Classical Conditioning

Classical Conditioning

Dog with BellWhat do you do when you hear a bell ring?

When some teachers hear a bell one of the first things they do is walk out into the hallway.  Even when they’re at home.  Alone.  The call of the bell is simply such a strong habit that these teachers will produce the right behavior (going into the hall to monitor) at the wrong place (their own home).

In this chapter we will look at Classical Conditioning, perhaps the oldest model of change there is.  It has several interesting applications to the real world, ones you may not have thought about it.  Let’s look at the components of this model.

Components Of Classical Conditioning

The easiest place to start is with a little example.  Consider a hungry dog who sees a bowl of food.  Something like this might happen:


The dog is hungry, the dog sees the food, and the dog salivates.  This is a natural sequence of events, an unconscious, uncontrolled, and unlearned relationship.  See the food, then salivate.

Now, because we are humans who have an insatiable curiosity, we experiment.  When we present the food to the hungry dog (and before the dog salivates), we ring a bell.  Thus,

–>  BELL

We repeat this action (food and bell given simultaneously) at several meals.  Every time the dog sees the food, the dog also hears the bell.  Ding-Dong, Alpo.

Now, because we are humans who like to play tricks on our pets, we do another experiment.  We ring the bell (Ding-Dong), but we don’t show any food.  What does the dog do?  Right,


The bell elicits the same response the sight of the food gets.  Over repeated trials, the dog has learned to associate the bell with the food and now the bell has the power to produce the same response as the food.  (And, of course, after you’ve tricked your dog into drooling and acting even more stupidly than usual, you must give it a special treat.)

This is the essence of Classical Conditioning.  It really is that simple.  You start with two things that are already connected with each other (food and salivation).  Then you add a third thing (bell) for several trials.  Eventually, this third thing may become so strongly associated that it has the power to produce the old behavior.

Now, where do we get the term, “Conditioning” from all this?  Let me draw up the diagrams with the official terminology.

CC 1st Example

“Unconditioned” simply means that the stimulus and the response are naturally connected.  They just came that way, hard wired together like a horse and carriage and love and marriage as the song goes.  “Unconditioned” means that this connection was already present before we got there and started messing around with the dog or the child or the spouse or the customer or voter or whomever we’re toying with.

“Stimulus” simply means the thing that starts it while “response” means the thing that ends it.  A stimulus elicits and a response is elicited.  (This is circular reasoning, true, but hang in there.)  Another diagram,

CC 2nd Example

We already know that “Unconditioned” means unlearned, untaught, preexisting, already-present-before-we-got-there.  “Conditioning” just means the opposite.  It means that we are trying to associate, connect, bond, link something new with the old relationship.  And we want this new thing to elicit (rather than be elicited) so it will be a stimulus and not a response.  Finally, after many trials we hope for,

CC 3rd Example

Let’s review these concepts.

1.  UNCONDITIONED STIMULUS:  a thing that can already elicit a response.

2.  UNCONDITIONED RESPONSE:  a thing that is already elicited by a stimulus.

3.  UNCONDITIONED RELATIONSHIP:  an existing stimulus-response connection.

4.  CONDITIONING STIMULUS:  a new stimulus we deliver the same time we give the old stimulus.

5.  CONDITIONED RELATIONSHIP:  the new stimulus-response relationship we created by associating a new stimulus with an old response.

There are two key parts.  First, we start with an existing relationship, UNCONDITIONED STIMULUS —> UNCONDITIONED RESPONSE.  Second, we pair a new thing (CONDITIONING STIMULUS) with the existing relationship, until the new thing has the power to elicit the old response.

A Little History And A Comparison

The example we used here is from the first studies on classical conditioning as described by Ivan Pavlov, the famous Russian physiologist.  Pavlov discovered these important relationships around the turn of the 20th century in his work with dogs (really).  He created the first learning theory which precedes the learning theory most people know quite well, reinforcement theory (AKA operant conditioning).  We will look at reinforcement theory in a separate chapter, but for now I do want to make a point:  Classical conditioning says nothing about rewards and punishments which are key terms in reinforcement theory.

