Classical Conditioning Theory – Pavlov’s Learning Theory

What is classical conditioning theory? What is the explanation of classical conditioning like? How is classical conditioning applied in everyday life? We discuss all here.

Have you ever drooled at the thought of the food you crave? Or shudder at the thought of the animal you fear? Or do you feel angry just because you hear the name of the person you hate being called in front of you?

Why do people have phobias ? Why do we remember our ex when we smell a certain perfume?

In psychology, you’ve experienced classical conditioning. Classical conditioning  we will study together in this article. Including its history, the process of its occurrence, and how this classical conditioning occurs in our lives.

Let’s discuss!

Classical Conditioning Definition

So what is classical conditioning actually?

According to psychology, classical conditioning  is a learning theory that was discovered by Ivan Pavlov  , a doctor from Russia.

Pavlov revealed that we can produce a response by combining two stimuli; natural stimulus and artificial stimulus.

In ordinary situations, this artificial stimulus does not produce any response. But when combined with a natural stimulus many times, this artificial stimulus will eventually produce the same response as the natural stimulus.


I’ll give you an example. You can do this too, the ingredients are pretty easy to find. You need an unused friend and a straw.

Sit next to your friend, and, using signal 123, blow your friend’s eye with a straw. Just go slow, if you’re too tight, your spit will splash into his face.

What happened? Your friend will probably squint because the blast is annoying.

Do this several times. On cue, then blow. See the response.

After a few times, when you say the cue, what is your friend’s response? Squinting right?

Well, in this case, the wind being blown is a natural stimulus, and squinting when blown is a natural response.

But here we add an artificial stimulus, namely the cue. Before the experiment, maybe our friend didn’t respond when we said 1,2,3, in front of his face. But after conditioning many times, hearing the signals 1-2-3 was enough to make him squint.

When he squints before we blow, we’ve done classical conditioning.


History and Development of Classical Conditioning

Classical conditioning is a theory that is within the flow of behavioristic psychology. Behaviorists, as we know, believe that individual behavior is caused by different learning experiences.

John Watson, a leader in the behavioristic school, once said:

“Give me a dozen healthy infants, well-formed, and my own specified world to bring them up in and I’ll guarantee to take any one at random and train him to become any type of specialist I might select – doctor, lawyer, artist, merchant-chief and, yes, even beggar-man and thief, regardless of his talents, penchants, tendencies, abilities, vocations and the race of his ancestors”

“Give me a dozen healthy babies, and give me a world of my own to raise them. And I can take any baby at random and mold him into any specialist I choose – doctors, lawyers, artists, chief merchants and, yes, even beggars and thieves, regardless of talent, inclination, inclination, ability, calling and ancestral race.”

Behaviorists believe that our personality is formed by experiences and the environment around us. And Pavlov’s classical conditioning confirms this belief.


Pavlov himself was not a psychologist. He’s a doctor. In fact, this classical conditioning was discovered by accident.

In the 1890s, Ivan Pavlov studied the salivation of dogs in response to being fed. He put a small test tube in each dog’s cheek to measure the saliva when the dog was fed (with a powder made from meat).

At first Pavlov thought the dogs would salivate in response to the food in front of them, but he noticed that the dogs started drooling whenever they heard his assistant’s footsteps bringing food.

When Pavlov discovered that any object or event that the dog thought had something to do with food (such as a lab assistant) would trigger the same response, he realized he had made an important scientific discovery.

Therefore, he devoted the rest of his career to studying this conditioning.


Classical Conditioning Theory Concepts

Behaviorism is based on the assumption that:

  • All learning occurs through individual interaction with the environment
  • Environment shapes our behavior

One thing that is typical in classical conditioning is that there is a neutral signal before the reflex.

In Pavlov’s classic experiments with dogs, the neutral signal was a natural pitch and reflex sound (salivating) in response to food.

In our experiment, the neutral signal was a 1-2-3 cue and a natural reflex (squinting) in response to wind hitting the eye. By associating a conditioned stimulus (the cue) with an unconditioned stimulus (blowing the eye), the cue can produce a squinting response.

But of course classical conditioning is not that simple.

There is a phase where our friend stops squinting after the signal. It could be, a few days after you start working, your friend’s squinting response appears again.

To understand more about how classical conditioning works, we need to get to know some of its basic principles.

Let’s take a closer look at the five main principles of classical conditioning:


Acquisition is the initial stage of learning. This appears response time first appears and is gradually amplified. During this acquisition phase, the conditioned stimulus (the cue) is repeatedly followed by the unconditioned stimulus (blowing the eye).

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A natural stimulus is something that will naturally trigger a response without the need for learning. If the conditioning process is carried out, the subject will begin to respond to a stimulus that was initially neutral. Since this stimulus has already produced the expected response, it is now called  a conditioned stimulus . It is at this point that we can say that a response has been obtained.

