Classical Conditioning: Definition, History & Examples

Imagine a dog drooling at the mere sound of a bell. Sounds odd, right? But this is the magic of classical conditioning at play — where seemingly unrelated things become connected in our minds.

Dive in to unravel this fascinating psychological phenomenon!

Key Takeaways

  • Classical conditioning is a foundational concept in psychology, discovered by Ivan Pavlov, which explores how experiences create involuntary associations between stimuli and responses.
  • The process involves the pairing of a neutral stimulus with an unconditioned stimulus to produce a conditioned response, as seen in Pavlov’s experiments with dogs.
  • Classical conditioning has wide-ranging implications for understanding human behavior, with real-world applications to be considered.

What is Classical Conditioning?

Classical conditioning is a form of learning with its roots in psychology. It’s all about associations formed between different stimuli and involves the conditioned response, unconditioned stimulus, neutral stimulus, unconditioned response, and conditioned stimulus.

Key Components

In classical conditioning, there are several key terms that you should be familiar with to help you understand this psychological concept. Let’s break them down in a concise, easy-to-digest manner.

Stimulus: This refers to an event or situation that triggers a specific behavior or response in a person or an object. In classical conditioning, there are different types of stimuli:

  • Unconditioned Stimulus (UCS): A stimulus that naturally and automatically triggers a response without any learning process involved – for example, the smell of food.
  • Neutral Stimulus (NS): A stimulus that initially has no effect on a person or an object but can later become a conditioned stimulus through association with the unconditioned stimulus, such as a bell ringing.
  • Conditioned Stimulus (CS): A neutral stimulus that, after pairing with an unconditioned stimulus, comes to elicit a learned response, like the bell mentioned earlier.

Response: This is the automatic reaction or behavior that occurs as a result of a specific stimulus. Just as with stimuli, there are different types of responses:

  • Unconditioned Response (UCR): A natural reaction to an unconditioned stimulus without any learning involved, such as salivating in response to the smell of food.
  • Conditioned Response (CR): A learned reaction to a conditioned stimulus, like salivating in response to the sound of a bell after it has been associated with food.

Stages of Classical Conditioning

  • Before Conditioning

    At this stage, you are exposed to an unconditioned stimulus (UCS) that naturally produces an unconditioned response (UCR). The neutral stimulus (NS) does not trigger any meaningful response yet.
  • During Conditioning

    Here, the acquisition process occurs. This is when the neutral stimulus (NS) is paired repeatedly with the unconditioned stimulus (UCS). Gradually, your brain begins to associate the two stimuli, eventually converting the NS into a conditioned stimulus (CS).
  • After Conditioning

    The conditioned stimulus (CS) now elicits a conditioned response (CR) similar to the original unconditioned response (UCR). This stage indicates that a stable association has been established.

History and Key Figures

Ivan Pavlov

During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Ivan Pavlov conducted experiments that inadvertently gave rise to classical conditioning. Imagine a setting where Pavlov observed dogs and their salivation patterns. While studying their digestive processes, he noticed something fascinating.

Whenever he introduced food to these dogs, they naturally salivated. But over time, the dogs began to salivate not just at the sight of food but also at the mere sound of the footsteps of the assistant bringing the food.

This unexpected observation hinted at the dogs associating the sound of footsteps with the forthcoming meal.

This led Pavlov to conduct a series of experiments involving a bell, which he rang every time before presenting the food. After several repetitions, the dogs began to salivate just at the sound of the bell, even if no food was presented.

John B. Watson

John B. Watson, an American psychologist, took the reins from where Pavlov left and expanded classical conditioning to humans. Remember the somewhat controversial “Little Albert” experiment? That was Watson’s doing. He demonstrated that emotions could also be conditioned.

In his experiment, Watson presented a white rat to a baby named Albert. Initially, Albert showed no fear of the rat. But Watson then paired the appearance of the rat with a loud, scary noise.

After a few repetitions, Little Albert began to cry and show fear just at the sight of the rat – even without the noise. Watson proved that emotions, like fear, could be conditioned in humans.

Mechanisms of Classical Conditioning


Acquisition is the first and crucial step in classical conditioning. It’s when an unconditioned stimulus (US) and a neutral stimulus come together to form a bond. During this phase, the neutral stimulus begins to take on new meaning.

For example, if every time you smell a particular fragrance, someone gives you a warm hug, the fragrance (initially neutral) will start being associated with the feeling of warmth and comfort from the hug.

Over repeated pairings, the fragrance becomes a conditioned stimulus (CS), evoking a feeling of warmth even when there’s no hug. In essence, acquisition is like laying the foundation of a building – it’s where the groundwork of learning takes place.


Extinction is the process of ‘unlearning’ a conditioned response. It occurs when the conditioned stimulus is repeatedly presented without the unconditioned stimulus.

Using our earlier example, if you keep smelling the fragrance but no longer receive the warm hugs, over time, you’ll stop associating the fragrance with warmth.

The conditioned response (like feeling warmth or comfort) starts to weaken and might disappear altogether. It’s akin to a fire slowly dying out when it’s not fueled.

