Pavlov’s Dogs

During the 1890’s, a Russian scientist called Ivan Pavlov conducted a series of experiments investigating the links between various stimuli and the responses they elicited. The findings of the studies are often referred to as “Pavlov’s Dogs” and explore human behaviour.

Pavlov presented dogs with food and measured the levels of saliva they produced. He noticed that the dogs were drooling not only when they were eating but also whenever they could smell or see the food. The dogs would even salivate in anticipation of the food.

Pavlov looked to investigate the links between various stimuli and the responses they produced. He started by setting off a ticking metronome and then presenting the dogs with their dinner. He repeated this process again and again until eventually the dogs associated the ticking metronome with dinner. This “conditioning” resulted in the dogs salivating in response to the click of the metronome.

He repeated this experiment with various other stimuli and he got the exact same results. Instead of the ticking metronome he included a buzzer, a bell, a flashing light, and whistles at different pitches. Regardless of the stimulus used, the result was always the same: once an association between the neutral stimulus (bell, buzzer, light) and food had been established, the dogs would respond to the stimulus by salivating.

This became known as classical conditioning, but sometimes goes by the name of Pavlovian Conditioning.

  • An unconditioned stimulus (such as being presented with food), can provoke an unconditioned response (such as beginning to salivate).
  • If an unconditioned stimulus is accompanied by a neutral stimulus (such as ringing a bell), a conditioned response begins to develop.
  • After repeated episodes, the conditioned stimulus alone (the ringing bell) will provoke a conditioned response (beginning to salivate).

Classical Conditioning Occurs All the Time

Not everyone has the same response to a specific situation or event. We are conditioned to interpret the event and act in a particular way. Some people may come across the same neutral stimulus, but have a completely different conditioned response.

An example of another conditioned response is fear of dogs. Two children may encounter a dog. The first child get’s excited and runs over to give the dog a hug. The second child is immediately scared and runs away from the dog in tears.

The first child is excited because they have had positive experiences with dogs in the past, and dogs give them a warm, excited, fuzzy feeling.

The second child is scared because in the past they experienced dogs barking loudly and aggressively which caused them to be scared.

They both encountered the same experience, but had completely different responses to the event. It’s not to say that one is right and one is wrong; they are just two different responses that have repeatedly played out over time. They are now conditioned behaviours and beliefs within each child.

Pavlov’s DogsChild 1Child 2
Unconditioned StimulusBeing presented with foodDogDog
Unconditioned ResponseBeginning to salivateDogs are niceDogs are bad
Neutral StimulusRinging a bellBeing in the same room as a dogBeing in the same room as a dog
Conditioned StimulusRinging the bell means it’s time for foodJoy and excitementFear and panic
Conditioned ResponseRinging the bell causes dog to salivateRun towards the dogRun away from the dog
Classical Conditioning: Pavlov’s Dogs Conditioning and Fear of Dogs Example

These conditioned responses are shortcuts in the brain, developed over time and that date back to our ancestors to help make their lives easier.

When we were cave-men and women and we encountered a saber tooth tiger, the shortcut in our brain said “Run! This was the thing that ate Terry last week!

Our ancestors didn’t have the time to weigh up whether something was good or bad, they had to learn quickly, and their brain reminded them to be scared of things that might kill them.

How Are You Conditioned?

We don’t often realise it, but we are all conditioned to act in certain ways.

Take a look at your life. Are there ways that you’ve been conditioned; both positively and negatively? Are there things that you’ve been conditioned to believe?

Alternatively, are there new behaviours you would like to introduce that you can use classical conditioning to help with? Once we understand a bit more about how our brain works we can look to live better lives.

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