This is my friend Sutton, who volunteered for a harmless experiment in classical conditioning.
Let’s start by poking him in the eye.
He didn’t like that. Look at the way his eye is now twitching and red.
It’s not surprising that Sutton is now upset. Prodding his vitreous humour caused him great pain – and primal responses like pain and hunger are excellent fodder for classical conditioning.
Let’s poke Sutton in the eye again.
He still doesn’t like it. Look at his silly little face. He’s getting quite angry, isn’t he?
In the context of classical conditioning, this gratuitous eye poking is an unconditioned stimulus (UCS).
Sutton flinching in response to the sharp pain is known as an unconditioned response (UCR).
The magic begins when we introduce a neutral stimulus (NS) to begin pairing with the eye gouging. This should be an everyday stimulus (a sight, smell or sound, for example) which currently doesn’t cause Sutton to flinch and expect massive amounts of pain.
Ah – an air horn! Great suggestion*.
*Technically, an air horn is a little over the top to be considered “neutral” but let’s pretend Sutton is totally unphased by air horns. Besides, air horns are inherently funny.
What’s his reaction when we sound the air horn at Sutton?
He’s annoyed, granted, but he doesn’t particularly react to the sound.
But if we sound the horn and simultaneously poke Sutton in the eye, the psychological effect of classical conditioning begins. We start to pair the neutral stimulus with the unconditioned response (flinching, anxiety, and so forth).
This is the acquisition phase of classical conditioning. After several repetitions of the above, not only does Sutton become irate, but he begins to associate the sound of an air horn with being roughly gouged in the eye. Sutton is learning…
After a short period of association, the air horn has become a conditioned stimulus (CS) and Sutton’s flinching has become a conditioned response (CR). Even when we don’t use the pencil.
Wonderful! Sutton continues to flinch and despair at the sound of the air horn, making him look quite silly to a casual onlooker.
What’s more, generalisation means that any type of air horn (even the mere sight of one) can now trigger anxiety in Sutton. We’ve classically conditioned our volunteer target.
There is just one weakness to classical conditioning.
Over time, Sutton will begin to learn that an air horn doesn’t actually cause him stabbing pains in the eye. This is known as extinction.
Luckily, we can fix that with more good science. The conditioning can be rapidly reinforced with the conditioned stimulus, followed by a single, solid eye poke when he least expects it.
That is the power of classical conditioning.
Try it today on a friend near you. For science!