This is our friend Sutton. He doesn’t like being poked in the eye. This makes him a prime target for a light experiment in classical conditioning.
Let’s poke him in the eye.
He didn’t like that. Look at the way his little eye is 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 (US). Sutton flinching in response to the sharp pain is known as an unconditioned response (UR).
Now we need a neutral stimulus (NS) for the experiment to begin. We need 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 OTT 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. He certainly doesn’t flinch as if he were being attacked!
But if we sound the horn and simultaneously poke Sutton in the eye, the magic of classical conditioning begins. We start to pair our neutral stimulus with the unconditioned response (flinching, anxiety, and a growing desire to seek vengeance).
This is classical conditioning at work. 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.
YUSSS!!! Great sciencing.
Remember, these two events have never been paired in his mind before.
Yet 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).
We can remove the pencil and actually stop poking him in the eye now.
Sutton will continue to flinch and despair at the sound of a close range air horn, making him look quite silly to a casual onlooker.
What’s more, generalisation means that even the mere sight of an air horn could now trigger anxiety in Sutton. We’ve classically conditioned our volunteer target.
There is just one slight 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 true power of classical conditioning.
Try it today on a friend near you. For science!
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