Classical Conditioning: How It Works and Potential Benefits - Dr. Axe

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Classical Conditioning: How It Works + Potential Benefits


Classical conditioning - Dr. Axe

In the past, some psychology experts believed that classical conditioning (CC) could explain nearly all aspects of human psychology — including our ability to learn how to communicate, cooperate with others and control our emotions.

While this theory remains controversial, we do know that classical conditioning is behind many learned behaviors, both good and bad. In fact, it’s considered the most straightforward way in which humans can learn.

Learning — the process by which new knowledge, behaviors, attitudes and ideas are acquired — can occur through both unconscious and conscious pathways, and in CC it happens below the level of conscious awareness.

What Is Classical Conditioning?

What is classical conditioning in simple terms?

The broader term conditioning is a method of learning that occurs through rewards and punishments for behaviors. This term is used in the field of behaviorism (or behavioral psychology) to help explain why people act the way they do.


The field of behaviorism in psychology assumes that all behavior is determined by one’s environment.

According to Simply Psychology, the definition of classical conditioning is “learning through association.” It involves associations being made between an environmental stimulus and a naturally occurring stimulus.

CC deals with responses that are “natural” and involuntary. It works by pairing two stimuli together to produce a new learned response.

CC helps determine behaviors in both people and animals.

This type of learning goes by several other names too, including Pavlovian conditioning — since Ivan Pavlov, a Russian physiologist in early 20th century, had such a great impact on the study of CC. It’s also sometimes referred to as respondent conditioning or type I/type S conditioning.

How It Works (Process/Principles)

In CC, a neutral stimulus becomes a conditioned stimulus.

There are several important terms to understand in order to grasp how CC works:

  • Stimulus — Any feature of the environment that affects behavior.
    Response — A behavior elicited by a stimulus.
  • Neutral stimulus — Can be a person, place or thing that does not produce a response until it is paired with an unconditioned stimulus.
  • Unconditioned stimulus — The stimulus that elicits a natural response/reaction. It’s “unconditioned” because it automatically causes a reaction.
  • Conditioned stimulus — Acts as a type of signal or cue for an unconditioned stimulus. It has an effect because of its association with an unconditioned stimulus. In order for learning to happen, the conditioned stimulus occurs before the unconditioned stimulus, not after it, or during the same time.
  • Extinction — This dying out of a learned response.

The American Psychological Association explains that CC depends on having an initially neutral stimulus be paired with a stimulus that elicits a reflex or conditioned response. The conditioned stimulus (CS) and unconditioned stimulus always occur together, so with repeated pairings, an association is made.

There are three stages of classical conditioning:

  • Stage 1: This is when a new behavior has not yet been learned. A stimulus produces a natural response and behavior, but it’s one that has not been taught. Another way to describe this stage is “when the unconditioned stimulus (UCS) produces an unconditioned response (UCR).” An example could include feeling scared when you fear a sudden, loud noise.
  • Stage 2: This is when an unconditioned stimulus becomes a conditioned stimulus. This usually happens over time with repeated pairings.
  • Stage 3: When the conditioned stimulus has been associated with the unconditioned stimulus to create a new conditioned response (CR). In other words, a conditioned response is the learned response to the previously neutral stimulus.

Classical Conditioning Examples

What is an example of a classical conditioning? You’ll recall from above that responses in CC are involuntary, automatic and reflective.

Stimuli in the environment (sights, sounds, smells, etc.) send visual and olfactory information to the brain through neural pathways that cause automatic responses. Examples of these types of responses include:

  • Nausea and loss of appetite
  • Changes in heart rate
  • Sweating
  • Salivating
  • Increased muscle tension
  • Pupil dilation or constriction
  • Reflexes like flinching or recoiling

One of the most famous examples of CC is Pavlov’s experiment using dogs, in which he taught dogs to associate the sound of a bell with being fed.

  • The dogs would salivate (the UCR) when given meat powder (the UCS).
  • At first they didn’t respond to a ringing bell (neutral stimulus).
  • Pavlov repeatedly rang the bell just before he would present the dogs with meat powder.
  • Pavlov’s dogs learned to associate the sound of the bell with meat powder. They eventually would salivate (CR) when they heard the bell (CS), even if it was not followed by the meat powder.

