The Contribution of Ivan Pavlov to Psychology

Ivan Pavlov was not a psychologist but a physiologist. He was born in Russia during the middle of the 19th Century and had a very successful career in animal physiology long before he made the discovery which saw his name permanently associated with the subject of psychology and the study of behaviour in particular. His main interest was originally the understanding of digestive processes in animals. After co-working with Carl Ludwig on digestive processes in the stomach of dogs, he decided to study the reflexes which cause salivation in dogs’ mouths. Unlike the previous experiment, his aim was to keep the dogs alive and measure salivation by mans of surgically relocating one salivary gland outside the cheek and recording the amount of saliva deposited in a tube attached to it.

The Pavlov Effect

Saliva has two functions in both dogs and humans. Firstly it contains molecules called enzymes which are there to break apart certain food stuffs. It also serves to moisten the food to make chewing and swallowing easy. Now you will know if you are hungry and see or smell food you like that you will salivate. You don’t have to think “I need to salivate”. This is because salivation happens automatically, it is a reflex and not under conscious control. So it is with dogs.

What Pavlov noticed initially was that when food was given to the dogs their salivation rate would increase as expected. What he didn’t expect was that within days the dogs wouldnoticed how the hungry dogs quickly learn to associate the sound of their keeper’s footsteps with food and begin to salivate before the food was presented. As soon as the door opened at the right time, then the dogs would salivate. Now, anyone who has had a dog and has a routine for walking them will know that their dog will learn the time of day and wait, sometimes lead in mouth, at the door for their routine walk.

Pavlov was fascinated by this “learning” so he devised a further experiment. Each time he presented the food to the dogs he rang a bell. After a while he found that ringing the bell alone could induce salivation in the absence of food. He called this classical conditioning and it has become an explanation of why people behave in certain ways.

Pavlov’s classical conditioning suggests that not all behaviour is rooted in the sub conscious at Freud suggested, but some is linked to personal experiences which are real and in the conscious mind. For example many people have phobias. A person climbing to a high place and looking down may feel dizzy and uncomfortable and then develop a phobia of heights because they have developed an association between high places and physical discomfort. The technique which is based on Pavlov’s conditioning is known as systematic desensitization where a therapist induces a relaxed sate in the person with the phobia and simultaneously encouraged them to confront their phobia in a controlled manner while being relaxed and calm, thus changing the association.

Indeed in a very unethical experience in the 1920’s Watson and Raynor took a little baby boy named Albert who liked cuddly animals such rabbits, white rats etc… They filmed the experiment showing that initially Albert was happy and reached out to the animals. Then they repeated the experiment presenting the animals to Albert and clanging a large bar at the same time. The loud noise made the baby cry. ON the third repeat of the experiment they just presented the animals again. This time Albert shied away from the animals and cried. Just like the dogs he had learned to associate one stimulus (furry animals) with a loud noise. No one knows what happened to Little Albert, but the poor lad probably had a phobia of white animals for the rest of his life!

Pavlov ‘s work was the beginnings of the science of behaviourism which was further developed by psychologists such a Skinner who added behaviour re-enforcers to the model and developed operant conditioning. Behaviourists offered an alternative to the Freudian approach to managing pathologies of the mind. Behaviourism suggests that undesirable behaviours can be discourages and helpful behaviours can be encouraged by the appropriate application of stimuli and rewards. This is the basis of many parenting manuals even today.

Other less palatable applications of his findings were used elsewhere. Until around 50 years ago, male homosexuality was both criminalised and undesirable. Men sometimes volunteered or were made to attend sessions where unpleasant shocks were paired with homoerotic images. The desired outcome was that the homosexual would be unable to achieve sexual arousal in homosexual settings. This was known as aversion therapy.

Another application of aversion therapy came from the drug dissulfram which is more commonly known by the delightful name of “Antabuse”. It was discovered by accident in 1948 by researchers Erik Jacobsen, Jens Hald, and Keneth Ferguson who worked for a Danish drug company. Their job was to develop a treatment for a certain parasite. As was common in those days, they tried it on themselves and thinking nothing of it, went out for a drink. All three of them were violently sick. The drug which blocks certain parts of the breakdown of alcohol in the body and thus causes nausea is now given to chronic alcoholics in an attempt to create an aversion to alcohol.

Pavlov’s keen eye and good use of the scientific method meant that he is the father of one of the key approaches in psychology. But as the comedian Eddie Izzard noted, in one of his routines, if he had worked with cats rather than dogs, it would have been a completely different story. We should all be grateful that he didn’t!


  1. Eddie Izzard sketch:
  2. Cardwell, Clark & Meldrum: Psychology for As (AQA) Collins, London 2008

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2 Responses to “The Contribution of Ivan Pavlov to Psychology”

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  1. Steve says:

    what date was this published?

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