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Classical Conditioning

  • It is a procedure which an animal or human learns to associate a reflex response with a new stimulus.
  • Classical conditioning was discovered by a Russian scientist, Ivan Pavlov, in the early 1900's. He noticed that when the dogs in his laboratory heard the footsteps of the researcher they started to salivate (an automatic or reflex response that occurs when an animal smells food). 
  • Pavlov came to the conclusion that the dogs were associating the footsteps with the food, because the two things (the stimuli) had occured together so many times.
  • In order to understand how Pavlov's dogs had learned this association, he set up an experiement.
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Pavlov's Dogs

Aim: Pavlov was studying digestion in dogs - he wasn't originally intending to study conditioning.

Method: He presented food in a bowl to a dog several times and, in the end, the dog salivated even when the bowl was empty. Pavlov had conditioned it to salivate to an empty bowl. Pavlov then decided to further his research by giving the dogs food at the same time as ringing a bell (a neutral stimulus). 

Results: After several times, the dogs salivated (a response) to the bell.

Conclusion: The dogs associated the bell with salivation. Normally, footsteps and a bell would not cause a dog to salivate, but the dogs learned to associate those stimuli  with the food and, hence, they salivated when those stimuli were presented.


  • Cannot be generalised to humans
  • Animal so doesn't have a choice to take part, and may harm them (ethical issues)
  • Lab so could control conditions to get more accurate result and can easily be recreated, but lacks ecological validity (doesn't reflect real life.
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Schedule for Pavlov's Dogs

Before conditioning:

  • Bell: Neutral stimulus (NS)
  • Food: Unconditioned stimulus (UCS)
  • Salivation: Uncondition response (UCR)

During conditioning:

  • Bell: Neutral stimulus (NS) PAIRED
  • Food: Unconditioned stimulus (UCS) PAIRED
  • Salivation: Unconditioned response (UCR)

After conditioning:

  • Bell: Conditioned stimulus (CS)
  • Salivation: Conditioned response (CR)
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  • Neutral stimulus: A stimulus that intially produces no responses other than focus attention; when used with an unconditioned stimulus, the neutral stimulus becomes a conditioned stimulus.
  • Unconditioned stimulus: Anything that causes an unconditioned response.
  • Unconditioned response: Behaviour over which one has no control; behaviour that is automatic.
  • Conditioned stimulus: The stimulus that is presented with the unconditioned stimulus. 
  • Conditioned response: The response that occurs when the conditioned stimulus is presented.
  • Extinction - If the condition stimulus is repeated without the unconditioned stimulus, the conditioned response gradually decreases.
  • Spontaneous recovery - After a delay, if the animal was presented with the conditioned stimulus again, the conditioned response often reappeared.
  • Generalisation - This occurs when the response is triggered by a similar stimulus to the original one.
  • Discrimination - If the dog was given food only when the same bell was sounded, after several trials, they only salivated to the original bell, not to any other bells.
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Watson and Rayner (1920) - Little Albert

Aim: To see if it was possible to condition somebody to become phobic using the principles of classical conditioning.

Method: Little Albert, an 11 month old baby, was brought to the laboratory. He was happily playing with a real white rat when a metal bar was struck close to him to make a loud noise. This caused him to jump and develop a fear response. This was done several times.

Results: The researchers then stopped striking the metal bar and gave Albert the rat to play with. He was still frightened and tried to crawl away.

Conclusion: Albert had learned to associate the rat with a fear response. Through classical conditioning, he had learned to show a fear response towards an object that he had not previously feared. This fear generalised to a white rabbit and other white objects. 


  • Ethical issues - potentially caused life long phobia and psychological harm
  • Can't necessarily be generalised as a baby so might be different for other ages
  • Small sample size (more of a case study) so may be different with other babies
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Stimulus and Response for Little Albert

The situation before the condition starts:

  • Stimuli: White rat (NS)      Loud noise (UCS)
  • Response: No response     Fear response (UCR)

During trials:

  • Stimuli: White rat and loud noise
  • Response: Fear response

When condition occured:

  • Stimuli: White rat (CS)
  • Response: Fear response (CR)
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Operant Conditioning

Operant conditioning is a type of learning that takes place because of actions and rewards.

In theory, a person would repeat the behaviour as they would like to think that, if they did well again, they would get the same reward. This is the basis of the second theory that attempts to explain learning, which belongs to the behviourist approach. It is known as operant conditioning. It is still concerned with learning but focuses on the consequences of the behaviour influencing whether or not the behaviour will be repeated.