For example, you condition your friend to squint in response to a signal. You repeatedly pair the cue with the blink of the eye. A response is said to have been obtained immediately if your friend starts squinting in response to the signal.

Once the response is established, you can gradually amplify the squinting response to ensure the behavior is properly conditioned.

2. Extinction/Kepunahan

Extinction or extinction is the reduction or disappearance of the response that we have conditioned. In the case of classical conditioning, this occurs when the conditioned stimulus is no longer accompanied by the unconditioned stimulus.

If you just give a signal without being followed by a blast, after a long time your friend will not respond anymore.

3. Spontaneous Recovery

Sometimes, a learned response may suddenly reappear even after a period of waning in the response. Spontaneous recovery is the reappearance of a conditioned response after a period of pause.

In this case, imagine that you stop signaling in front of your friend’s eyes. After he doesn’t squint anymore (the response is extinct), give him a break for some time, about 15 minutes. If you suddenly say the cue again, the extinct response can reappear.

This is called spontaneous recovery, or spontaneous recovery.

But the response will be extinct again, if the conditioned stimulus (squinting) is not followed by the unconditioned stimulus (blowing).

4. Stimulus Generalization

Stimulus generalization is the tendency of the subject to respond to a similar conditioned stimulus.

For example, after being conditioned, your friend may continue to squint even if the cue is replaced with clapping or hand signals.

5. Stimulus Discrimination

Discrimination is the ability to distinguish a conditioned stimulus from another stimulus that has not been paired with an unconditioned stimulus.

If before that you started with a signal, try starting with a knock on the table.

Your friend may not squint, because there are different forms of stimulus. Discrimination involves the ability to distinguish between types of signals. Since the subject is able to distinguish between these stimuli, he or she only responds when the conditioned stimulus is presented.

Responses 4 and 5 may depend on the subject’s perception. If he equates all the signals, it means that even with a knock on the table he will respond (generalize). But if he really focuses on one response, he will ignore other stimuli (discrimination).


How Does Classical Conditioning Work?

So what is the process of classical conditioning?

You may already have an idea, but I’ll explain in more detail.

The classical conditioning process occurs in three phases:

Phase 1: Before Conditioning

The first part of classical conditioning requires an unconditioned stimulus, which, if done, will elicit a response. An example is squinting, it’s a reflex because the eyes are blown.

This blow is called an unconditioned stimulus, because this stimulus already produces a response without having to be conditioned.

During phase 1, the unconditioned stimulus (UCS) produces an unconditioned response (UCR).

In this phase there is a stimulus that has not yet produced a response. This stimulus, if not paired with UCS, doesn’t produce the response you want.

Let’s say in our research you want to make your friend squint. If you want to give a signal until your mouth is dry, if you don’t blow your friend’s eyes, he won’t squint.

This cue is what we call a conditioned stimulus. Called conditioned, because we will condition our friends to respond to this stimulus. If we haven’t conditioned our friend, then this stimulus has no response.

Phase 2: During Conditioning

This is the second phase of the classical conditioning process. In this phase, the conditioned stimulus will be given to the subject and then followed by the unconditioned stimulus. This is done repeatedly.

As a result of this sequential stimulus, your friend assumes that CS and UCS will always occur sequentially.

Here, the stimulus that previously did not produce a response will slowly elicit a response.

Phase three: After conditioning

This is the final stage of conditioning. A conditioned stimulus that previously did not provoke a response, because it is always associated with a natural stimulus, can finally trigger a response. In this case squinting on cue. This response we elicit is called a conditioned response.

It is called a conditioned response because it is the result of our conditioning, not a natural reflex.

This is an example of classical conditioning.


Research Related to Classical Conditioning

Little Albert’s Research

Ivan Pavlov  studied classical conditioning in his pet dog. Even so, it turns out that humans can also be conditioned.

In a famous (though now outlawed) experiment, Watson and Rayner (1920) demonstrated just that.

Little Albert is a 9 month old child who is tested on his reactions to various stimuli. He was shown a white mouse, a rabbit, a monkey and various masks. Albert is described as “not responding emotionally,” unafraid of these stimuli.

However, what shocked and scared him was the hammer being hit against the iron rod. This loud sound made little Albert cry.

Two months later, Little Albert was 11 months old. The white mouse was presented again, and a few seconds later a hammer was struck against the iron. This was done seven times over the next seven weeks, and it always brought Albert to tears.

Since then the little Albert would be scared every time he saw a white mouse.

Furthermore, it turned out later that he had a phobia of things that were hairy and white, such as dogs, fur coats, cotton wool, and even white beards. This is called generalization, which we discussed briefly earlier.

