Classical Conditioning and Pavlov’s Experiment – Learning and Classical Conditioning

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Classical conditioning, sometimes known as ‘Pavlovian conditioning’ is associated with Ivan Pavlov (1849-1936.) His research into classical conditioning sprang from his attempts to understand the digestive patterns in dogs.

Conditioning and Pavlov

Pavlov’s interest in conditioning therefore began accidentally when he was investigating the digestion of dogs. He noticed that dogs restrained in an experimental chamber in his laboratory had a reflex response (an innate response) of salivation before they received their food. As part of his experiments, Pavlov devised an apparatus for measuring the amount of saliva secreted by a dog.

He noticed the dogs would start to salivate in anticipation whenever they saw food or anything they associated with food, for example the bucket the food was brought in or the white coat of the assistant who fed the dogs. Pavlov realised the dogs were not just responding to a biological need (hunger) but also a need developed by learning.

Conditioned Response in Dogs

Pavlov believed the dogs were learning an “association” between the food and other stimuli that accompanied the food which led them to respond to the other stimuli (the bucket or the white coat) with a response normally elicited by the food. They were becoming conditioned to respond to these other stimuli. He then wondered if the dog might also associate some completely different object or event with the food and begin to salivate in response to that.

To test this, Pavlov utilized a tuning fork and meat powder. He would hit the tuning fork and presented the sound with meat powder at the exact same time. In the beginning the dog salivated only to the meat powder but as this was repeated, the dog salivated at the sound of the tuning fork alone.

Fascinated by this finding, Pavlov presented the food to his dogs and noticed their natural response of salivating. Then every time he gave them food, he rang a small bell, which was another stimulus. The dogs salivated whenever the food was presented and the bell rung.

After several trials where he presented the dogs with both of the stimuli together he then rang the bell without presenting the food. The dogs would salivate to the sound of the bell alone. They had become “conditioned” to expect food whenever they heard the sound of the bell. This is the most famous example of classical conditioning in which a reflex response becomes conditioned to another stimulus.

Terms Used in Classical Conditioning

In Pavlov’s experiment there are two stimuli, the food and the bell. Because the food is the stimulus that elicits the innate reflex response of salivation, this is called the “unconditional stimulus” (UCS). Salivation to the food is the “unconditional response” (UCR) The bell is the “stimulus” the dog learns to respond to and therefore the bell would be the “conditioned stimulus” (CS). Salivation to the bell is the “Conditioned Response” or CS.

Three Stages of Classical Conditioning

To sum up, the three stages of classical condition involve:

  1. A reflex where an unconditional stimulus (UCS) i.e. food, automatically elicits an “unconditioned response” (UCS) like salivation;
  2. The UCS (food) is presented alongside a “conditioned stimulus” (CS) i.e. the bell and the animal continues to respond with the UCR (salivation);
  3. The CS (bell) is presented without the UCS (food) and the animal salivates giving the “conditioned response” (CR) to the bell (CS).

Pavlov found that this conditioning technique was most effective when the Conditioned Stimulus was presented
very slightly before the Unconditioned Stimulus

How Children Learn through Classical Conditioning

Classical Conditioning is a simple form of learning as it involves a single stimulus. The stimulus can be anything noticeable to the senses: sight, sound, smell, touch or taste. In this form of learning a child might learn to associate two stimuli that occur in sequence such as thunder follows lightning.

To discover whether a loud noise could cause a fear response in a child, anothe experiment in Classical Conditioning was a study of an 11 month old boy “Little Albert” who was taught to fear a harmless laboratory rat. Whenever the infant approached the rat, experimenters made a loud noise by striking a steel bar. John Watson found the noise scared the child and eventually the child was frightened just by seeing the rat without the noise. This is also how phobias are learned.

When people react emotionally rather than logically, they are doing so based on past conditioning. These are powerful reflexes and it can be difficult to break away from something the mind and body has been conditioned to do.


  • Bee, Helen L. The Developing Child. 7th ed. New York: HarperCollinsCollege Publishers, 1995.
  • Gemelli, Ralph J. Normal Child and Adolescent Development. Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Press, 1996.

Kagan, Jerome. The Nature of the Child. New York: Basic Books, 1994


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