Ivan Pavlov's Classical Conditioning Theory (Made Simple)

Classical Conditioning: Definition, Theory, Implications, and Examples

What is Classical Conditioning?

Classical conditioning is a learning theory that interprets learning as an associative process where learning is a new association or connection that is formed between a stimulus and a response. It is developed by Ivan Pavlov, a Russian psychologist.

The Key Focus Points

  • Developed by Ivan Pavlov
  • Experiment on Dog
  • Claims everything can be learned through training
  • Aims to make a neutral stimulus (bell) a conditioned stimulus
classical conditioning

An Overview

Conditioning is a process of learning associations, by linking two events that occur together, usually between stimulus and response or between two stimuli. For example, a flash of lightning signals thunder, and we start to wince when lights flash nearby.

Learning through associations is closely associated with the Russian Psychologist and Scientist, Ivan P. Pavlov (1849-1936) who developed the conditioning technique known as “Pavlovian Conditioning”. Thus, classical conditioning is also known as Pavlovian conditioning.

The term classical simply refers to the fact that Pavlov performed the classic laboratory studies of learning “in an established manner”. Classical conditioning refers to the condition in an established manner by Pavlov. Classical conditioning is also known as “Stimulus Substitution” which means that a new stimulus, previously a neutral one, is substituted for the stimulus which originally elicits the response. For example, in Pavlov’s research, the dog salivated by hearing the experimenter’s footsteps, the sight of the bowl, etc. It is also known as “respondent conditioning” because a previously neutral stimulus bell, light acquires the capacity to elicit a certain response. E.g. the bell produces the salivary response in Pavlovian conditioning.

While studying salivary secretion in dogs, Pavlov knew that when he put the food in the dog’s mouth the animal would spontaneously salivate. In the course of his research, he surgically brought the opening of the salivary gland to the outside of the dog’s skin so the secretion of saliva could be seen and measured. Pavlov and his research team noticed that when they work with the same dog, the dog began salivating to stimuli associated with food, such as the mere sight of the food, the food dish, the presence of the person who regularly brought the food, or even to the sound of that person’s approaching footsteps.

In his experiment, just before placing food in the dog’s mouth to produce salivation, Pavlov rang a bell (neutral stimulus) and after several occasions of ringing the bell before giving the food, which Pavlov termed as “reinforcement”, the dog began salivating when only the bell rang in anticipation of the meat powder. Using this procedure, Pavlov conditioned the dog to salivate to other stimuli, a buzzer, a tone, a light, a touch on the leg, and even the sight of the circle. Pavlov called the salivation of stimuli associated with food “Psychic Secretions”.

Basic Elements in Classical Conditioning

To understand better, how classical conditioning works, let us first understands, the key elements used by Pavlov in his research.

Unconditioned Stimulus (UCS or US)

The meat powder was the unconditioned stimulus (UCS or simply the US) in Pavlov’s experiment because it can elicit the natural and spontaneous response of salivation without any learning. The dog does not have to be trained to react to the unconditioned stimulus.

Unconditioned Response (UCR or UR)

Pavlov called the salivation in response to food in the dog’s mouth an unconditioned response (UCR). It is an automatic reaction that is an inborn, natural process. For example, touching a hot stove causes us to jerk our hands away, a puff of air causes our eyes to blink, a high temperature causes sweating, etc.

These UCRs are reflexes in which all organisms come equipped by nature with many built-in responses, which generally have survival value. Food in the dig’s mouth automatically and unconditionally triggered a dog’s salivary reflex. Thus Pavlov called the food stimulus an “Unconditioned Stimulus”, and salivation as a response to food an “Unconditioned Response”.

Neutral Stimulus (NS)

At the beginning of the conditioning process in the laboratory setting when responses were not established Pavlov called light, bell, etc. a “neutral stimulus”, because they did not initially cause the dog to secrete saliva.

Conditioned Stimulus (CS)

A neutral stimulus acquires the ability to elicit a salivation response after being paired with an unconditioned stimulus. When the dog associates the NS with the UCS (food) the NS is transferred into a conditioned stimulus (e.g. light, bell), that can elicit a response (salivation) similar to UCS.

Conditioned Response (CR)

Salivation in response to the CS (light, bell) is known as the conditioned response (CR). Thus, the previously neutral stimulus has now triggered the salivation, called the conditioned response (CR). When the CS elicits CR, the classical condition has been established.

Steps in Classical Conditioning

Classical conditioning aims to convert a neutral stimulus (bell) into a conditioned stimulus that will produce a conditioned response. To complete the classical conditioning process, it is needed to complete three steps.

classical conditioning process

Step #1 Before Conditioning

Before conditioning is the first step in the classical conditioning process. Where the unconditioned stimulus (food, say meat) produces an unconditioned response (salivation) in the dog’s mouth.


And, also in this stage, Pavlov used a bell, which is called a neutral stimulus as it does not affect the dog’s salivation activities. Or, when the bell rings the dog does not give any response.

Step #2 During Conditioning

In this stage, Pavlov combined the neutral stimulus (bell) with the food (that becomes a conditioned stimulus). Whenever Pavlov went to give food to the dog, he used to ring the bell, first and gave food to the dog.

It is where the dog is understanding ringing the bell is a sign for getting food.

Step #3 After Conditioning

In this stage, the neutral stimulus (bell) is termed a conditioned stimulus. And, whenever the bell rings the dog gives a conditioned response. It is where the dog understood ringing the bell is a sign of getting food, and whenever the Pavlov rings the bell, the dog came to him either he rings to give him food or just for fun, or nothing.

Here, the dog is trained, and the classical conditioning process is completed.