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Watson and Rayner showed that classical conditioning can lead to phobias.

Over the following weeks and months, Albert was observed and after ten days post-conditioning, his fear of mice was much less. The process of extinction of the conditioned response is called extinction.

But the remnants of conditioning remain. Even the conditioned response can be regenerated by reconditioning, with a shorter time span than the initial conditioning.


Classical Theory of Conditioning in Life

You may have certain phobias that make friends laugh. I have a friend who cries when she is scared by worms. Another friend of mine, his legs tense up and get goosebumps when there is a cat.

A friend of mine doesn’t want to go to a mall, just because he was dumped in that mall. Entering the mall makes him sad, he said. Surem, his face is scary but his heart is like Hello Kitty.

Why do people have an illogical fear of something harmless? Why do places that we think are normal, according to other people can make us sad and upset?

Many responses arise as a result of classical conditioning. Intense and unforgettable events make us respond to similar stimuli in an exaggerated manner.

For example, my friend who was decided. Maybe for him, being dumped by the girl he loves has a tremendous impact on his subtle feelings. The incident may be repeated in his mind, so that he unconsciously did classical conditioning himself.

The mall where he was dumped, he unwittingly translated as a conditioned stimulus. Responses in the form of sadness and confusion over time became a conditioned response every time they saw the mall.

Another example is my friend who has a phobia of cats. The cat phobia arose because he had seen a cat give birth as a child. Blood and mucus everywhere imprinted so intensely on his memory, it made him disgusted every time he saw a cat.

Disgust, which is an unconditioned response to seeing mucus and blood, has long been associated with cats. The cat here is a conditioned stimulus, and disgust eventually becomes a conditioned response every time you see a cat.

Classical conditioning is not only seen in phobias. PTSD is also believed to be caused by a process similar to this conditioning.

Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), suffered by war veterans and disaster survivors with traumatic experiences, can trigger the formation of classical conditioning. Even years after the event has passed, veterans may feel fear and anxiety at stimuli such as loud noises (Roberts, Moore, & Beckham, 2007; Schreurs, Smith-Bell, & Burhans, 2011; Rosellini et al., 2015).

Classical conditioning can also be associated with pleasurable experiences.

For example, you are excited every time you hear a certain song. Or the smell of your boyfriend’s perfume that still lingers on your jacket. Happy emotions can arise because there are positive memories that are intense and imprint on your brain.

Oh yes, Pavlov’s learning theory also explains why addiction is so difficult to deal with.

Drug addicts associate certain stimuli — such as a drug device such as a syringe, the smell of a drug, or the room where they use the drug — with the pleasurable feeling that the drug produces.

Just looking at a syringe is enough for an addict to trigger a craving reaction (Saunders, Yager, & Robinson, 2013; Valyear, Villaruel, & Chaudhri, 2017).


Criticism of Pavlov’s Theory of Learning

Classical conditioning was a major breakthrough of its time. In fact, this research made Ivan Pavlov one of the most influential psychological scientists of the 20th century .

But that doesn’t mean the theory is flawless.

Classical conditioning overemphasizes that we learn and develops because of the environment, and pays less attention to complex aspects of ourselves as humans.

In addition, scientists also argue that this approach in analyzing behavior tends to be reductionist, meaning that our complex actions are then simplified into stimulus and response.

Even to explain human behavior, classical conditioning is also classified as reductionist. Called reductionist because behavior, which is a complex process, is broken down into simple stimulus-response.

Proponents of the reductionist approach say that this is scientific, because this reduced behavior allows it to be measured. But there are also those who argue that the reductionist view is less valid. Thus, although reductionism can be measured, it may lead to an incomplete explanation.

Why is it incomplete?

We come to the last drawback of Pavlov’s theory: it is deterministic.

This theory emphasizes that humans or other organisms behave in response to external stimuli, and counteract individual free will.

Two people with the same upbringing and social environment can still be two different people. A bad environment with high poverty can breed criminals, but also many athletes are born from this kind of situation. And behaviorists have difficulty explaining this kind of phenomenon.

The deterministic approach actually has the potential to guess and predict human behavior in response to something.

However, this deterministic approach underestimates the uniqueness of the human person and their ability to choose.

Yes, that was the explanation about classical conditioning theory, Pavlov’s learning theory. In the end, a single theory of learning is not enough to explain us and our souls. Next time we will discuss the second learning theory, namely operant conditioning.

I’ve actually discussed Bandura’s Social Learning theory , but this should be the last one. The order is messy, hahaha.

But for the time being I want to write something else, which is a bit lighter.



McLeod, S. A. (2018, Oct 08). Pavlov’s dogs. Simply psychology:

Feldman, R., 2019. Essentials Of Understanding Psychology. New York: McGraw-Hill Education.