Classical Conditioning

In the study of learning, the theory of classical conditioning was groundbreaking and set the foundation for much research that followed after.  Developed by Ivan Pavlov, classical conditioning is also known as Respondent Conditioning or Pavlovian Conditioning.  The most basic concept of this theory is the ideas that we learn when items are associated, paired or connected to something else.  Classical conditioning focuses specifically on responses that are automatic (or involuntary) but can be trained (or conditioned) by the way stimuli are presented. The topic of Cognitive-Affective Bases of Behavior is weighted at 13%, so you should know this topic fairly well. The information is best used in collaboration with your own knowledge and what you have already been taught, your previous notes or textbooks, and research if you need more information on a particular topic.  Or you could check out the product reviews page.

The Basics of Classical Conditioning

The initial experiment with Pavlov involved him feeding his dogs.  He would ring a bell to let them know the food was coming, and after a long enough pairing he noticed the dogs would start to salivate for the food after hearing the bell but before even being presented with the food.  This experiment will help you remember the key terms in classical conditioning.  The Unconditioned Stimulus (US) is typically biologically potent (like food) and produces an automatic reflex or response (such as salivating) called the Unconditioned Response (UR). In an experimental setting a neutral stimulus (such as a bell) can be associated with the US if it is paired correctly, which turns this previously neutral stimulus into the Conditioned Stimulus (CS).  After repeated pairing the CS is now capable of provoking the same response as the US (salivating after the bell but without the food), and this response is known as the Conditioned Response (CR).  So to break it down: US=Food, UR=Salivating, CS=Bell, CR=salivating without food.  If you find this confusing, just remember conditioning is just another word for learning (Unlearned stimulus, unlearned response, learned stimulus, learned response).

The Variations of Classical Conditioning

It is really important that you understand the basic concepts and terminology of classical conditioning, because the next section build on that.  There are very slight differences in the way classical conditioning can be done, and a lot of terminology to remember.


Forward Conditioning

This is the most common and fastest way of learning, and is the same as the initial experiment with Pavlov’s dogs.  The CS precedes the US in training.  So Bell>>>>Food>>>>Salivating.  There are 2 ways this occurs

Delay Conditioning: The timing of how close the CS and US occur is closely monitored, there is a very short interval (as low as half a second) between when the CS is presented and the US occurs, and they are actually overlapping.  So the bell is NOT done ringing and the food is already presented.

Trace Conditioning: The timing differs slightly, the CS and US do not overlap at all.  There is still a short amount of time in between, but the CS and US are obviously occurring at different times.  For example, as soon as the bell finished ringing the food would be presented, but not a moment sooner to be careful they do not overlap.

Simultaneous Conditioning

This differs from Forward condition as the US and CS are presented at the exact same time.  So the bell and presentation of the food occur simultaneously.  In this example learning is not as effective and does not often take place (no contingency).  So the CS is actually a neutral stimuli if it does not produce a UR.

Temporal Conditioning

In this experiment there is no bell. The US is presented in a consistent interval that is repeated over and over.  Eventually the interval and time itself becomes the CS.  So for example, Pavlov feeds his dogs once a day everyday at noon exactly.  After consistent enough pairings the dogs will start to salivate (CR) at noon (time is the CS) even without the presentation of food (US).  The individuals own biological clock becomes the CR.

Backward Conditioning

This has been studied, but has been shown to not be effective so there is no CS rather just a neutral stimuli (NS).  The NS (bell) follows the US (food), but the NS (bell) alone will not produce a CR (salivation).  In some experimental settings the NS cans be learned or conditioned to inhibit the response and to indicate that experiment is done.

Second Order Conditioning

Also know as “higher order conditioning.”  This involves multiple neutral stimulus being conditioned, for this example we will use a bell, a light, and a musical tone.  The first CS1 (bell) is paired with the US (food) until a CR (salivation) occurs.  The the second CS2 (light) is then paired with the CS1 (Bell) until the CS2(light) can elicit the CR (salivation).  And finally the third CS3 (tone) is paired with the CS2 (light) and CS1 (bell) until the CS3 (tone) can elicit the CR (salivation).  Three levels is as high as you can go, and each level away from the original CS1(bell) has a less potent effect.

Zero Contingency

If the US (food) is presented sometimes with the CS(bell) and other times without, then conditioning or learning will fail and not produce the CR(salivation).

John B. Watson

Watson established the psychological school of behaviorism and is most known for his unethical “Little Albert experiment.”  Watson presented a 9 month old baby (Albert-not his real name) with a white rat (NS) and noted that Alberta was not afraid of the rat.  Second Watson presented Albert with the white rat and paired the presentation by clanging a loud iron rod (US) which produced fear and crying (UR) in Albert.  By the time little Albert was 11 months old and over multiple pairings the white rat (CS) would make Albert cry (CR) even without clanging the iron rod.

Additional Classical Conditioning Concepts

In addition to studying how to best produce a learned response, studies were also conducted on what happens to that response once learned.


