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Conditioning

Conditioning

A broad term to describe techniques used by psychologists to study the process of learning.

Psychology has often been defined as the study of behavior. As such, psychologists have developed a diverse array of methods for studying both human and animal activity. Two of the most commonly used techniques are classical conditioning and operant conditioning . They have been used to study the process of learning, one of the key areas of interest to psychologists in the early days of psychology. Psychologists also attach considerable significance to conditioning because it has been effective in changing human and animal behavior in predictable and desirable ways.

The Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov developed the principles of classical conditioning. In his Nobel Prize-winning research on the digestive processes, he placed meat powder in the mouths of his research animals and recorded their levels of salivation. At one point,

he noticed that some of his research animals began to salivate in the absence of food. He reasoned that the presence of the animal caretakers led the animals to anticipate the meat powder, so they began to salivate even without the food.

When classical conditioning occurs, an animal or person initially responds to a naturally occurring stimulus with a natural response (e.g., the food leads to salivation). Then the food is systematically paired with a previously neutral stimulus (e.g., a bell), one that does not lead to any particular response. With repeated pairings, the natural response occurs when the neutral stimulus appears.

Pavlovian (i.e., classical) conditioning influenced psychologists greatly, even though Pavlov himself was skeptical of the work psychologists performed. In the United States, John Watson , the first widely known behaviorist, used the principles of classical conditioning in his research. For example, in a widely cited study, Watson tried to develop a classically conditioned phobia in an infant.

Although classical conditioning became the dominant Russian model for the study of behaviorism , another form of conditioning took hold in the United States. This version, which became known as operant or instrumental conditioning, initially developed from the ideas of the psychologist Edward Thorndike . Thorndike began his psychological research by studying learning in chickens, then in cats. Based on the problem solving of these animals, he developed the Law of Effect , which in simple form states that a behavior that has a positive outcome is likely to be repeated. Similarly, his Law of Exercise states that the more a response occurs in a given situation, the more strongly it is linked with that situation, and the more likely it is to be repeated in the future.

Operant conditioning was popularized by the psychologist B.F. Skinner . His research and writings influenced not only psychologists but also the general public. Operant conditioning differs from classical conditioning in that, whereas classical conditioning relies on an organism's response to some stimulus in the environment , operant conditioning relies on the organism's initiating an action that is followed by some consequence.

For example, when a hungry person puts money into a vending machine, he or she is rewarded with some product. In psychologists' terms, the behavior is reinforced; in everyday language, the person is satisfied with the outcome. As a result, the next time the person is hungry, he or she is likely to repeat the behavior of putting money into the machine. On the other hand, if the machine malfunctions and the person gets no food, that individual is less likely to repeat the behavior in the future. This refers to punishment .

Any time a behavior leads to a positive outcome that is likely to be repeated, psychologists say that behavior has been reinforced. When the behavior leads to a negative outcome, psychologists refer to it as punishment. Two types of reinforcement and punishment have been described: positive and negative.

Positive reinforcement is generally regarded as synonymous with reward: when a behavior appears, something positive results. This leads to a greater likelihood that the behavior will recur. Negative reinforcement involves the termination of an unpleasant situation. Thus, if a person has a headache, taking some kind of pain reliever leads to a satisfying outcome. In the future, when the person has a headache, he or she is likely to take that pain reliever again. In positive and negative reinforcement, some behavior is likely to recur either because something positive results or something unpleasant stops.

Just as reinforcement comes in two versions, punishment takes two forms. Psychologists have identified positive punishment as the presentation of an unpleasant result when an undesired behavior occurs. On the other hand, when something positive is removed, this is called negative punishment. In both forms of punishment, an undesired behavior results in a negative consequence. As a result, the undesired behavior is less likely to recur in the future.

Many people mistakenly equate negative reinforcement with punishment because the word "negative" conjures up the idea of punishment. In reality, a situation involving negative reinforcement involves the removal of a negative stimulus, leading to a more satisfying situation. A situation involving punishment always leads to an unwanted outcome.

Beginning with Watson and Skinner, psychology in the United States adopted a behavioral framework in which researchers began to study people and animals through conditioning. From the 1920s through the 1960s, many psychologists performed conditioning experiments with animals with the idea that what was true for animals would also be true for humans. Psychologists assumed that the principles of conditioning were universal. Although many of the principles of learning and conditioning developed in animal research pertain to human learning and conditioning, psychologists now realize that each species has its own behavioral characteristics. Consequently, although the principles of conditioning may generalize from animals to humans, researchers must consider the differences across species as well.

See also Aversive conditioning; Classical conditioning; Operant conditioning

Further Reading

Mackintosh, N. J. Conditioning and Associative Learning. New York: Oxford University Press, 1983.

Walker, James T. The Psychology of Learning. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1996.