Also Read: B.F. Skinner’s Operant Conditioning Theory

Principles in Classical Conditioning

Pavlov revealed the five key principles in his classical conditioning theory of learning. Let’s understand how these principles work.


The acquisition is the training stage during which the animal is learning the stimulus-response relationship. For example, the association between the CS and the US is the acquisition stage of conditioning.

Pavlov and his associates had to confront the question of timing. How much time should elapse between presenting the neutral stimulus (light, bell, tone, touch, etc.) and unconditioned stimulus, and which one is to be presented first? They found that a very little time gap and presenting the neutral stimulus first is effective for a perfect conditioning experiment.

Several factors influence the acquisition of conditioned response, among them, being the order in which the CS and UCS are presented, the intensity of the UCS, the number of times the CS and UCS are paired, and the time relations between CS and US are the important agents in conditioning.


Extinction is the general term for the reduction and elimination of behaviors learned earlier in classical conditioning. Once CR has been acquired after conditioning, what happens if the CS (bell) occurs repeatedly without the UCS (food)? Pavlov found that when he sounded the bell again and again without presenting food, the dog salivated less and less. The number of drops of saliva produced gradually decreased each time. It is diminished responding that occurs when the CS (tone) is no longer the signal associated with the UCS (food).

In the acquisition or training phase, the CS and UCS are paired together and lead to the UCR. This pairing eventually leads to the production of the CR following CS. Repeated presentation of the CS alone leads to extinction.

Spontaneous Recovery

Spontaneous recovery is the reappearance of an extinguished CR after the passes of time. In spontaneous recovery, the learner seems to “forget” that extinction has occurred. In Pavlov’s study, only the CS (bell) has been presented to the dog several times during its extinction session. The CR (salivation) decreases until it appears that the dog is not salivating at all. Then, suppose that the day after the extinction of CR, the dog is brought back to the laboratory and the tone (CS) is presented with food (US), which causes the dog to begin salivating again. Pavlov called this phenomenon spontaneous recovery. The phenomenon of spontaneous recovery shows that extinction does not completely erase conditioning.

Spontaneous recovery is not limited to laboratory experiments as it occurs in real-life situations as well. Suppose, you went to a family picnic last winter and you lost your movie camera. Now, a full year later your family wants to organize a picnic again, and you are scared to take your new movie camera. Your fear of losing the camera has returned (i.e. spontaneous recovery). It warns you of possible loss again and to be cautious.

Stimulus Discrimination

Discrimination is the ability to distinguish between a conditioned stimulus and other stimuli that do not signal an unconditioned stimulus. In discrimination occurrences of responses only occur to a specific CS. For example, in Pavlov’s study, the dog learned to respond to a sound of only a particular bell, paired the specific tone with an unconditioned stimulus, or used another stimulus, such as light without the unconditioned stimulus. The dog showed responses only to the specific bell because that bell was conditioned with food. The dog did not respond to light, which highlights discrimination.

Discrimination serves as a survival skill in an organism’s life. For example, if an herbivorous organism does not easily distinguish between edible and unedible vegetation, the organism may eat poisonous plants and eventually dies.

Stimulus Generalization

Generalization is the tendency to respond to stimuli similar to the original conditioned stimulus. In Pavlov’s experiment even though the dogs were conditioned to salivate in response to a specific bell (CS), they also salivated when slight changes in the sound of the bell were made trough not quite so much, when other tones of the bell were presented, like the sound of a buzzer, or the beat of the metronome. In other words, there was an occurrence of responses (salivation) to stimuli that are similar to CS.


Example 1. Human Conditioning: Thinks of a food smell that makes you remember a pleasant memory, e.g. fresh, luscious orange pickle (Suntala Sadheko). Does your mouth water? The food you enjoy is a UCS. Salivation is the UCR that occurs when the food is in your mouth. The CS is the name of the food such as Suntala Sadheko, and CR is the salivation that occurs when you hear the name of your favorite food.

Example 2. Somebody puff’s on your eyes for the first time unknowingly and you blink, the second time when you that person, again you blink even it is not puffed.

Applications of Classical Conditioning

The classical conditioning ideas and principles are not limited to the laboratory but their importance is continuously growing in our lives. We can summarize the application of Pavlovian conditioning as follows.

Habit formation

In training animals, the principles of classical conditioning have been applied for a long time. This approach is mainly applicable in breaking bad habits and developing good habits in the students such as clean lines, respect for fathers, the habit of doing homework essential  (necessary) skill development of social life, etc. the principle of extinction can be useful in breaking bad habits of the students. Father, it has no less important to develop a favorable attitude towards learning, teaching, and school.


Verbal learning is another important implication of classical conditioning. The principle of classical conditioning is used to teach the alphabet and four fundamental principles of arithmetic by using concrete material. For example, counting thoughts with the people of sticks.

Fear and other conditioning

This principle can be used to recondition anxiety (angry) and emotional fear and maladjusted (unable to adjust) in children. The principle of extinction is appropriate to reduce the emotional fear suck and unwanted behavior of students.  Similarly avoiding negative attitudes and behavior of students toward the positive subject matter and creating dislike, hate fear, and anxiety towards the negative subject matter.

Sensitization (Sensitive)

It refers to the process of becoming sensitive to a stimulus. Further, it is an increased recitative to environmental events. Following exposure to an intense stimulus. This unwanted behavior is imagined together with its imaginary punishing consequences. For example, drinking alcohol has many consequences such as vomiting and serious physical and mental problems.

Criticism of Classical Conditioning Theory

  • It claims that everything can be learned, it does not give any importance to the nature of a person.
  • It is reductionist, it explains human behavior by breaking it into small parts, but, a disadvantage of this is that it can make it too simple.
  • It is deterministic, this is to say, it does not take into account free will. In spite of this, it uses the scientific method to prove its theory.

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