While a single CS (loud clanging) US (white rat) pairing may be enough to produce a CR (crying), evidence shows that repeated pairings gradually increases the strength of the CR (crying), although it can be dependent on a number of factors such as the subjects motivation and the nature of the US.


If a CR (crying) has already been established through multiple pairings of the US (loud clanging) and CS (white rat), it may be possible to generalize the CR (crying) to other similar presented stimulus.  This happens organically and not through deliberate experimentation or pairings.  For example, in the Little Albert experiment a CR (crying) occurred when he was presented with a white rabbit, a fur coat, or a white bearded Santa Claus mask.


Basically the opposite of generalization.  While the subject may associate the CS (white rat) with some NS such as a white rabbit and produce the CR (crying), the subject can also discriminate from other NS such as a teddy bear and not produce the CR (crying).  In the Pavlov experiment the dogs may display the CR (salivation) to one tone of bell but not to others.


When the CS (white rate) is repeated presented without the US (loud clanging), eventually the CR (crying) will no longer be elicited and the response is considered extinct or extinguished.  This can also be used to purposefully undo unwanted responses that have previously been learned, especially if the learning was not purposeful.  As far as we know from documentation Watson never did this in the Little Albert experiment.



After extinction occurs there are several ways that the CS (white rat) may be able to elicit the CR(crying) again, but note that because extinction was not tested in the little Albert experiment these examples never actually happened, but rather illustrate what could have happened (and thankfully none of these tests were actually conducted on little Albert).

Reacquisition: The CS (white rat) is paired with the US (loud clanging) again and produce the CR (crying), but in this version the contingency often happens much quicker.

Reinstatement: If the subject (little Albert) is taken back to the same testing location and presented with the US (loud clanging) but no CS (white rat) an UR (crying) will occur.  Afterwards at a different time if the subject is presented with the CS (white rat) again it will often elicit the CR (crying) again.

Renewal: After extinction, if the subject (little Albert) is returned to the environment where he was previously conditioned (Watson’s lab) and presented with the CS (white rat) without the US (loud clanging) there may be a reemergence of the CR (crying).

Disinhibition: During the extinction process, or immediately after extinction has occurred, there may be a temporary association between the CS (white rat) and the CR (crying).

Spontaneous Recovery: After extinction there is a rest period where the CS (white rat) is not presented at all.  But experiments show that even without additional pairings of the CS (white rat) and US (loud clanging), the CS (white rat) can spontaneously produce the CR (crying).  This renewed contingency is typically a much weaker CR (crying) and extinction can also be achieved quicker.


The subject becomes so used to the US (loud clanging) that it no longer produces the UR (crying) and is therefore no longer an effective tool for creating an association.  This is not possible with all Unconditioned Stimuli.

Latent Inhibition

When a subject is presented with a novel CS (white rat) that the subject has no prior experience, with it will be quicker to pair with the US (loud clanging) than if the subject is presented with a familiar CS (like the family dog).


This occurs when second order conditioning is being tested with more than one CS.  In the first phase a CS (white rat) is paired with the US (loud clanging) and elicits a CR (crying).  In the second phase a CS2 (song) as well as a CS1 (white rat) are presented with the US (loud clanging) and elicits the CR(crying).  The results show that when presented alone there is no contingency or association between the CS2 (song) and the CR (crying), but there is between the CS1 (white rat) and CR (crying).  The initial association blocks the learning of a second association.



This occurs outside of the experiment and purely by accident, and when a NS (such as the presence of Watson) comes to elicit a CR (crying) without purposed fully or intentionally being paired with either the US (loud clanging) or the CS (white rat).  Extinction can be used to undo these unintentional associations.

You may find the information on this site is not enough to help you feel confident about your ability to pass the exam, That is OK and only you can be the judge of what you need. If this information seems overwhelming to you it does NOT mean you will fail the exam, but you may require a little more in depth material than is offered here. That is why there is a Product Reviews page which will give you a variety of additional options, as well as practice exam questions which I highly recommend as explained on the Study Tips page.

***The terms for Classical Conditioning can get a little overwhelming and confusing. If you are struggling to understand something or need clarification please ask any questions in the comments below. It would also be great if you could share any tips or tricks you use to keep everything straight or to help you understand, or any practice exam questions you have come across specific to Classical Conditioning. 

2 thoughts on “Classical Conditioning

  1. It’s amazing to think that or minds can be warped through such a gradual process.
    Will the result be affected if the subject is self-aware and knows that they are being conditioned in one way or another? I mean, will that knowledge inhibit the message from getting through if they’re expecting it to come?
    It could simply encourage resistance.

    1. It so true, and to also think that this type of learning happens all the time unintentionally. Yes knowing about the conditioning will reduce or at times eliminate its effectiveness, this is generally a unconscious association. Yet if you drink coffee every morning (US) to help you wake up (UR), as soon as you start to smell the coffee (CS) in the morning you start to feel more alert (CR). You are most likely aware of this association, but it is still effective.

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