Pavlov and Dog

Consider our basic example,

CC 2nd Example

There is nothing in here about rewards or punishments, no terminology like that, not even an implication like that.  Classical conditioning is built on creating relationships by association over trials.  Some people confuse Classical Conditioning with Reinforcement Theory.  To keep them separated just look for the presence of rewards and punishments.

Everyday Classical Conditioning

This type of influence is extremely common.  If you have pets and you feed them with canned food, what happens when you hit the can opener?  Sure, the animals come running even if you are opening a can of green beans.  They have associated the sound of the opener with their food.

Classical conditioning works with people, too.  Go to K-Mart and watch what happens when the blue light turns on.  Cost conscious shoppers will make a beeline to that table because they associate a good sale with the blue light.  (And, the research proves that people are more likely to buy the sale item under the blue light even if the item isn’t a good value.)

Classical conditioning works with advertising.  For example, many beer ads prominently feature attractive young women wearing bikinis.  The young women (UNCONDITIONED STIMULUS) naturally elicit a favorable, mildly aroused feeling (UNCONDITIONED RESPONSE) in most men.  The beer is simply associated with this effect.  The same thing applies with the jingles and music that accompany many advertisements.  The music may be patriotic, sad, or take us back to the days of our youth when we were wild and free and tomorrow belonged to me.  Then they connect the product or service with the feeling elicited by the music and Ding-Dong, Alpo.

Clearly, classical conditioning is a pervasive form of influence in our world.  This is true because it is a natural feature of all humans and it is relatively simple and easy to accomplish.

Workers of the World, Unite, Baby!

Workers UniteProfessor Greg Razran conducted an interesting study of classical conditioning with political slogans.  He gave a small group of 24 adults a list of political slogans contemporary for the times (the late 1930s).  Consider:

America for Americans!

Workers of the World Unite!

No Other Ism but Americanism!

Down With War and Fascism!

He had the participants rate the slogans on a 7 point attitude scale.  Then over the next several days, he exposed each participant to these slogans under 3 different conditions:  1) while eating a free lunch, 2) while smelling foul odors, and 3) a neutral condition.  He made sure that a particular slogan only appeared in one condition and he repeated this pairing of condition with slogan several times.  After these exposures to the “persuasive communication” (free lunch, foul smell, or neutral), he then had the participants rerate their attitude toward the slogans.

Not too surprisingly, Razran found that people changed their attitudes towards the slogans depending upon the “persuasive communication” condition.  If the slogan was associated with the free lunch, their attitude toward it improved from pre to post test.  If the slogan was associated with the foul smells, their attitude became more unfavorable, and finally for slogans associated in the neutral condition, there was no change.  Razran also asked each participant to try and recall the condition that each slogan had been paired with in the persuasive testing.  They couldn’t do any better than chance guessing.

Unfortunately, this research was published in 1940 and the standards of reporting and statistical analysis were not as complete as they are today.  Razran simply reported the size of changes with terms such as “considerable” or “mostly” or “slightly” and provided no counts.  However, even with only verbal labels, the pattern of results fits exactly what you’d expect with classical conditioning.  Simply pairing two previously unconnected things – the slogan with a condition – Razran was able to modify attitudes and without the conscious awareness of the participants.

Conditioning Nonsense or Making Something Out of Nothing

Persuasion researchers are stone cold maniacs.  They employ testing procedures that rival anything nuclear physicists use and all to make the world go Boom! but with words.  Consider this baroque masterpiece Professors Staats and Staats conducted.

They tested how you can take nonsense words, XEH or YOF, and make people have either positive or negative attitudes towards them by associating the nonsense with positive or negative words.  They hid this test within a larger task called “verbal learning of paired associates.”  They gave people a long list of “paired associates,” two words that had to be learned together and would be measured on a later memory test.  You would get each pair one at a time, be given some time to study, then given the next pair to study.  If you were in the test you might get a list that looked like this.

