It is widely acknowledged that Ivan Pavlov is the father of classical conditioning. His original work was in examining the digestive processes of dogs. However, keen eyed, he noticed that the dogs learned the sound of their keeper’s footsteps before the food was presented to them and began to salivate, even before they had seen or smelled the food. They had noticed and learned to associate the sound of footsteps with being fed. He then developed an experiment to test this by ringing a bell at the same time that food was presented. Soon the bell alone caused the dogs to salivate.
This will come as no surprise to any well trained dog-owner whose pet knows the precise time of day when they go for “walkies” and will be standing by the door even before said owner has even put their coat on..
Classical conditioning is the pairing of a neutral stimulus (bell) with an unconditioned response (salivation). After several pairings the neutral stimulus becomes the conditioned stimulus which will cause the conditioned response (salivation).
This response is not only found in animals but can be created in humans too, serving a range of purposes from fun, to therapy and even investigations in neuroscience.
The Novel Use of Classical Conditioning
There have been several fun but not terribly scientific or ethical experiments with classical conditioning, some of which have found their way to you tube, much to the delight of students of psychology.
The first of these is a film of a guy who had a buzzer which when pressed played the words “that was easy” he also had an toy air gun which he fired irregularly at his room-mate. At the same time he fired he pressed the buzzer.
Soon his room-mate flinched on the sound of the buzzer message alone. The victim had quickly learned to associate the words “that was easy” with the pain of the air blast.
The second is a widely trailed excerpt from the American version of the hit TV series, “The Office”. One of the guys deliberately sets out to re-create Pavlov’s experiment using his computer and some mints.
Imagine two desks facing each other. Researcher and subject facing each other with only a computer station in between.
The researcher deliberately causes his computer to reset, and the familiar Microsoft tone is heard. At the same time he offers his co-worker opposite a mint. The researcher repeats this several times.
Soon the subject is seen holding out his hand for a mint on the mere sound of the Microsoft tune. Eventually the researcher resets his computer and the co-worker’s hand shoots out for the expected mint.
The researcher responds: “What are you doing?” The co-worker looks guiltily at his hand and mumbles “I don’t know, my mouth tastes bad or something”.
The researcher smiles knowingly at the audience, job done!
Pulse conditioning is a relatively harmless experiment which can demonstrate classical conditioning to students, but it should still be subject to ethical scrutiny from the relevant code of practice before being used.
Pairs of students are set up as experimenter and subject. The subject is asked to relax for two minutes and then at the end take his/her pulse.
The experimenter then taps a pencil 5x on a desk. At this point the subject is asked to stand and do a moderately vigorous exercise (usually hopping on one leg) for 30 seconds.
Then he or she retakes their pulse. The partner records the pulse rates. After at least 4 pairings the tapping is repeated without the inclusion of the exercise. If the conditioning has been effective, the pulse will raise without the exercise.
Classical Conditioning in Investigating Neurological Aspects of Autism
People with autism have subtle but significant brain physiology from other people. They have fewer cells in the cerebellum (balance and co-ordination parts of the brain) and increased cell density in the hippocampus (Memory and learning).
Steinmetzis has studied the effect of these abnormalities on learning by using a classical conditioning.
The eye blink experiment is well documented. It involves pairing a tone with a puff of air directed at the eye. Steinmetz found some significant differences between people with autism and control subjects.
People with autism actually acquired the conditioned response faster than control subjects, but they mistimed their blinks.
He found that autistic subjects blinked too early. They appeared unable to co-ordinate the blink with the puff.
He and his research associate suggested that the mistimed blink was as I direct result of the mismatch of the learning response (hippocampus) with a less accurate cerebellum response. Thus the use of classical conditioning helped to shed light on the neurobiology of Autism.
Once again returning to YouTube, the comedian Eddie Izzard posed the question: “What would have happened if instead of experimenting on dogs, Pavlov had decided to work on the digestive systems of cats?”
The sketch goes through several possible iterations of the classical conditioning experiment, ending up with the predictable outcome that the cat conditioned the human.
We should be grateful for small mercies and that Pavlov had the good judgement or luck to experiment on dogs, because psychology would be the lesser science without this simple concept of learned behaviour.
- Pavlov, I. P. (1897/1902). The Work Of The Digestive Glands. London: Griffin.
- Watson, J. B. (1913). Psychology as the Behaviorist Views It. Psychological Review, 20, 158–177.
- Watson, J. B., & Rayner, R. (1920). Conditioned emotional reactions. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 3(1), pp. 1–14.
- Eddie Izzard, Pavlov’s Cats: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lf9Jy9JQgnY
- The Office clip: https://youtu.be/WfZfMIHwSkU