t all naturally have a name. Chances are, our ape ancestors didn’t give each other names. But as time progressed, society decided that names were a useful thing to help us to talk to (and about) one another.
Thus, when someone calls out “Chris!”, a natural unsocialized version of myself wouldn’t respond. It’s just a sound, after all. But society agreed that my name is Chris, and I learned that when someone says my name, they’re probably seeking my attention.
Here, responding to my name is a deeply ingrained but nonetheless conditioned response. The sound “Chris!”, a neutral stimulus, has become a conditioned stimulus, due to the cultural meaning assigned to it. My reaction to my name, in turn, is the conditioned response.
8. Reaching for our Phones
Stimulus: Phone Noise
Response: You Reach for your Phone
In the 21st Century, most people have smart phones that ding and vibrate whenever you get a message or notification. You may find that this noise makes you reach for your phone almost instinctively.
If this is you, then you’ve developed a conditioned response to a neutral stimulus. This stimulus – the ding or vibrate – doesn’t have any inherent meaning. However, your phone company has made you associate the noise with the social gratification of receiving a message from friends or family.
You may also find that someone else’s phone that makes a ding or similar noise makes you instinctively reach for your phone. In these situations, you have developed stimulus generalization. This means similar noises all illicit the same response in you: to reach for your phone!
9. Wearing Suncream
Response: Learning to wear suncream
If you have been out in the sun one too many times, you may have developed a conditioned response to the sun. This conditioned response is, likely, to put suncream on before going outdoors.
The stimulus in this situation is sunburn.
Often, people forget to put suncream on at the beginning of the summer and they might get an early summer burn. This is because there hasn’t been enough repetition of this action over the winter for you to develop the association between the stimulus (the sun) and the conditioned response (the sun cream).
This example of a conditioned response is perhaps not the purest of examples because the sun is an unconditioned stimulus rather than a conditioned stimulus. Nevertheless, you develop a conditioned, rather than an unconditioned, response to this situation.
10. Dog Learning to Roll on Command
Stimulus: “Roll” command
Response: Dog rolls
We don’t just stop at ringing bells as a way to communicate with dogs. We also use commands like “roll”, “sit”, and “come” to train our dogs.
In each situation, the dog doesn’t literally know what “roll” means. It’s simply a noise for the dog. However, through repetition, the dog develops the skill of stimulus discrimination. It learns that “roll” sounds different to “sit”, and that “roll” requires a different conditioned response to “sit”.
In this situation, the phrase is a neutral stimulus, but when paired with desired actions and rewards such as treats, we can turn it into a conditioned stimulus that has meaning to the dog, and that can elicit a conditioned response.
Read Next: Higher-Order Conditioning
Conditioned responses are all around us, though we may not always be aware of them. In some cases, our response is involuntary and unconscious (such as jumping at the sound of thunder), making it an unconditioned response. In other cases, such as when we reach for our phones, the response is something we’ve learned to do consciously, making it a conditioned response.
Sometimes the conditioned responses we develop are helpful, such as when we put suncream on before going outside. In other cases, they may be less than helpful, such as when we reach for our phones every time we hear a ding or vibration.
In education, the stimulus-response mechanism can be useful for teaching students (and particularly for classroom discipline). However, critics say it doesn’t teach students how to come up with answers but only to memorize the correct answer to a question.
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education.