XEH – dirty
LAJ – pen
YOF – beauty
GIW – key
LAJ – car
YOF – gift
GIW – paper
XEH – sour

Now, the actual list of paired associates was much longer than this, 108 pairs.  And, remember, you are getting these pairs one at a time and are studying each pair for a memory test.  If you’re sharp, you’ve picked up on the trick.  In this list, the nonsense syllable of XEH is always paired with a semantically negative word (dirty, sour) while YOF is paired with a positive term (beauty, gift).  The other nonsense terms have neutral word associations.  Now, if you do this experiment rather than read about it, virtually no one picks up the trick.  The situation is simply too complicated and the researchers will give you a sweet, simple, but deceptive cover story that makes you look at the wrong hand while they pull the trick from the other sleeve.  And, just to demonstrate how stone cold they are, Staats and Staats ran the experiment twice.  First, WEH got the negative words and YOF got the positives.  Second, they reversed the association and WEH got positive words and YOF got negative words.  This handled the remote possibility that, hey, you idiots, don’t you know the XEH is an inherently NEGATIVE sounding word, so don’t need to pair it with NEGATIVE words, because it’s already a NEGATIVE attitude, you fool.  And, they also replicated these experiments two more times using different attitude measures.  Like I said, stone cold maniacs.  Boom!

Before they give the memory test after your study session with the 108 paired associates list (dammit, aren’t you sorry you didn’t get to do this experiment!), they ask you to provide your attitude toward the nonsense syllable, and so you rate it on a 7 point scale from good to bad.  According to Ding-Dong theory, the nonsense syllable XEH should have a negative attitude because of the repeated pairings with semantically negative words while YOF should have a positive attitude because of the positive semantic pairings.  And, that’s exactly what Staats and Staats found.  Here’s the attitude means from their Table 2.

CC XEH Experiment

The first row indicates results for people who had XEH with negative words and YOF with positive words while the second row shows the reverse pairing.  The means can range from 1 to 7 with a higher score indicating a NEGATIVE attitude.  The numbers in the parentheses are the d effect sizes and all of them are very large, larger than that 25-75 Windowpane effect.

These results are exactly what Ding-Dong theory predicts.  Take a neutral thing, XEH or YOF, then repeatedly associate it with either positive words or negative words, and the attitude toward that neutral thing will change in the same direction.  And, we can take this neutral thing and move it in either direction.  And, the effect sizes are large, unusually large for most social science studies.  And, nobody in this experiment realizes what is going on.

This study provides a great illustration of what low WATT processing means.  Imagine how hard your mind is working as you are trying to learn these crazy paired associates with 108 trials.  You’re really concentrating.  Yet, you are forming an attitude without any elaborative processing at all, at least not at a deliberate, controlled, and self aware sense of it.  There’s no “long conversation” in your head about XEH or YOF.  So, you are clearly doing a lot of cognitive work, just not persuasive cognitive work here in the Central Route sense of it.  You’re on the Peripheral Route, Ding-Donging your way to a new attitude, making something out of nothing.

Classical Conditioning In The World

Remember simple Ding-Dongs from school.  We can see applications of this theory in the teaching and learning of classroom rules and discipline.  Teachers will flip the lights off and on to signal the class to be quiet.  Now flashing lights clearly will not naturally cause children to be quiet.  This is an association the teacher taught the students.  The same reasoning applies with our use of bells and whistles and other signals.  We use classical conditioning to train students in very basic procedures.

Consider a ubiquitous feature on the American scene:  the Brand.  Levi’s.  McDonald’s.  IBM.  Ford.  Apple.  Corporations spend billions of dollars every year in creating, maintaining, protecting, changing, and rebuilding that precious asset, the Brand.  And how do they do it?  It’s all one big Ding-Dong.  They repeatedly associate a symbol, a word, a logo, an image that is their unique mark and they bond it with attributes they want.  The Gap will show you all the cool old school guys – John Wayne, Humphrey Bogart, Marilyn Monroe – who wore khakis.  Apple presents simple, cool, understated themes and images.  However the company wishes to appear, they Ding-Dong those qualities with their logo, and voila, the Brand.

Consider this mockery of the Gap campaign (“Famous People Wore Khakis”) with a real ad featuring Steve McQueen and a fake ad with Adolf Hitler.


The contrast highlights the classical conditioning.  Take the attributes of the famous person and associate them (Ding-Dong!) with your brand.

