Ivan Pavlov’s experiment on his dogs is one of the best known and most important in the history of psychology. Thanks to this little accidental discovery, it was possible to formulate a theory of learning. Pavlov’s research has allowed us to understand the dynamics of associative learning through the phenomenon of classical conditioning.
Classical conditioning consists in associating an initially neutral stimulus with a significant stimulus. In the presence of a neutral stimulus and in the absence of the other, a response similar to that which would be produced in front of the significant stimulus occurs. This ability to associate two stimuli, however different they may be, helps us in many everyday situations.
To better understand how classical conditioning works, let’s see two aspects: Pavlov’s experiment and the elements that make up this type of conditioning.
Ivan Pavlov, a Russian physiologist, studied the mechanism of salivation of dogs in the presence of food. He had realized that his dogs were starting to salivate before he saw the food. The mere fact of subjecting them to certain conditions provoked the salivation response.
Pavlov deduced that his dogs somehow associated the experiment with feeding food. To shed light on some still mysterious aspects of learning, Pavlov devised a series of experiments. The goal was to confirm the hypothesis that when two stimuli are presented concurrently, they end up being associated.
The experiment that proved the existence of classical conditioning was the association of the sound of a bell with food. To achieve this, Pavlov connected a number of dogs with a salivation meter. Pavlov rang a bell and immediately gave the dogs food. Upon sight of the food, of course, the gauges indicated salivation in dogs.
After presenting the two stimuli (bell and food) concurrently a number of times , Pavlov was able to associate them. The demonstration was that the sound of the bell alone was able to stimulate salivation in dogs. Of course, it is also important to underline that this occurred to a lesser extent than the salivation obtained from the real presence of food.
The experiment demonstrated that an initially neutral stimulus could provoke a completely new response by associating it with a significant stimulus. This phenomenon is called classical conditioning.
The elements of classical conditioning
Classical conditioning is made up of four main elements: the unconditional and conditioned stimulus and the unconditional and conditioned response. Understanding the relationships and dynamics of these elements helps us understand classical conditioning.
- Unconditional stimulus. It is a stimulus that has a significant value for the subject, that is, it is capable of provoking a response by itself. In Pavlov’s experiment, the unconditional stimulus is food.
- Unconditional response . It is the response provided by the subject in the presence of the unconditional stimulus. In the experiment it is represented by the production of saliva caused by the sight of food.
- Conditioned stimulus. It is the initially neutral stimulus, which does not generate any significant response in the subject. Through association with the unconditional stimulus, it is able to provoke a new response. In the case of Pavlov’s experiment it is the sound of the bell.
- Conditional response. It is the subject’s response to the conditioned stimulus. In the experiment in question, the conditioned response is the salivation of dogs at the sound of the bell.
Classical conditioning consists of the interaction of these four elements. The presentation of a neutral stimulus together with an unconditioned stimulus on many occasions transforms the neutral stimulus into a conditioned one. The latter, therefore, will give a conditioned response, similar to the unconditional one. In this way, new learning is created through the association of two stimuli.
Classical conditioning is the basis of numerous studies that have allowed us to understand many aspects of human learning. Thanks to it, we know better the phenomenon of phobias or the way we associate our emotions with new stimuli.