Spontaneous Recovery

After a conditioned response has undergone extinction, there might be a period of rest or no exposure to the conditioned stimulus. Surprisingly, after this break, the mere presentation of the conditioned stimulus might bring back the conditioned response.

It’s like a dormant seed suddenly sprouting after a long time, reminding us that not all learned associations vanish completely.


Generalization is about casting a wider net. Once a conditioned response has been acquired to a specific stimulus, other stimuli that are similar might also trigger the same response.

For instance, if you’ve learned to associate the sound of your phone’s ringtone with an important call, a slightly similar ringtone might also make you think you’re receiving an important call.

This mechanism shows the flexibility and adaptability of our learning. It’s as if our mind is saying, “This sounds close enough to what I know, so I’ll respond in a familiar way.


Discrimination is the brain’s way of being selective. It ensures that not every similar stimulus gets the same response.

Continuing with the phone ringtone example, you’ll soon realize that not every ringtone means an important call for you. Through discrimination, you learn to differentiate between your ringtone and others, ensuring that you respond primarily to the specific tone that’s significant for you.

It’s like tuning a radio to catch your favorite station perfectly amidst all the other stations.

Individual Differences in Classical Conditioning

Understanding Individual Differences

Imagine you’ve had a bitter drink before. When you taste a similar drink in the future, your body might anticipate the bitterness, even if it’s not there. Your previous experiences shape how you respond to new ones. In the same way, classical conditioning can be stronger or weaker based on an individual’s prior encounters.

Just like you might inherit your parent’s eye color, you might also inherit certain reactions or sensitivities. Some people might be more easily conditioned than others due to their genetic makeup.

Think about how you react when faced with a sudden loud noise. Some might jump, while others barely flinch. Your natural disposition or temperament can influence how susceptible you are to classical conditioning.

Delving into Contextual Elements

If you’re exposed to a very strong or intense stimulus, you’re likely to associate it more quickly with another stimulus. For example, if you touch a very hot stove, you’ll likely pull away faster and remember not to touch it again more vividly than if it were just warm.

Remember when you tried to catch a ball for the first time? You might not have been successful right away. But with consistent practice and timing, you eventually got the hang of it.

Similarly, for classical conditioning to be most effective, the pairing of the conditioned and unconditioned stimuli needs to be consistent and close in timing.

Your environment plays a role too. Imagine trying to learn a new song on your guitar. If you’re in a quiet room with no distractions, you’re more likely to associate the chords and lyrics correctly.

In a similar fashion, classical conditioning can be impacted by external factors like the environment in which the conditioning occurs.

Classical Conditioning vs. Operant Conditioning

AspectClassical ConditioningOperant Conditioning
OriginIvan Pavlov’s experiments with dogsB.F. Skinner’s research
Main FocusAssociations between stimuliInfluence of consequences on behavior
ProcessRat pressing a lever to get foodBehavior shaped by positive or negative outcomes (reinforcements or punishments)
Nature of Response/BehaviorInvoluntary or reflexiveVoluntary actions
ExampleSalivating when hearing a bell previously paired with foodDecrease in behavior when reinforcement is removed.
ExtinctionWeakened response when a conditioned stimulus is not paired with an unconditioned stimulusDecrease in behavior when reinforcement is removed

Real-World Examples of Classical Conditioning

  • Smartphone Notifications

    When in public, hearing a familiar notification sound might prompt you to check your own phone, only to find out it’s someone else’s device ringing. This sound becomes a neutral trigger, and through repeated experiences, you connect it to the anticipation of receiving a message.
  • Scent of Food

    The inviting scent of freshly baked pizza can cause you to salivate even before you taste it, much like Pavlov’s famous experiment with the bell.
  • Childhood Trauma with Dogs

    If someone had a scary encounter with a dog as a child, they might develop a lingering fear of dogs. Later in life, even a simple “beware of dog” sign can evoke that fear.
  • Overcoming Deep-seated Fears

    Classical conditioning plays a role in therapeutic settings, assisting people in tackling phobias and anxiety. Approaches like systematic desensitization or exposure therapy expose individuals gradually to what they fear in a controlled manner.
  • Animal Behavior

    Many dog trainers utilize classical conditioning to help people train their pets. By pairing a neutral stimulus, like a clicker, with a naturally occurring stimulus, such as food, dogs learn to associate the clicker sound with receiving a treat. In time, the clicker itself becomes an effective training tool.
  • Phobias

    Classical conditioning plays a significant role in the development of phobias. For example, if you’ve experienced a traumatic event involving heights, you might develop a fear of heights.

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Brenda Calisaan is a psychology graduate who strongly desires to impact society positively. She aspires to spread awareness and knowledge about mental health, its importance, and its impact on individuals and society.

She also has a passion for working with children and hopes to dedicate her career to positively impacting their lives.

Outside of work, Brenda is an avid traveler and enjoys exploring new experiences. She is also a music enthusiast and loves to listen to a variety of genres. When she's not on the road or working, Brenda can often be found watching interesting YouTube videos, such as Ted-Ed content.