Respondent Conditioning: 10 Examples, Definition, Overview

Respondent Conditioning: 10 Examples, Definition, OverviewReviewed by Chris Drew (PhD)

This article was peer-reviewed and edited by Chris Drew (PhD). The review process on Helpful Professor involves having a PhD level expert fact check, edit, and contribute to articles. Reviewers ensure all content reflects expert academic consensus and is backed up with reference to academic studies. Dr. Drew has published over 20 academic articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education and holds a PhD in Education from ACU.

respondent conditioning examples and definition

Respondent conditioning is when learning occurs through the association of a neutral stimulus with a stimulus that naturally triggers a response. After the two stimuli have been paired repeatedly, then the neutral stimulus will also trigger the response.

This form of learning is often called classical conditioning, or Pavlovian condition.

Respondent conditioning was first discovered by Ivan Pavlov (1927), a Russian physiologist that was studying the digestive system of animals, dogs in particular.

During his studies, Pavlov demonstrated that a dog could be trained to salivate in response to the sound of a bell that had been repeatedly associated with food.

This is learning by association, or as it is formally called, classical conditioning.

Key Concepts in Respondent Conditioning

  • Unconditioned stimulus (UCS): This is the stimulus that naturally triggers a response. Food is a UCS because it naturally triggers a biological response such as salivation.
  • Conditioned stimulus (CS): This is the stimulus that is initially neutral in that it does not trigger a response. However, by being associated with the UCS, it begins to trigger the response as well.
  • Unconditioned response (UCR): This is the response that is triggered by the UCS. There is no learning by association needed.
  • Conditioned response (CR): This is the term for the response that is triggered by the UCS after it has been associated with the UCS.

Pavlov’s research and the work of Watson (1913) helped establish a theoretical perspective on studying human behavior which is referred to as behaviorism.

The Origins of Respondent Conditioning

Respondent conditioning has its origins in the behaviorism learning theory. Behaviorism postulates that animal/human behavior is a result of associations that occur between environmental stimuli.

Although Pavlov and Watson are often referred to as the founders of behaviorism. However, the history of behaviorism can be traced to classical associationism, formulated by John Locke (1632-1704) and David Hume (1711-1776) (Graham, 2023).

Graham explains classical associationism in the following excerpt:

“Associations enable creatures to discover the causal structure of the world. Association is most helpfully viewed as the acquisition of knowledge about relations between events. Intelligence in behavior is a mark of such knowledge.”

A central tenet of behaviorism is that only phenomena that can be directly observed and measured should be studied. This rules out references to mental processes, especially those identified by Freud such as the id, ego, and superego.

Early behaviorists rejected references to mental processes within the organism because they could not be directly observed or measured. If something could not be measured, then it could not be studied scientifically.

As Watson stated,

“Psychology, as the behaviorist views it, is a purely objective, experimental branch of natural science which needs introspection as little as do the sciences of chemistry and physics” (p. 176).

The emphasis on external stimuli and behavior is represented by a model depicted as S-R (stimulus-response).

The Story Behind Pavlov’s Discovery

Pavlov’s discovery of classical conditioning was actually an accident.

While preparing equipment for the research, his assistant would enter the lab bringing the food.

On many occasions, the dog began to salivate early. One dog might begin salivating when it heard the assistant’s footsteps. Another might salivate at the sound of the lab door opening and closing.

This was all quite the annoyance to Pavlov. Until that is, it suddenly dawned on him that he may have accidentally discovered a fundamental principle of learning.

And as they say, the rest is history.

10 Respondent Conditioning Examples

  • Fear of Elevators: Because one day an individual got stuck in a broken-down elevator for several hours, the person is now fearful of all elevators and even begins to feel anxious when seeing a very tall building.
  • The Aroma of Mom’s Cooking: Whenever her children come home to visit, they remark that they can almost smell her cooking as soon as they pull up to the house.
  • Favorite School Subjects: Students often remark that they didn’t like chemistry until taking classes from one teacher in particular, who made it interesting by giving the students lots of projects to work on instead of lots of notes to take.
  • Dog’s Reaction to the Vet: The family dog usually loves to ride in the car. That is, until it sees the building where the vet is located. Then they start to whine and whimper.
  • The Lucky Shirt: One day a young man goes to his baseball game wearing a particular shirt. That day he hits a home-run and his team wins. From that day on, every time he has a game, he wears his lucky shirt under his uniform.  
  • Spoiled Food: When visiting a foreign country, a tourist buys an unusual-looking piece of bright green fruit. After eating the fruit, they start to feel nauseous. After that, they avoid all fruit that has a similar shade of green. 
  • Anxious at Second Sight: One late evening while walking home from work, a person was robbed while walking past an antique store. Now, every time they see an antique it reminds them of being robbed and they start to feel anxious.   
  • In Brand Building: When a new company is started, it enters the market with a blank slate. Consumers have no history with the brand. Therefore, marketers will be quick to initiate campaigns to build associations between the brand and positive feelings in consumers.
  • In Household Pet Behavior: Because the household dog has associated their leash with going outside, every time someone in the family goes near the drawer where the leash is kept, the dog gets excited.
  • Money: A small piece of paper with ink on it has no inherent meaning; it is a conditioned stimulus. However, because it is associated with the attainment of food and water (unconditioned stimuli), it has substantial meaning.  

