Classical conditioning

Classical conditioning grew out of experiments to teach dogs to salivate in response to the ringing of a bell, conducted in the early 1900s by Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov. A simple surgical procedure allowed Pavlov to measure accurately the amount of saliva secreted by a dog. When presented the dog with a piece of meat, the dog exhibited a noticeable increase in salivation. When Pavlov withheld the presentation of meat and merely rang a bell, the dog did not salivate. Then Pavlov proceeded to link the meat and the ringing of the bell. After repeatedly hearing the bell before getting the food, the dog began to salivate as soon as the bell rang. After a while, the dog would salivate merely at the sound of the bell, even if no food was offered. In effect, the dog had learned to respond — that is, to salivate — to the bell. Let’s review this experiment to introduce the key concepts in classical conditioning.

The meat was an unconditioned stimulus; it invariably caused the dog to react in a specific way. The reaction that took place whenever the unconditioned stimulus occurred was called the unconditioned response (or the noticeable increase in salivation, in this case). The bell was an artificial stimulus, or what we call the conditioned stimulus. Although it was originally neutral, after the bell was paired with the meat (an unconditioned stimulus), it eventually produced a response when presented alone. The last key concept is the conditioned response. This describes the behavior of the dog; it salivated in reaction to the bell alone.

Using these concepts, we can summarize classical conditioning. Essentially, learning a conditioned response involves building up an association between a conditioned stimulus and an unconditioned stimulus. When the stimuli, one compelling and the other neutral, are paired, the neutral one becomes a conditioned stimulus and, hence, takes on the properties of the unconditioned stimulus.

Classical conditioning can be used to explain why Christmas carols often bring back pleasant memories of childhood; the songs are associated with the festive Christmas spirit and evoke fond memories and feelings of euphoria. In an organizational setting, we can also see classical conditioning operating. For example, at one manufacturing plant, every time the top executives from the head office were scheduled to make a visit, the plant management would clean up the administrative offices and wash the windows. This went on for years. Eventually, employees would turn on their best behavior and look prim and proper whenever the windows were cleaned — even in those occasional instances when the cleaning was not paired with the visit from the top brass. People had learned to associate the cleaning of the windows with a visit from the head office.

Classical conditioning is passive. Something happens and we react in a specific way. It is elicited in response to a specific, identifiable event. As such, it can explain simple reflexive behaviors. But most behavior – particularly the complex behavior of individuals in organizations – is emitted rather than elicited. That is, it’s voluntary rather than reflexive. For example, employees choose to arrive at work on time, ask their boss for help with problems, or “goof off” when no one is watching. The learning of those behaviors is better understood by looking at operant conditioning.