Consider how in December 2009, major brands quietly, smoothly, but as fast as they can, ran away from the golfing great, Tiger Woods, as everyone sorted out the implications of his family drama.  Tiger used to be the most popular, liked, and respected person on the planet, so brand managers paid him hundreds of millions of dollars just to stand next to their product or service.  In the wake of Tiger’s marital problems, his favorability ratings dropped faster than Newton’s apple.  Ding-Dong.

These are fairly obvious applications of conditioning and they are also quite useful.  However, I would like you to be aware of another important instance of conditioning that operates at a more personal level.  Perhaps the strongest application of classical conditioning involves emotion.  Common experience and careful research both confirm that human emotions condition very rapidly and easily.  Particularly when the emotion is intensely felt or negative in direction, it will condition quickly.

For example, when I was in college I was robbed at gun point by a young man who gave me The Choice (“Your money or your life.”)  It was an unexpected and frightening experience.  This event occurred just about dusk and for a long time thereafter, I often experienced moments of dread in the late afternoons particularly when I was just walking around the city.  Even though I was quite safe, the lengthening shadows of the day were so strongly associated with the fear I experienced in the robbery, that I could not but help feel the emotion all over.

The same process occurs with students or employees or clients or anyone in a hierarchy.  Because of threatening tests or aggressive teachers; surly, rude, and obnoxious supervisors; cold, perfunctory health care workers, some students, employees, or clients will feel a great deal of fear or anxiety.  And when they experience the fear, it gets associated with other things in the situation.  Thus, student fear gets tied up with taking tests, with certain teachers, and in extreme cases, with school itself.  Then, whenever that student takes a test or sees that teacher or walks into the building, the fear is triggered.  And if you grew up never feeling that way, chances are good that you’ve had a job or been to a hospital and you know exactly what I’m talking about here.

Now, of course, the conditioning properties of emotion also apply to positive feelings.  When people experience positive affect, that emotion gets conditioned to other factors in the situation.  And, then, whenever those other factors are present, the positive emotion can be triggered.

Because Classical Conditioning is so obvious, simple, and transparent, it is sometimes hard to see it in operation, but clearly it is a fundamental path of persuasion and influence.  Look around in your life and consider how it affects you.  Consider now how you use it to affect others.

Hold Your Breath for Happier Flu Shots

I blogged about an interesting report about a physician confronting a patient with a critical health problem that required a needle stick to solve and, wouldn’t you know, the patient had a mortal fear of needles.  The physician eventually handled the problem by calling the patient’s boyfriend who drove several hundred miles overnight to threaten the patient with a relational breakup if she didn’t take the shot.  She did and everything apparently worked out.

Does classical conditioning offer a way to handle a problem like this?  Yeah.  Just hold your breath.  Really.  Holding your breath can actually solve this.  Read on.

The physician’s report describes a classic example of a classically conditioned phobic response.  The patient had a mortal fear of needles and her medical records noted prior events where several adults literally had to hold her down to administer a medically needed and legal shot.  We all have experience with shots and while most of us don’t need to be held down by six strong medical assistants, we still have fear, so we have a general acquaintance with this situation.

In persuasion terms, drawn from a vast scientific body of behavioral research, we have a classically conditioned response.  A needle stick does elicit a pain response and this pain response often triggers negative emotional responses.  Further, we anticipate the shot in a novel and uncertain situation and such situations also tend to produce negative emotional responses.  Thus, we have a basic S->R element (S of novelty and uncertainty -> R of fear and anxiety; S of needle stick -> R of pain and fear).  Now, we just add in elements of the situation – the sight of a white lab coat, the unique smells in the office, the sounds of piped music in a waiting room – so that whenever we experience those formerly neutral stimuli, we Ding-Dong the fear.  And, if you do this long enough, you can just think about scheduling a shot to produce the bad Ding-Dong.

Of course, we know that this conditioning process is not unique to getting shots.  Just being a normal human gives us the ability to Ding-Dong our thoughts, feelings, and actions with almost anything at anytime in any situation.

Now, how do you break a bad Ding-Ding?

One obvious way is to use a new response to compete with the old response.  The technical term is “reciprocal inhibition” which is another way of saying when you do the old Ding-Dong, I’m gonna hit you with a new Ding-Dong that’s stronger.  And as you try harder to do the old Ding-Dong, you actually make the new Ding-Dong stronger, hence the “reciprocal inhibition.”

