Higher-order conditioning occurs when a second conditioned stimulus becomes associated with an initial conditioned stimulus and evokes an unconditioned response by itself. This is sometimes referred to as “second-order conditioning”.
Using Pavlov’s experiment to illustrate, the dog started to salivate whenever it heard the bell. This is because the bell was repeatedly associated with food.
So, over time, the bell began to evoke salivation. If we then repeatedly pair the bell with another stimulus like a horn, eventually that other stimulus will also evoke salivation.
Let’s break that down.
First Order Conditioning Scenario:
- Unconditioned response: dog salivates when it anticipates food.
- Conditioning event: Pavlov rings the bell whenever food is coming.
- Conditioned stimulus: The bell
- Response: Dog salivates when it hears the bell because it comes to signify food in the dog’s mind.
Second (or Higher) Order Conditioning Scenario:
- Unconditioned response: dog now salivates when it anticipates a bell.
- Conditioning event: Pavlov blows a horn whenever he rings the bell.
- Conditioned stimulus: The horn comes to signify the bell, leading to salivation.
- Response: Dog salivates when it hears the horn, even when it doesn’t hear the bell or smell food.
The key requirement for conditioning to be classified as higher order conditioning is that the unconditioned response cannot occur while the first-order and second-order stimuli (bell and horn) are being paired.
Terminology Used in the Following Examples
- CS1: Conditioned stimulus 1. This is the stimulus that is used in the first order conditioning.
- CS2: Conditioned stimulus 2. This is the stimulus that is used in the second order conditioning. It is one step removed from the unconditioned stimulus event.
- UCR: Unconditioned response. This is the original response from the unconditioned even, which becomes associated with both CS1 and CS2 through conditioning.
For more on the terminology used in classical conditioning and behaviorism theory, see our article on classical conditioning theory.
10 Higher Order Conditioning Examples
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) may occur when an individual has experienced an extremely scary or dangerous event. That event initially triggers an automatic and very intense nervous system reaction called the fight-or-flight response.
Most people recover from that initial event. However, sometimes sights and sounds that are similar to those that were associated with the event will also trigger a nervous system response.
For example, personnel in the military may experience PTSD. First, a traumatic event creates a conditioned response to a loud, bass-like noise (i.e., boom; CS1).
When returning home, the veteran moves in an apartment next door to a neighbor that plays loud music with a consistent bass-like sound (CS1 similarity).
They may then develop a fight-or-flight response every time they walk past their neighbor’s door (CS2), even when no music is playing.
The traumatic event is not present, but they still have a dramatic nervous system response to the door.
2. In Marketing and Advertising
Professionals in marketing and advertising are experts at utilizing the principles of classical conditioning. Ads frequently attempt to condition viewers to associate something positive with the product or service being advertised.
In the case of higher order conditioning, the process works quite well. For example, a famous sportscaster’s voice (CS1) has been associated with excitement (UCR) of sports events for many years. That is step one in the conditioning process.
Then, the sportscaster’s voice (CS1) is used in a T.V. commercial and becomes associated with that product (CS2). This is the second order conditioning step. Now, viewers feel excited about the product.
3. The Red Car and the Park Entrance
Javier was recently in a serious automobile accident. It wasn’t his fault, but it certainly was traumatic. The accident occurred when a bright red car (CS1) went down the street the wrong way and hit his car head-on.
From that day forward, Javier did not like red cars. That is first order conditioning. After the accident, Javier started to go jogging through the park several days a week to help himself feel stronger and build some confidence.
However, each time he went jogging, he would see a bright red car (CS1) that looked exactly like the one that ran into him parked at the entrance (CS2) to the park.
After just a few days, Javier switched parks. He could no longer go jogging at that park because every time he got near the entrance (CS2), he started to feel anxious (UCR).
4. The Doorknob, the Leash, and the great Outdoors
Anyone that has a dog can probably relate to this example. When it’s time to take the dog for a walk, an owner will get the leash and attach it to the dog’s collar. That’s then the dog knows that it is time to go outside. So, they become incredibly excited. The leash (CS1) is associated with going outside, which is exciting (UCR).
Because the dog is always fetching the leash and bringing it to the owner, the owner decides to store stop using the leash and puts it in a closet.
However, whenever the owner opens the closet (CS2), the dog gets excited (UCR), even though the owner has stopped using the leash. The dog has already associated the closet with the leash. Eventually, this association will become unlearned.
5. The Boss’s Cologne
Having a grumpy boss is a powerful unconditioned stimulus. The boss is associated with an aversive experience. Because they wear a lot of cologne, anytime the boss enters the office, we start to feel anxious. This is a classic example of conditioning: the cologne of the grumpy boss (CS1) is associated with an unpleasant feeling (UCR).
After several years of working for this boss, he retires. A new boss enters the picture and he is much nicer. But, they wear the same cologne.