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conditioning

conditioning My heart races and my palms sweat during my first attempt to drive again after a traumatic road accident. Alternatively, having discovered that a new joke goes down well at work, I find myself retelling it ad nauseam. These two scenarios are examples of different forms of conditioning. The first is an example of classical conditioning, and involves learning about the predictive relationship between stimuli. As a result of the car accident, the interior of a car, let alone the touch of steering wheel, has become a signal for a traumatic event and thereby elicits a fear reaction through the activation of my autonomic nervous system. By contrast, my new found humour is an example of ‘instrumental’ or ‘operant’ conditioning. In this case, I have learned about the causal relationship between an action, the telling of the joke, and the apparent attention and interest that it elicits in my friends and colleagues, which only serves to reward this tedious behaviour.

Classical conditioning is often referred to as ‘Pavlovian’ because this form of learning was discovered by the renowned Russian physiologist, Pavlov, in his experiments on the neural control of digestion at the end of the nineteenth century. As is well known, Pavlov signalled the presentation of food to his hungry dogs by turning on a stimulus, such a bell, some seconds before the delivery of each meal. Although the bell initially produced little more than orientation towards its source, after a number of pairings with the food this stimulus began to elicit novel behaviour. As soon as the signal came on, the dogs approached the location of the food and started salivating copiously. The occurrence of the responses depended, or were conditional, upon experience of the predictive relationship between the signal and the food, and thus came to be known as ‘conditioned’. Correspondingly, the signal is called a conditioned stimulus, because its property also depends upon learning about the predictive relationship. By contrast, the food is an unconditioned stimulus, because the salivation that it elicits, the unconditioned response, does not depend upon the learning experience. Pavlov also referred to the food as a reinforcer, as it is the event responsible for strengthening the conditioned response. Although it was originally thought that simple pairings of a conditioned stimulus and a reinforcer are sufficient for conditioning, we now know that only signals that are informative about the occurrence of the reinforcer become conditioned. Moreover, conditioning is not always a simple, automatic and non-conscious process and, in certain cases, only occurs in humans when they are already aware of the relationship between signal and reinforcer.

The salivation elicited by the signals for food is an appetitive conditioned response because the reinforcer, the food, is attractive. By contrast, my hypothetical fear response to the car is an example of aversive or defensive conditioning, because the reinforcer in this case, the accident, is noxious and distressing. Pavlovian conditioning affects a gamut of response and behaviour systems, from the sexual evaluation of members of the opposite sex to food preference and aversions. Moreover, this form of conditioning also plays a role not only in behavioural responses but also in the regulatory systems of the body. For example, if drinking a fluid with a particular flavour signals an infusion of glucose into the stomach of hungry rats, that flavour will, in future, reduce blood sugar level in anticipation of the glucose load.

The experimental study of ‘instrumental’ conditioning also started over 100 years ago, but in this case by an American comparative psychologist, Thorndike, who was interested in comparing the learning capacities of different species of animal. Thorndike studied the rate at which a variety of animals learned to operate a latch in order to escape from a cage to eat some food placed outside. These instrumental tasks were subsequently refined over the succeeding decades, most notably by the behaviourist psychologist, Skinner. As in the case of Pavlovian conditioning, the food acted as a reinforcer to strengthen the conditioned response, the operation of the latch, but in the instrumental case through a positive causal relationship between the response and reinforcer. In contrast to Pavlovian conditioning, however, aversive or noxious stimuli cannot act as instrumental reinforcers through a positive relationship with a response. Indeed, when a response causes an aversive outcome, the behaviour is suppressed or punished. For an aversive event, such as a road accident, to reinforce the appropriate instrumental response (careful and defensive driving) the response has to prevent the event happening and thereby allow us to escape or avoid dangerous and unpleasant situations.

There are two sorts of learning process underlying instrumental conditioning. The first process establishes response habits through the acquisition of a connection between an eliciting stimulus and the response. For example, enhancement of the limb muscle reflexes involved in the movements that the rat must make to reach for the latch can be conditioned by arranging for an appropriate change to be reinforced by the delivery of food to a hungry animal. This simple stimulus–response development clearly plays a role in the acquisition of motor skills. Other learning processes are involved in more complex forms of instrumental conditioning, which support goal-directed actions based upon knowledge of the causal relationship between the action and the outcome that it achieves. This type of instrumental conditioning operates when one explicitly plans a course of action to achieve a specific goal.

In summary, the two forms of conditioning, Pavlovian and instrumental, reflect the processes by which we and other animals learn to adjust our behaviour to the predictive and causal structure of our environment. The fact that, in one form or another, both types of conditioning are to be found throughout the animal kingdom, from relatively simple invertebrates to ourselves, is a testimony to their ubiquitous and important adaptive function.

A. Dickinson

Bibliography

Dworkin, B. R. (1993). Learning and physiological regulation. The University of Chicago Press, Chicago.
Mackintosh, N. J. (1983). Conditioning and associative learning. Oxford University Press, New York.


