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Operant Conditioning Essay

4801 words - 20 pages

Classical Conditioning

Classical conditioning is a type of learning which can explain how we develop fears, phobias and other emotional reactions, and food aversions. Ian Pavlov (1849 – 1936) was the first to study it formally.
Pavlov was studying dogs digestive processes. Dogs automatically salivate when food arrives in their mouths, but after being in the experimental situation for a while, they would salivate in anticipation of the food arriving, as if they had learned to recognise the signs that the food was on its way. Pavlov took control of these signs and showed that dogs could be trained to salivate to bells, lights, and cardboard shapes instead of food. The classical ...view middle of the document...

Over a period of 50 days, little Albert received a total of seven conditioning trials, at the end of which he had learned to fear something which previously he had been interested in. The procedure looked like this.

Unconditioned reflex UCS -------------------⋄ UCR
Loud noise startle

Conditioning trials CS + UCS -------------------⋄ UCR
Rat + loud noise startle

Conditioned Reflex CS ------------------------⋄ CR
Rat startle

Watson and Rayner thought that this process could explain the origin of many emotional reactions to stimuli. Phobias could thus arise from accidental pairing of a previously neutral CS with a UCS. Other emotional reactions could arise this way too. Seligman (1970), described the conditioning of taste aversion in himself to sauce Béarnaise. He had contracted stomach flu, a UCS, which was naturally going to make him vomit (UCR), but before it had begun to make him feel ill he’d eaten out and had sauce Béarnaise (CS). After his illness Seligman found that the smell of sauce Béarnaise made him feel ill (CR), even though it had noting to do with his sickness.

Other Features of Classical Conditioning

One Trial Learning

Sometimes we only need to experience one pairing of the CS to a UCS to develop a conditioned reflex. Seligman’s food aversion is an example of this.
It appears that we are biologically prepared to learn some associations more readily than others.


Once a conditioned reflex has been established, the CR can be brought about by any CS, which resembles the original one. Little Albert’s fear was transferred to a rabbit, a dog, a cat, and a fur coat. This is called stimulus generalisation.


Animals and people can learn to tell the difference (discriminate) between CS’s if the UCS is paired only with a specific CS and not with others which resemble it. E.g. Pavlov’s dogs could be trained to salivate to a bell with a particular note because it signalled food, and not a higher or lower tone
Which were never associated with food.


Once a conditioned reflex has been established, animals and people can learn not to respond to a CS if it is presented repeatedly without the UCS. E.g. the bell without the food, or the rat without the loud noise. The CR apparently disappears or is extinguished

Spontaneous Recovery

This refers to the fact that even after extinction, a CR may suddenly reappear to a CS for no apparent reason e.g. a dog may salivate to a bell again even though the response has been extinguished. The CR will then extinguish again.

Operant Conditioning

Operant conditioning is used to describe how we build up, sometimes very complicated, behaviour patterns over time. For example, it can explain how we learn skills like piano playing, ice-skating or driving and how we learn a language. It can explain how animals learn tricks, how they learn their way round mazes and how we learn superstitions and...

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