Now, we start to feel anxious every time we see the new boss. Because the new boss wears the same cologne (CS1), we start to feel anxious as soon as we see them (CS2), even when we see them from a distance.
The sight of the new boss has become a second order conditioned stimulus. Their image (CS2) has been associated with the cologne (CS1) of the grumpy boss and now evokes feelings of anxiety.
6. Romantic Relationships
John and his girlfriend dated for nearly a year. Although he thought things were going well, as it turns out, those feelings were not reciprocated. He still remembers their times together fondly, and the interesting quirks his girlfriend displayed while they were dating.
One of those quirks was the single streak of purple dye in her hair. They had a lot of good times together and that purple streak represented the unique personality that he fell in love with.
Even though the relationship is finished, John has noticed that those memories are reactivated every time he passes by the window display of a clothing shop.
The mannequins are often outfitted with colorful wigs to catch the eye of passersby. Unfortunately for John, now every time he turns the corner of the street the store is on, he remembers his girlfriend and the romantic moments they shared.
The street corner (CS2) has been conditioned to purple wigs (CS1) in the display.
7. Animal Predatory Behavior
Wolves learn through association where the best places for hunting are located. Through experience, they know that areas near sources of fresh water have more prey. Therefore, bodies of water become a conditioned stimulus.
This association becomes quite strong after several years. For one fox however, it tends to hunt near a body of water (CS1) where a specific type of wild flower grows that emits a very strong fragrance (CS2).
Even though the fox has not had a successful hunt for months, they now associate the odor from the flower with that body of water.
While exploring new territory, the fox encounters a patch of the same type of wild flower. All of sudden, its ears perk-up and it begins to excitedly search the surroundings.
The odor from the wild flowers (CS2) has become a second order conditioned stimulus.
8. Fake KFC Logo
Some people really like KFC. The chicken has a unique flavor that other franchises just can’t seem to replicate. Because the brand has been around for so long, the logo has become synonymous (i.e., conditioned) with the brand and great tasting chicken.
This association is strong and prolific around the world. Unfortunately, it also represents an opportunity for other franchises to copy.
This is exactly what has happened in some foreign countries. Advertisements will show the famous KFC logo (CS1), and then right next to it, show their logo (CS2) simultaneously.
After seeing those commercials over and over again, now customers have a favorable response whenever they see the new brand’s logo at the restaurant.
The marketing strategy is clear to see here; rely on second order conditioning to get consumers to associate the new brand (CS2) with the already established brand (CS1).
9. Mother’s Laughter
Baby and mom spend a lot of time together, especially during the first years. That means that many characteristics of the mother will become conditioned and evoke a response in the baby.
For example, the sound of the mother’s laughter is repeatedly associated with playtime for the baby. That makes the baby smile and laugh (UCR). The baby quickly learns that when it hears its mother’s laughter (CS1), it will be time to play soon afterward.
However, if the mother also laughs (CS1) around the baby while also watching a particular show on T.V. (CS2), the baby will begin to connect the two stimuli.
Now, whenever the baby sees that particular T.V. show (CS2), it starts to laugh and smile, even though the mother may not be around.
Rhea is in the middle of delivering an oral presentation to a group of top executives. Unfortunately, things are not going well. She is clearly nervous, forgetting what she rehearsed to say so many times, and then, on top of everything else, her PPT freezes.
After that, whenever she opens the PowerPoint program at her desk to do some work, she starts to feel anxiety. It’s as if she’s back in that meeting again. From a classical conditioning perspective, the PPT (CS1) has been conditioned to evoke her anxiety (UCR).
Only now, she has noticed that when she sits down at her desk, she begins to feel just a tinge of nervousness. She hasn’t even opened the PPT software when her heart rate takes a jump and she starts to have trouble breathing.
What has happened is that the PPT (CS1) has been associated with sitting down at her desk (CS2). This is how higher order conditioning works.
Although she is nowhere near the meeting room, her anxiety has spread to other situations that were not connected to the initial event at all.
Higher-order conditioning is when a second stimulus becomes associated with an initial stimulus that evokes an unconditioned response.
There are many examples of how this form of conditioning occurs in everyday life.
Places that connect us to a previous romantic relationship can trigger feelings we associate with that person.
Pets can become conditioned to get excited when they see objects that have been associated with a leash or a door to the back yard.
Even babies can be conditioned to laugh at T.V. shows even though they obviously have no idea what’s happening.
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Pavlov, I. P. (1927). Conditioned Reflexes: An Investigation of the Physiological Activity of the Cerebral Cortex. United Kingdom: Oxford University Press.
Skinner, B. F. (1971). Operant conditioning. The Encyclopedia of Education, 7, 29-33.
Watson, J. B., & Rayner, R. (2000). Conditioned emotional reactions. The American Psychologist, 55(3), 313–317. https://doi.org/10.1037//0003-066x.55.3.313