See also Pavlov, Ivan.

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conditioning

conditioning A term employed by behaviourist psychologists within the framework of stimulus-response (S–R) models of learning. It refers to the process whereby new stimulus-response connections are established.

Behaviourists conventionally distinguish two types of conditioning. In classical or Type-S conditioning, first identified by Ivan Pavlov in his famous experiments with dogs, a new stimulus is linked to an already existing response. The new S–R connection is established by contiguously pairing the new, formerly neutral, stimulus with an old one which already provokes the response. In Pavlov's experiments, the old, unconditioned (or unconditional) response (UCS) of food in the mouth provokes a reflex unconditioned (unconditional) response (UCR). When this stimulus is repeatedly paired with a new one (the sound of a bell) this new stimulus will, in time, produce salivation. A new connection is, therefore, established between a conditioned (conditional) stimulus (CS), the sound of the bell, and a conditioned response (CR), salivation. In this process, the pairing of food with the sound of the bell serves to strengthen or reinforce the new S–R connection—that is, to make the occurrence of the response of salivation to the sound of the bell more likely. Frequent repetition of the new stimulus without reinforcement (food) leads to extinction of the conditioned response.

In operant, instrumental, or Type-R conditioning, a new response is established to a formerly neutral stimulus. This response is encouraged by the introduction of some reinforcement of that response whenever it occurs. The approach is commonly associated with the American psychologists E. L. Thorndike (Animal Intelligence, 1911) and B. F. Skinner (The Behaviour of Organisms, 1938). In Skinner's well-known experiments with rats in cages, the pressing of a bar is reinforced by giving a pellet of food (the reinforcing stimulus) whenever the bar is pressed. Reinforcement utilizing pleasure is termed positive reinforcement. Where the reinforcement takes the form of avoiding something that is unpleasant (an electric shock, a disagreeable taste) it is termed negative reinforcement. Where a reinforcer derives its value through learning it is termed a secondary reinforcer. For example, if a rat learns to obtain tokens to secure food, the tokens may be used as secondary reinforcers in conditioning some new response. Operant conditioning has also been used as a basis of therapy for humans. Subjects learn that certain patterns of behaviour have desirable consequences, that is they are rewarded, and this increases the likelihood of the behaviour occurring in the future.

Much of the debate amongst learning theorists has concerned the interpretation of the empirical observations made in studies of conditioning. Early behaviourists developed analyses of conditioning that suggested it was a simple, unconscious, and automatic process. However, a number of experiments provided convincing evidence that cognitive processes were involved in establishing the stimulus-response connections observed in conditioning studies. In academic psychology from the 1960s onwards, the increasing emphasis on cognition and information processing has shifted attention away from studies of conditioning in animals and humans, and from conceptualizing learning in terms of stimulus-response models.

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conditioning

conditioning A process by which animals learn about a relation between two events. In classical (or Pavlovian) conditioning, repeated presentations of a neutral stimulus (e.g. the sound of a bell or buzzer) are followed each time by a biologically important stimulus (such as food or electric shock), which elicits a response (e.g. salivation). Eventually the neutral stimulus presented by itself produces a response (the conditional response, or conditioned reflex) similar to that originally evoked by the biologically important stimulus. For example, Pavlov's dogs learned to salivate in response to the sound of a metronome that preceded the presentation of food. In instrumental (or operant) conditioning the animal is rewarded (or punished) each time it makes a particular response; this eventually causes the frequency of the response to increase (or decrease). For example, a rat will learn to press a lever in order to obtain food. See learning; reinforcement.

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conditioning

conditioning (classical conditioning; Pavlovian conditioning) A form of learning in which an animal comes to associate an unconditional (significant) stimulus (e.g. the smell of food) with a conditional (neutral) stimulus (e.g. a sound), so that the previously conditional stimulus evokes a response that is rarely identical to the unconditional response but that is nevertheless appropriate to the unconditional stimulus. The method for studying this form of conditioning is derived from the work of I. P. Pavlov. Compare OPERANT CONDITIONING.

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conditioning

conditioning(classical conditioning; Pavlovian conditioning) A form of learning in which an animal comes to associate an unconditional (significant) stimulus (e.g. the smell of food) with a conditional (neutral) stimulus (e.g. a sound), so that the previously conditional stimulus evokes a response that is rarely identical to the unconditional response but is nevertheless appropriate to the unconditional stimulus. The method for studying this form of conditioning is derived from the work of I. P.Pavlov. Compare operant conditioning.

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conditioning

conditioning In experimental psychology, learning in which human or animal subjects learn to respond in a certain way to a stimulus. Most of the procedures and terminology of classical conditioning stem from the work of Ivan Pavlov, while B. F. Skinner first described operant conditioning.

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conditioning

conditioning (kŏn-dish-ŏn-ing) n. the establishment of new behaviour by modifying the stimulus/response associations.

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conditioning

conditioning: see learning.

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