Classical Conditioning is Power

Classical Conditioning is Power

This is my friend Sutton, who volunteered for a harmless experiment in classical conditioning.

Classical Conditioning is Power

Let's start by poking him in the eye.

Sutton Being Poked in The Eye with a Pencil

He didn't like that. Look at the way his eye is now twitching and red.

Sutton is Upset

It's not surprising that Sutton is now upset. Prodding his vitreous humour caused him great pain—and primal responses like pain and hunger are excellent fodder for classical conditioning.

Let's poke Sutton in the eye again.

Sutton Now Has a Pencil Stabbed in His Eye

He still doesn't like it. Look at his silly little face. He's getting quite angry, isn't he?

Pink Eye

In the context of classical conditioning, this gratuitous eye poking is an unconditioned stimulus (UCS). Sutton flinching in response to the sharp pain is known as an unconditioned response (UCR).

Ok, enough messing around. Now let's begin the experiment.

How to Classically Condition Your Volunteer

We start by introducing a neutral stimulus (NS) to pair with the eye gouging.

This should be an everyday stimulus (a sight, smell or sound, for example) which currently doesn't cause them to react.

Ah—an air horn! Great suggestion*.

*Not that great. An air horn is very over the top to be considered neutral, in fact. But let's pretend Sutton is totally unphased by air horns. Besides, air horns are inherently funny.

Unconditioned Stimulus and Unconditioned Response

What's his reaction when we sound the air horn at Sutton?

Classical Conditioning at Work

He's annoyed, granted, but he isn't startled or scared of the sound. But we can soon fix that.

When we sound the horn and simultaneously poke Sutton in the eye, the psychological effect of classical conditioning begins.

The Acquisition Phase

We start to pair the neutral stimulus (our innocent air horn) with the unconditioned response (flinching, anxiety, and fear of a pencil attack).

Classical Conditioning: Pairing Stimuli

This is the acquisition phase of classical conditioning.

After several repetitions of the above, not only does Sutton become irate, but he begins to associate the sound of an air horn with being roughly gouged in the eye.

Sutton is learning.

Classical Conditioning Cartoon

After a short period of association, the air horn has become a conditioned stimulus (CS) and Sutton's flinching has become a conditioned response (CR).

This happens even when we no longer use the pencil.

Conditioned Stimulus and Conditioned Response

The Generalisation Effect

Wonderful! Sutton continues to flinch and despair at the sound of the air horn, making him look quite silly to a casual onlooker.

What's more, generalisation means that any type of air horn (even the mere sight of one) can now trigger anxiety in Sutton.

We've classically conditioned our helpful volunteer.

Just an Air Horn

The Extinction Effect

There is just one weakness to classical conditioning.

Over time, Sutton will begin to learn that an air horn doesn't actually cause him stabbing pains in the eye. This is known as extinction.

Luckily, we can fix that with more good science. The conditioning can be rapidly reinforced with the conditioned stimulus, followed by a single, solid eye poke when he least expects it.

For Science!

That is the power of classical conditioning. Try it today on a friend near you. For science!

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Becky Casale Author Bio

Becky Casale is the founder, keyboard smasher, and drinks lady at Science Me. If you like her content, please take a hot second to share it with your favourite people. If you don't like it, why not punish your enemies by sharing it with them?