Here are some other classical conditioning examples in everyday life:

  • The sight or smell of a particular food causes you to feel nauseous if it made you sick in the past.
  • The sight or smell of a food that reminds you of childhood makes you feel hungry and excited.
  • Sounds such as telephone rings or an alarm clock cause you to become alert or anxious.
  • A familiar smell makes you feel happy because it reminds you of someone you like.
  • Being in your bedroom with dim lights makes you feel sleepy.
  • Waking up in the middle of the night makes you think you need to use the bathroom to pee.
  • Listening to certain songs that remind you of old friends/experiences makes you feel emotional.
  • The thought or sight of alcohol, cigarettes or another drug causes you to have cravings if you’ve developed an addiction. Substance abusers might also have cravings when they are in a drug-related environment or around people that they associate with previous highs.

Classical Conditioning vs. Operant Conditioning

What is the difference between classical and operant conditioning (OC)? The main difference between the two is that classical conditioning involves automatic or reflexive responses, while operant conditioning involves voluntary behavior.

Operant conditioning describes learning by making associations between particular behaviors and consequences. It helps explain behaviors by looking at the causes of actions and their consequences.


Here’s a bit more about this approach:

  • OC was first described by psychologist B.F. Skinner in the 1930s.
  • According to operant conditioning theory and principles, behaviors that are followed by pleasant consequences are likely to be repeated, while those followed by unpleasant consequences are less likely to be repeated.
  • Here’s another way to put this: Actions that are reinforced tend to be repeated and strengthened, while those that aren’t reinforced tends to die out-or be extinguished and weakened. Punishment is considered the opposite of reinforcement and is used to weaken or eliminate a response.
  • “Positive reinforcement” strengthens a behavior by providing rewards. “Negative reinforcement” works by removing an unpleasant stimulus or experience.

Potential Benefits/Uses for Health

What is classical conditioning used for in psychology and therapy? Various behavior therapies draw upon CC theory to help patients change unwanted behaviors and manage anxiety symptoms, addictions, phobia disorders, PTSD symptoms and more.

Research has demonstrated that classical conditioning alters human behavior. It’s a key focus in behavior therapy, which is an an approach that focuses on reinforcing desired behaviors and eliminating undesired behaviors and is often used help drug users deal with cravings.

Here are some situations in which aspects of classical conditioning can provide benefits in therapy:

  • It’s used in therapeutic techniques like aversion therapy, systematic desensitization and flooding, which help treat anxiety/fear.
  • Aversion therapy encourages individuals to give up undesirable habits by causing them to associate the habit with an unpleasant effect.
  • Systematic desensitization, a type of exposure therapy, involves repeated exposure to something that is causing someone anxiety while that person remains in a relaxed state. It’s done in order to remove a fear response associated with a phobia by using the body’s natural relaxation response instead. This causes a positive response to replace a negative response that was previously associated with a harmless stimulus.
  • Flooding is similar to desensitization but is done in a more intense way.
  • Drug counselors advise users to avoid settings that could trigger cravings and a desire to take drugs.
  • There are also some treatments that involve having alcoholics ingest bitter substances that cause them to feel sick when they drink, making it less desirable to do so.
  • Another example is for people (or animals) who bite their nails; they apply a substance to their fingernails that causes nausea when it’s consumed.

Other ways that CC impacts everyday life include:

  • Playing in a role in how mindfulness works. Mindfulness training has been shown to reduce maladaptive forms of conditioning that sustain many unhealthy behaviors and addictions.
  • Allowing us to perceive threats and avoid danger.
  • Helping build a habit of exercising, since over time someone starts associating exercise with good feelings (like an endorphin rush or “runner’s high”).
  • Can be used to help treat overeating, smoking and other unwanted habits.
  • Helping form relationships and bonding.
  • Playing a role in sexual arousal.

CC is also a big reason why advertising works. Commercials often feature attractive, admirable actors and models using certain products/services, which means that the viewer starts to associate the successful person with the thing that’s being advertised.


  • What is classical conditioning? It describes learning through association. It involves associations being made between an environmental stimulus and a naturally occurring stimulus.
  • CC deals with responses that are “natural,” involuntary and occur below the level of conscious awareness. It works by pairing two stimuli together to produce a new learned response.
  • Classical conditioning examples include being turned off to a food after it makes you sick; learning to like certain smells because they remind you of someone special; enjoying certain types of exercises and foods because they make you feel good afterward.
  • Classical vs. operant conditioning, what’s the difference? Operant conditioning deals with voluntary behaviors; it describes learning by making associations between particular behaviors and consequences.
  • Uses and benefits of CC in therapy include helping decrease anxiety, phobias, substance abuse and unwanted behaviors.

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