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Uncovering Psychology Units 3&4. Conditioning. Conditioning. Conditioning is a type of learning that focuses on the association between a stimulus and response. The two main types are classical conditioning and operant conditioning. Classical conditioning.

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Uncovering Psychology Units 3&4

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Uncovering PsychologyUnits 3&4



  • Conditioning is a type of learning that focuses on the association between a stimulus and response.

  • The two main types are classical conditioning and operant conditioning.

Classical conditioning

  • Classical conditioning is a form of learning described by Ivan Pavlov, in which a neutral stimulus is paired with a stimulus that produces a reflexive, involuntary response until the new stimulus alone produces that response.

  • Pavlov did this by ringing a bell near a dog, then presenting some food, which caused the dog to salivate at the food. After many parings of the bell and food, the dog would salivate at the bell alone.

The ‘Little Albert’ experiment

  • Watson & Rayner’s (1920) experiment on ‘Little Albert’ demonstrated that classical conditioning principles could be applied to condition the emotional response of fear.

  • They did this by presenting ‘Little Albert’ with a white rat, and then banging two steel bars together behind ‘Little Albert’ to produce a loud and frightening noise. After several pairings, ‘Little Albert’ demonstrated the fear response to the white rat alone.

  • If the ‘Little Albert’ study was conducted today, it would breach numerous ethical principles. Can you name them?

One trial learning and taste aversion

  • Garcia & Koelling’s (1966) experiment on taste aversion demonstrated that the principles of classical conditioning could be applied to condition an avoidance of a smell or taste if it had previously been paired with nausea.

  • Do you have any foods or drinks that you no longer consume following an experience when you were ill? What was the real reason for your illness?

  • A key distinction between classical conditioning and taste aversion is that taste aversion only requires one trial to be learned, whereas classical conditioning requires many pairings.

Thorndike’s puzzle box

  • In his studies on a different type of conditioning, Edward Thorndike placed a hungry cat inside a puzzle box and placed some fish outside the door. After some time, and a range of unsuccessful behaviours, the cat accidentally pulled the cord that released the door, allowing it to escape and eat the food. Each time the cat was placed in the box, it gradually got quicker at escaping.

  • Thus, Thorndike proposed the law of effect, which states that a behaviour followed by satisfying or pleasant consequences becomes strengthened over time, whereas behaviour that is followed by annoying or unpleasant consequences becomes weakened over time.

Skinner’s operant conditioning

  • Operant conditioning is a form of learning, described by BF Skinner, in which the behaviours of the learner are strengthened or weakened in accordance with their consequences, as that learner operates in their environment. Behaviours followed by a pleasant stimulus (reinforcement) are strengthened, while behaviours followed by an aversive stimulus (punishment) are weakened.

  • Skinner tested this by placing rats in an operant chamber and rewarded them with a pellet of food when they pressed a lever. Since the lever-pressing was followed by a pleasant consequence, the rate and amount of lever pressing increased over time.

Comparing classical and operant conditioning

  • Classical and operant conditioning differ on many key characteristics:

    • In classical conditioning the learner is passive. In operant conditioning the learner is active.

    • In classical conditioning, the stimulus is presented first and is followed by a reflexive response. In operant conditioning, a voluntary response occurs first and is followed by a stimulus that acts as a consequence for the behaviour.

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