Here’s where holding your breath enters the scene.

Right now, imagine you are in the doctor’s office.  A nurse wears an evil grin on her face as she holds an ENORMOUS needle, dripping with glistening glop, as she approaches your naked shoulder.  She holds the GIGANTIC needle above her head like a murder weapon, ready to plunge that potion into your body.

Visualize this.  Make it real.  Make it intense.

Now, hold your breath while I count to 20.

While I count and you hold your breath, keep thinking about that shot.  Keep it real.

1, 2, 3, 4, 5, see it, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, visualize it, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20.

Now, take a breath.  And let’s do this again.  You visualize the shot and hold your breath while I count to 20 . . .

. . . okay, stop thinking about the shot and if you’ve forgotten, please, take a breath or maybe two right now and let’s ponder this.

You’re thinking about a fearful event and the harder you think about it, the more intense the feeling.  You are deliberately triggering the bad Ding-Dong.  But, as you do this, we add a competing response, the breath holding.  As you hold your breath and try to think about the bad Ding-Dong, you will eventually find that it is difficult to think about it because you are running out of breath and you are also experiencing a noxious and uncomfortable response that is stronger than the fear and worry from the old Ding-Dong.

As we repeat this, you will find it harder to generate the bad Ding-Dong because breathing is more important than fear and worry in your head.  You will stop experiencing the bad Ding-Dong in the immediate situation.  And, if we do this play several times in one session, then practice it alone a few times, then maybe do the play with the “doctor” (or whomever did this with us the first time) once more, you might actually end the bad Ding-Dong and never experience significant trouble with it again.  (That depends on a lot of other factors, but you see the possibility.)

If you are untrained in behavioral psychology, this may sound crazy.  Yeah, right.  Somebody’s scared to death about needles or snakes or public speaking and make them hold their breath to cure them?  Sure, and I’ve got email from a Nigerian prince with a bank account number.

I appreciate your skepticism and have a couple of ideas for you to consider.  First, if you have access to PsycNet, search on the key term, “rapid desensitization,” and read what you get.  Second, you can read this PDF link that describes this process from a professional bulletin of the Association of Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies.  Third, do a Google search on the key terms of “rapid desensitization” and “cognitive behavior therapy” and read professional sources there.

During my Master’s work I trained in clinical and counseling psychology and thought about a career path in that direction.  Some of the best science I read was coming out of the then (1975) emerging field of cognitive behavioral therapy led by people like Albert Ellis, Joseph Wolpe, and Don Meichenbaum.  They started the break with “talking cures” by employing rigorous empirical testing with randomization and control rather than the anecdotal approach favored by the medical model from psychodynamic therapies (e.g. Freud).  If you want the great weariness of knowledge, you can read great experimental studies from the 1960s and 1970s that formed the foundation for CBT that still drives the field today.

And, something as simple as holding your breath can actually work in a scientifically demonstrated proof.

Now, let’s think about our flu shots!


Classical Conditioning (or respondent conditioning) is the earliest and simplest theory of change we have.  While it primarily applies to learning, it can also be employed as a low WATT technique for persuasion.  We can Ding-Dong with words and images and sounds, all the elements of communication, to produce changes in thinking, feeling, or acting.  The Ding-Dong operates through repeated trials of bonding, connecting, pairing, associating or whatever word you like that means putting things together in time and space.  Also, remember that Classical Conditioning is different from another similar theory, Reinforcement (or operant conditioning).  Look for the presence of rewards and punishments.  Ding-Dong never requires a treat.

References And Recommended Readings

Hill, W. (1985). Learning: A survey of psychological interpretations.  (4th. Ed.).  New York: Harper and Row.

Petty, R., & Cacioppo, J. (1981).  Attitudes and persuasion: Classic and contemporary approaches.  Dubuque, IA: William C. Brown.

Razran, G. H. S. (1940). Conditioned response changes in rating and appraising sociopolitical slogans. Psychological Bulletin, 37, 481.

Staats, C. K., & Staats, A. W. (1957). Meaning established by classical conditioning. Journal of  Experimental Psychology, 54, 74-80.