Pavlov’s dog has always been used as the prime example of classical conditioning – which some even call Pavlovian conditioning – but what exactly is it? Simply put, classical conditioning is the act of associating a biological stimulus with a neutral one to elicit a physical response. In the case of Pavlov, he used a bell (neutral stimulus) to indicate the arrival of food (biological stimulus), which after multiple repetitions led his dogs to salivate (physical response).
This experimentation led Pavlov to infer that certain cues, could provoke certain stimulations. Pavlov continued to experiment with different variables and stimuli surrounding classical conditioning, testing just how far he could go. Conditioning has been used in many forums, not just to alter behaviour or to research the intricacies systematic stimulus can have on someone.
Since then, classical conditioning has been linked to behaviour therapy, where we can use stimuli to help treat abnormal behaviour. A lot of research time has been spent studying learnt behaviour or how environmental factors can affect how we react to certain situations. Theoretically, all learnt behaviour can be unlearnt or adapted to change the physical response, this is the basis of behaviour therapy.
One of the key feature of this type of therapy is the notion that environmental factors and different circumstances can be explored and manipulated to change a person’s behaviour – essentially the basis of Pavlov’s experimentation with his dogs. Behaviour therapy as it stands can help people get over phobias (such as arachnophobia), curb unhealthy habits (smoking) or other types of anomalous behaviours.
A common example used by proponents of behavioural therapy is the case of Hans, a person deadly afraid of horses after experiencing several traumas involving horses as he grew up. Using a technique called systematic desensitization, Hans was able to overcome his fear of horses. This type of conditioning involves the subject being exposed to their fear repeatedly in different situations until they no longer feel the usual negative emotion associated to it.
Classical conditioning has even been used to analyse more abstract concepts such as modelling, where social learning done whilst growing up repeats itself in adulthood — fighting, alcoholism… etc. Overall, Pavlov’s discovery of classical conditioning has helped improve our understanding of certain behaviours and the stimulus that triggers them. From another perspective, it also helps explain how certain traumas or experiences in early childhood can have an unexpected effect in later life.