As a result of these experiments, Thorndike put forward a theory called 'the Law of Effect'. In this he stated that behaviour that leads to pleasant circumstances will be learnt and repeated. On the other hand, behaviour that leads to unpleasant circumstances will still be learnt but not repeated.

Thorndike suggested that the consequences must occur soon after the behaviour is performed if learning is to occur. This is because the association is formed between the behaviour and the consequences. 

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Thorndike (1898) - Law of Effect

Aim: To investigate the effect of consequences on learned behaviour in animals.

Method: He noticed that a hungry cat could learn to open a latch so that it could escape its cage and eat some fish that was outside. Early on in the trial, the cat accidentally knocked the latch as it was turning around in the cage, trying to get to the fish. Each time the cat was returned to the cage.

Results: Each time the cat returned to the cage, there was less time before it opened the latch and escaped again.

Conclusion: The cat had learnt to associate pressing the lever with getting food (a pleasant consequence)

  • Behaviours that are followed by rewards are usually repeated, those that are punished are not usually repeated.
  • Thorndike investigated his hypothesis using cats and puzzle boxes: The cat learned cia trial and error. It was a pleasant consequence (escape) that encouraged the cat to pull the string rather than produce any other behaviours.
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B F Skinner (1938)

  • He decided to test Thorndike's ideas further using a Skinner Box
  • He was interested in rewards, punishment, positive reinforcement and negative reinforcement.

He devveloped a Skinners Box, which involved an animal inside and a lever or key that could deliver a food pellet. As Thorndike found, the animal became quicker and quicker at pressing the lever because they knew to expect a pleasant consequence (food).

Skinner noticed that once the animal had realised that the lever produced food, they continued to press the lever, and hence the behaviour was repeated. Skinner concluded from his research that behaviour can be shaped and maintained by its consequences.

Flow of the experiment:

  • Rat performs action: presses lever
  • Rat recieves reward: food relieves hunger
  • The reward reinforces the action so the rat repeats it
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Summary of conditioning

Practical application:

  • Advertising: ad agencies know that they can get us to build up a favourable association between the advert and the product (or vice versa) 

Summary of operant conditioning:

Principle:                            Effect on behaviour             Consequences

Positive Reinforcement        Strengthens                        Pleasant

Negative Reinforcement       Strengthens                        Stops something unpleasant

Punishment                         Weakens                            Unpleasant

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Behaviour Shaping

Reinforcement can be used to create completely new behaviour by shaping random behaviour and building up a sequence of behaviours.

Skinner demonstrated this by teaching pigeons to play ping pong. He provided reinforcement every time a pigeon showed behaviour that was close to what he wanted, such as providing food when a pigeon moved towards the ball. Once that behaviour was established, reinforcement was withdrawn and provided only when the animal touch the ball. By reinforcing a narrower range of behaviours, the pigeon would eventually go to the ball and hit it with its beak.

Behaviour shaping is changing behaviour in small steps until the behaviour is learnt, by reinforcing each step.

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Reinforcement types

Reinforcement: Anything which has the effect of increasing the likelihood of the behaviour being repeated.

Positive reinforcement: Anything which has the effect of increasing the likelihood of the behaviour because the consequences have been positive and the individual finds it rewarding. 

Negative reinforcement: Takes place when our behaviour stops something nasty happening.

Punishment: A consequence that weakens behaviour (makes it less likely to happen).

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Treatment for phobias: Flooding

It is based on the idea that the human body cannot maintain the fear response for a prolonged period (that is, a person cannot experience the fear response for a long period of time - the body will not allow it). In contrast to systematic desensitisation, the phobic is confronted with their most intense fearful situation straight away: there is no gradual exposure to it. The procedure for flooding is:

  • The phobic is exposed to the feared stimulus. The phobic experiences an intense fear response.
  • The situation is maintained, the phobic cannot escape and the response continues. The phobic may show intense mental and physical distress. They are told to stay with the phobic stimulus.
  • Eventually the response becomes exhausted because the body cannot maintain that level of psychological arousal (fear); the phobic remains in the feared situation but doesn't show the fear response as it has become estinguished.
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Treatment for phobias: Flooding evaluation

  • The evidence suggests that this technique is the most successful.
  • It is quicker and cheaper than systematic desensitisation.
  • However, it does raise ethical concerns, as the therapist takes considerable responsibility for the phobic's well being.
  • The therapist may have to act against the wishes of the phobic, as expressed during the flooding process.
  • However, before the phobic takes part, the full procedure and the phobic's likely response should be explained. Usually the phobic is given time to think about the treatment before they decide to go ahead with it. This is why these techniques are not appropriate for children, who cannot fully understand how they will feel, nor be in a position to give informed consent.
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Treatment for phobias: Systematic Desensitisation

