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).
Ok, enough messing around. Now let's begin the experiment.
How to Classically Condition Your Volunteer
We start by introducing a neutral stimulus (NS) to pair with the eye gouging.
This should be an everyday stimulus (a sight, smell or sound, for example) which currently doesn't cause them to react.
Ah—an air horn! Great suggestion*.
*Not that great. An air horn is very over the top to be considered neutral, in fact. 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 isn't startled or scared of the sound. But we can soon fix that.
When we sound the horn and simultaneously poke Sutton in the eye, the psychological effect of classical conditioning begins.
The Acquisition Phase
We start to pair the neutral stimulus (our innocent air horn) with the unconditioned response (flinching, anxiety, and fear of a pencil attack).
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).
This happens even when we no longer use the pencil.
The Generalisation Effect
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 helpful volunteer.
The Extinction Effect
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!
The real Sutton appears as the guest on Episode 2 of Pete's hypothetical comedy podcast series, Schemey Pete's Scenarios. Listen now or regret it on your deathbed.