top of page

Research - Behavioral Conditioning

Behavioral conditioning is a type of learning by which an organism can be trained to produce a predictable response as a result of reinforcement. Organisms from the primitive roundworm c. elegans to complex organisms such as humans can all learn stimulus-response associations. Conditioning results in either a given stimulus evoking a predictable response (“classical conditioning”), or a response occurring more regularly in a stable, well-defined environment (“operant conditioning”).

Pavlov and his dogs

Russian psychologist Ivan Pavlov accidentally discovered classical conditioning in the 1890s when he noticed that every time his dogs saw him, they would begin to salivate. Pavlov became fascinated by this phenomenon and started to study why his dogs salivated when they saw him. Pavlov was the first to demonstrate the natural response of dogs is that they salivate when they see food – nobody has taught dogs to do this, so it is not the result of conditioning. Pavlov referred to this response as “unconditioned”; dogs salivate when they see food because it is their hard-wired response. In behaviorist terms, food is an unconditioned stimulus that causes the unconditioned response of salivating.

Pavlov hypothesized that if he was able to get his dogs to associate any neutral stimulus, such as a specific sound, with food, the dogs would salivate when they were exposed to that stimulus. This made sense to Pavlov because his dogs had learned to associate him with food, and that is why they salivated when they saw him. Armed with this new knowledge, he started a new classical conditioning experiment. Every time Pavlov put out food for his dogs, he rang a bell at the same time. Before this training, ringing a bell would do nothing – it was a neutral stimulus – but after training, the dogs learned that the bell ringing meant food was out, and they would start salivating. This response was therefore a learned, or conditioned, stimulus. The dogs learned to associate a previously neutral stimulus – a bell ringing – with a conditioned response of salivating.

Pavlov discovered that for associations like this to be made, the two stimuli had to be presented together in time – otherwise, the associations would not be formed. Pavlov discovered what we now know as classical conditioning.


While Pavlov conducted his experiments in the late 1800s, behaviorism as a school of thought emerged later - at the beginning of the 20th century. In 1913, behaviorist psychologist John Watson wrote an article defining the goal of behaviorism as “the prediction and control of behavior.” Although his experiments would never be possible with today’s ethical standards, he began observing and performing experiments on infants in 1916. Watson expanded on Pavlov’s ideas of classical conditioning.

In a classic behavioral experiment conducted by Watson, a baby named Albert was given a small white rat, and the child was not afraid of the rat. However, Albert was afraid when the experimenters would make a loud clanging noise. Therefore, every time the experimenters gave Albert the rat, they also made the loud clanging noise. After a few weeks of this training, just presenting Albert with the rat was enough to make him cry and be terrified. In fact, Albert had not only become afraid of the rat, but any furry item – even a Santa Claus mask! – would cause Albert anxiety. While this experiment could never be conducted today because it is so unethical, Watson’s experiment demonstrated the complex stimulus-response learning that can occur as a result of behavioral conditioning.

Operant Conditioning

Edward Thorndike was first to discover “the law of effect”: the idea that actions that create a pleasant outcome are more likely to be repeated by an organism than actions that produce an unpleasant outcome. A few decades later, B.F. Skinner coined the term “operant conditioning” in 1937 to differentiate this type of conditioning from Pavlov’s classical conditioning. Operant conditioning refers to the shaping of behavior by the use of reinforcers and punishers. For example, if a pigeon learned that every time it went to a particular corner of its cage, it would get a food pellet, it would go to that corner of the cage whenever it was hungry to get food.

In the 1940s, Skinner studied operant conditioning by placing animals in a “Skinner box” which could deliver electrical shocks and sounds to animals. These stimuli could either serve as a reinforcer, in which case the behavior being tested would be repeated, or a punisher, in which case the animal would stop performing that behavior. Reinforcers can be positive or negative. If your parents gave you $5 to do your homework, this would be a positive reinforcer; if you had to pay your teacher $100 if you did not do your homework, this would be a negative reinforcer. You would be motivated to do your homework to avoid paying $100.

What would happen if we used behavioral conditioning to shape the behavior of people in society?

Using conditioning on the masses to advance a sociopolitical goal would be considered unethical by today’s standards. An example of the dangers of government-mandated behavioral conditioning is illustrated in the book Brave New World by Aldous Huxley. In Brave New World, the government oversees “Neo-Pavlovian Conditioning Rooms” in which nurses train babies of lower castes to associate flowers and books with mild electric shocks so that they will remain ignorant and oppressed. Such conditioning is thought to make the lower castes fully love and accept their low position in the society of Brave New World. Huxley illustrates that used to the extreme to control a group of people, behavioral conditioning could be very dangerous.

Behavioral Conditioning and the Future

Could a computer program be uploaded to our brains to “teach” us conditioning associations? Perhaps eventually with an advanced knowledge of the brain, but conditioning has to occur in a very specific environment for an association to form, so even then, such a task would be a major challenge. However, we can see many elements of conditioning in our everyday lives. Many behaviors that we call ‘habit’ may in fact be classical conditioning. For example, seeing a fast food sign and immediately feeling a craving for a specific item is due to conditioning.

Checking social media such as Facebook could also have an element of behavioral conditioning derived from the social rejection felt from missing out on cool news from one’s friends (a negative reinforcer).


Featured Posts
Check back soon
Once posts are published, you’ll see them here.
Recent Posts
Search By Tags
No tags yet.
Follow Us
  • Facebook Basic Square
  • Twitter Basic Square
  • Google+ Basic Square
bottom of page