  • It aims to uncondition the phobia in small graduated steps i.e. hierarchy in fear. People cannot be relaxed and anxious at the same time so the fear response is replaced by the relaxation.
  • Person with phobia is taught how to relax themselves e.g. listening to music and relaxing muscles.
  • Person and therapist construct a hierarchy of fears i.e. A series of feared events in order from least feared to most feared to the most frightening.
  • The person relaxes and then gradually works through the hierarchy, relaxing after each feared event is prevented.
  • Person moves up the hierarchy only if they have been relaxed at the previous stage.
  • The final stage is being relaxed at the most frightening event.

For Example:

  • Step one - looking at the word spider
  • Step two - looking at a video of a spider
  • Step three - Seeing a spider in a glass box on the other side of the room
  • Step four - Touching the spider in the box
  • Step five - Holding the spider in their hand
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Treatment for phobias: Systematic Desensitisation

  • This method is thought to work because it seems unlikely that humans can experience fear and relaxation at the same time. Therefore, the stimulus cannot trigger the phobic response.
  • Systematic desensitisation is generally successful in treating specific phobias (of an animal or an object) but is less so for more general phobias such as a fear of open spaces.
  • It is more suitable for use with children than flooding.
  • Ethical concerns are low because the patient plays such an active part in the structure and pace of the treatment (the patient is responsible for writing the hierarchy and if they feel that they aren't completely happy with one of the stages, they don't move onto the next ne until they are comfortable.
  • However, this can be problematic as the treatment may take an extended period of time and the phobic may fail to complete it if they feel they are not progressing.
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Aversion Therapy

The purpose of aversion therapy is to stop unwanted behaviour by associating it (through conditioning) with something unpleasant.

Aversion therapy has been used to treat alccoholics, using the classical conditioning procedures as written below:

  • The alcoholic is given a drug that makes them feel sick. The drug is the unconditioned stimulus and the nausea the unconditioned response.
  • The patient is then given a drink of alcohol and the drug (so the two are paired together) and feels sick.
  • This pairing occurs several times until the alcohol (the conditioned stimulus) becomes associated with nausea (which has become the conditioned response) so the patient no longer drinks alcohol. 
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Aversion Therapy Evaluation

  • The success rate for aversion therapy is mixed depending on the person. It seems to be more effective for some people than others.
  • One difficulty is that if the pairing does not continue occasionally, the association will become extinct and the alcoholic may return to drink. The only way to avoid this is for the alcoholic to stay away from alcohol. 
  • There are ethical concerns because of the effects on the patient and the responsibility on the therapist.
  • As in flooding, the alcoholic is given very detailed information about what the treatment entails and what they might experience. Usually they are given time to think about this before they decide to have the treatment; they may need ongoing support if it is to be successful.
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Token Economy

The purpose of a 'token economy' is also to change unwanted behaviour (for example, not eating due to anorexia nervosa, or naughty behaviour in class). The token economy uses the principles of operant conditioning: it uses reinforcement to change a person's behaviour. Desired behaviour is rewarded with tokens that can be exchanged for something that the individual wants.

The token economy is used mostly in institutional settings, such as psychiatric hospitals where a fixed tariff (an agreement between the doctors and patients) is awarded for good behaviour. An example in the case of anorexia might be to recieve a token for eating a certain amount of calories; the tokens can then be used to buy desired rewards (perhaps ten tokens to watch a video or have friends come to visit).


  • The token economy has been found to be very effective for managing patients and improving their self-care and social skills.
  • It requires close monitoring of patient behaviour for it to work, however, and patients tend to become very dependent on the system, making it difficult for them once they leave the instituition.
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The ethics of conditioning procedures

Although behaviour is changed, the underlying cause of that behaviour is not addressed. As a result, these procedures may create a new kind of faulty behaviour in the patient. The patient may learn to be frightened of another object as a result of therapy. (For example, if they are scared of heights and, on their way up a tall building, have to get in a lift, they may then become fearful of lifts.)

Some of these techniques allow vulnerable people to be controlled by those who are more powerful, and this power may be abused (for example, the therapist may cause distress to the client).

Basic ethical issues of informed consent, right to withdraw and preventing distress are all raised by the use of these procedures. Patients must be aware of exactly what is going to happen in the procedures and give their consent to take part. They should also have the right to withdraw from the treatment if they wish, if it all becomes too much for them. Distress (mental and physical) should be avoided at all costs.

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