Strengths and Weaknesses of Respondent Conditioning

Strengths (Pros)Weaknesses (Cons)
The theory explains a wide range of both human and animal behavior phenomena.Strictly speaking, it does not take into account cognitive factors such as thinking processes or that are central to human functioning.
The effectiveness of respondent conditioning in changing behavior has been demonstrated in a wide range of contexts involving human and animal behavior.The role of individual differences and personality factors have not been heavily researched or delineated.
Its specific usefulness in helping people overcome phobias and severely destructive behaviors such as substance abuse is substantial and highly relevant.Some treatments involving aversive conditioning are ethically questionable.
 In some contexts, effectiveness wanes over time and therefore may require additional associative pairings.
 It fails to explain how human beings can resist acting in response to conditioned or unconditioned stimuli.

Applications of Respondent Conditioning

1. In Advertising

Professionals that work in advertising are experts in respondent conditioning. They fully understand the power of association and you can see it in nearly every commercial on television.

Take for example the highly attractive female that appears in after-shave ads. There is a specific biologically-based response (UCR) that males have to this visual stimulus (UCS).

The ad attempts to transfer that response to the product. By repeatedly pairing the UCS (female) with the CS (product), eventually, the male viewer will associate the product with the pleasant feeling (UCR) activated by the UCS.

Then, when shopping for after-shave, as soon as they see that particular product, they will experience a positive feeling (CR) and purchase that item.

Despite the wide-spread use of respondent conditioning in advertising and consumer behavior, there is not an abundance of research examining its effectiveness (Pornpitakpan, 2012). The research that does exist lacks replication and contains methodological flaws related to realism (Wells, 2014).

2. In Treatment of Phobias

Many phobias develop as a result of a once neutral stimulus is associated with a naturally fear-provoking stimulus.

Often times it only takes one pairing of the two for the person to develop the phobia.

One effective treatment is systematic desensitization, sometimes referred to as counterconditioning.

The treatment begins with the creation of a fear hierarchy in which the client lists situations that make them anxious. The situations are then ordered from least to most anxiety-provoking.

Next, the therapist teaches the client how to relax using one of the numerous techniques available: progressive relaxation (Wolitzky-Taylor et al., 2008), guided imagery (Nguyen & Brymer, 2018), or biofeedback (Everly & Lating, 2019).

The client is then exposed to the least anxiety-provoking situation in the fear hierarchy while they practice the relaxation technique.

With practice, the client will no longer feel anxious when seeing or thinking about that situation. At that point, they can move to the next item in the fear hierarchy.

The process is repeated until the hierarchy has been completed.

Research Case Study: Nature-Based Guided Imagery

Stress and anxiety can be reduced by taking a simple walk through the woods (Schweitzer, 2018). 

However, Nguyen and Brymer (2018) point out that many people live in highly dense urban environments with limited access to nature.

In the absence of actual nature, the researchers suggested that guided imagery (GI) could be serve as an effective alternative. In GI, verbal instructions are used to guide an individual’s visualization of images and associated sensations.

To assess if GI of nature could reduce the negative emotional experience of anxiety, 48 Australians participated in either a nature-based or non-nature-based GI session.

“The results reveal that both conditions were in themselves significantly effective in reducing anxiety” (p. 6).

In addition, nature-based GI was “more effective at reducing state anxiety than the non-nature-based GI” (p. 8).

This study demonstrated a simple but effective treatment to decrease stress and anxiety. 

Resources available on the internet include: a GI script called The Beach; narrated nature videos; and numerous podcasts offered by the University of Michigan.


Respondent conditioning refers to when an initially neutral stimulus has been associated with a stimulus that naturally triggers a response, it too will evoke that response.

This learning by association explains how we might become fearful of all elevators, or a particular store, because something terribly unpleasant occurred there one day.

Fortunately, the application of various relaxation techniques can help a person overcome these fears through a process of associating relaxation with versions of those once anxiety-provoking stimuli.

Respondent conditioning also explains why the family dog starts to whimper at the site of the vet’s office building, or its excited anticipation of going outside when someone approaches where the leash is kept.

A form of respondent conditioning known as aversive conditioning can help curb substance abuse.

There are many more applications of respondent conditioning that can be seen in everyday life if one pays enough attention.


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Everly, G.S., & Lating, J.M. (2019). Biofeedback in the treatment of the stress response. In: A Clinical Guide to the Treatment of the Human Stress Response. Springer, New York, NY.

Graham, G., “Behaviorism”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2023 Edition), Edward N. Zalta & Uri Nodelman (Eds.).

Grant, B. F., Goldstein, R. B., Saha, T. D., Chou, S. P., Jung, J., Zhang, H., et al. (2015). Epidemiology of DSM-5 alcohol use disorder: results from the national epidemiologic survey on alcohol and related conditions III. JAMA Psychiatry 72, 757–766.

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Tyson, P. D. (1996). Biodesensitization: Biofeedback-controlled systematic desensitization of the stress response to infant crying. Biofeedback and Self-Regulation, 21, 273-290.

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Wells, V. K. (2014). Behavioural psychology, marketing and consumer behaviour: A literature review and future research agenda. Journal of Marketing Management, 30(11-12), 1119-1158. Wolitzky-Taylor, K. B., Horowitz, J. D., Powers, M. B., & Telch, M. J. (2008). Psychological approaches in the treatment of specific phobias: A meta-analysis. Clinical psychology review, 28(6), 1021-1037.

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Dr. Cornell has worked in education for more than 20 years. His work has involved designing teacher certification for Trinity College in London and in-service training for state governments in the United States. He has trained kindergarten teachers in 8 countries and helped businessmen and women open baby centers and kindergartens in 3 countries.

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This article was peer-reviewed and edited by Chris Drew (PhD). The review process on Helpful Professor involves having a PhD level expert fact check, edit, and contribute to articles. Reviewers ensure all content reflects expert academic consensus and is backed up with reference to academic studies. Dr. Drew has published over 20 academic articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education and holds a PhD in Education from ACU.

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