What Is a Conditioned Response?

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A conditioned response is a learned response to a stimulus that was previously neutral. Conditioned responses are an important part of classical conditioning, a learning theory discovered by Ivan Pavlov.

Key Takeaways: Conditioned Response

  • A conditioned response is a learned response to a previously neutral stimulus.
  • The concept of conditioned response has its origins in classical conditioning, which was discovered by Ivan Pavlov.
  • By giving dogs food seconds after turning on a light, Pavlov found that the dogs could develop a conditioned response (salivation) to a previously neutral stimulus (the light). After a few repetitions of the light-food process, the dogs began to salivate in response to the light without any food being provided.

Origins

The concept of a conditioned response has its origins in classical conditioning. Ivan Pavlov discovered classical conditioning while studying the salivation responses of dogs. Pavlov noticed that while dogs would naturally salivate when food was in their mouths, they salivated at the sight of food. Some dogs would even salivate when they heard the footsteps of the person who gave them food coming down the hall. This observation suggested to Pavlov that natural salivation response had become generalized to a stimulus that was originally neutral.

Pavlov conducted experiments to determine if he could condition a response to other neutral stimuli. In a typical experiment with a dog, Pavlov would turn on a light, then give the dog food a few seconds later. After these repeated "pairings" of light and food, the dog would eventually salivate in response to the light being turned on, even without the presence of food.

Pavlov labeled each stimulus and response involved in the process of classical conditioning. In the scenario above, the food is an unconditioned stimulus, because the dog didn’t need to learn to salivate in response to it. The light is initially a neutral stimulus, because at first the dog does not associate a response with it. By the end of the experiment, the light becomes a conditioned stimulus because the dog has learned to associate it with food. Salivation in response to the food is an unconditioned response because it happens automatically. Finally, salivation in response to the light is a conditioned response because it is a reflex that is learned.

Examples

Examples of conditioned responses are prevalent in everyday life. Many fears and phobias are the result of conditioned responses. For instance, if an individual is pushed into a pool before they know how to swim and flails around helplessly before being pulled out of the water, they may become fearful of physically entering any body of water. The fear of water is a conditioned response.

Here are a few more examples of conditioned responses.

  • If a mother's young children always hear the garage door opening before she enters the house after coming home from work, they will learn to associate the sound of the garage opening with her return. As a result, the children will become excited when they hear the garage door before they’ve even seen their mother. The association of the garage door with her closely followed entrance into the house has conditioned the children’s excited response.
  • If every time you go to the dentist your teeth are cleaned so thoroughly that your gums are raw and uncomfortable for the rest of the day, you may become conditioned to dread visiting the dentist's office.
  • People learn to associate a siren with a nearby emergency vehicle. When one learns to drive they also learn that they have to pull over to let emergency vehicles pass. So, if a driver pulls over as soon as they hear the sound of an emergency vehicle, their response is conditioned.

While many phobias and fears are themselves conditioned responses, conditioned responses can also be used to overcome fears and phobias. Classical conditioning can be used to slowly and systematically desensitize an individual to the thing that is causing their fear until that fear has been minimized or extinguished completely. For instance, if an individual is afraid of heights, they would stand at a small elevation while practicing relaxation techniques. After they are calm and confident at the lower level, they’ll stand at a higher elevation. The process is repeated until the individual learns to overcome their fear of heights.

Unlearning Conditioned Responses

It can be a challenge to determine if a response is conditioned or unconditioned. The key to understanding the difference is that an unconditioned response happens automatically. Meanwhile, a conditioned response is learned and is only acquired if the individual has made an association between an unconditioned and conditioned stimulus.

However, because a conditioned response must be learned, it can also be unlearned. Pavlov tested this after the dogs had developed conditioned responses to the light. He found that if he repeatedly shined the conditioned-stimulus light but refrained from giving the dog the food, the dog would salivate less and less until it stopped salivating completely. The gradual diminishing and eventual disappearance of the conditioned response is called extinction.

Extinction can happen to real-life conditioned responses, too. For example, if you see a new dentist who doesn’t make your gums raw when you have an appointment and compliments you on your healthy mouth, over time you may find you no longer dread the dentist's office.

Sources

  • Cherry, Kendra. “Conditioned Response in Classical Conditioning.” Verywell Mind, 10 March 2019. https://www.verywellmind.com/what-is-a-conditioned-response-2794974
  • Crain, William. Theories of Development: Concepts and Applications. 5th ed., Pearson Prentice Hall. 2005.
  • Beaumont, Leland R. “Conditioned Responses.” Emotional Competency, 2009. http://www.emotionalcompetency.com/conditioned.htm