Learning: Classical Conditioning

Classical conditioning is just one way in which children learn.  For some of you the two words “classical condition” may ring a bell. (Pun intended!) In classical conditioning a person or animal learns to respond in a certain way to a neutral stimulus (e.g., a bell, a flash or a light, etc) that on its own wouldn’t cause that response.  The most well-known example of classical conditioning is Pavlov’s dogs.  In the early 1900’s, Pavlov trained his dogs to salivate at the sound of a bell.  Meaning, he taught his dogs to respond (salivate) to a neutral stimulus (bell) which doesn’t on its own cause the responses (meaning a bell by itself doesn’t automatically cause a dog to get hungry and salivate.)  So, the take home message is that after repeated experiences, the dog LEARNED that when the bell rang food would be coming and the dog began to salivate (even if food never arrived).

The interesting thing with classical conditioning is it works with more than just dogs- it works with people too!  A very popular psychology example of classical conditioning with young children is the “Little Albert” example.  Little Albert was an 11-month-0ld boy who loved all furry animals (including rats).  Little Albert participated in a research study in which every time he played with a furry rat (it was harmless) a loud noise was made in the laboratory which startled him.  Soon, even when the noise did not go off, he was afraid to play with the furry rat.  His fear extended to other furry animals including rabbits!  In this example, Little Albert was conditioned to fear furry rats.

***Note that this type of research is no longer conducted in this manner as it is considered unethical and would not pass the stringent Institutional Review Board procedures for conducting research***

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4 Comments

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4 responses to “Learning: Classical Conditioning

  1. So, I just wrote a post about classical conditioning approaches to feeding therapy http://tiny.cc/ji28n. What is your take on how long the effects of conditioning might last? Also, is it a reasonable approach if the desired response (in this case, eating) is uncomfortable or feared by the child?

    To me, potty training is something that is inherently rewarding every time it is successful for the child (i.e. staying dry and comfortable). Eating for most people is inherently rewarding as well (i.e. tastes good, socializing with friends/family). But, for children with GI discomfort or sensory processing deficits, feeding does not feel “good” in many ways. Can classical conditioning work in those circumstances?

    • Thank you for the great comment/question! Classical Conditioning is funny and for this post I tried to keep it as simple as possible, but in reality it is a bit more complicated than I described. In terms of using it for something that is uncomfortable or feared by the child- it definitely can work and is often used to help children and adults deal and cope with fears (see here). Potty training is not a perfect example of classical conditioning because there are other factors that do impact potty training besides just an M&M’s and the M&M’s are also acting as a reward/reinforcer for the behavior which is another mechanism for learning. But technically according to the definitions of classical conditioning the potty training M&M example does fit. :-) Let me know if you want me to send you some additional information about using classical conditioning for other situations!

  2. Pingback: My own little Pavlov

  3. Olivia

    I was interested in conditioning ideas for my 18 month old. He is starting to act aggressive and has horrible tantrums. Im presently taking psychology, and an extra credit assinment has me stumped-any ideas on how to condition my sons behaviour?
    Assignment
    Design and implement a study using learning. You may utilize classical or operant conditioning to shape a behavior in a person or animal. Explain IN DETAIL the project you intend to do, how it utilizes classical or operant style, and the specific steps you followed for the acquisition to occur as well as the type of schedule you used during conditioning (ie. fixed ratio, variable interval, etc). Following conditioning, discuss whether or not extinction occurred and why or why not. As well as if spontaneous recovery occurred.

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