Learning by Conditioning

Conditioning Theories of Learning

In literal sense, conditioning means ‘getting used’ to, or ‘adjusted’ to a new situation, or a stimulus. It is a process of substituting the original stimulus by a new one and connecting the response with it. There are two types of conditioning theories:

  1. Classical Conditioning Theory:

This method of conditioning got its name from the fact that, it is a kind of learning situation that existed in the early classical experiments of Ivan P Pavlov (1849-1936), Russian physiologist who was awarded Nobel Prize, in 1904 for his experiments.

Pavlov designed an apparatus to measure the quantity of saliva produced in response to food (meat power). At the beginning of his experiment Pavlov noted that no saliva flowed when he rang the bell. He then trained the dog by sounding the bell, and shortly afterwards presenting food.

After the sound of the bell had been paired with food a few times, he tested the effects of the training by measuring the amount of saliva that flowed when he rang the bell and did not present food. He found that some saliva was produced in response to the sound of the bell alone. He then resumed the training-paired presentation of bell and food a few times and then tested again with the bell alone.

As the training continued, the amount of saliva on tests with the bell alone increased. Thus, after training the dog’s mouth watered-salivated whenever the bell was sounded. This is what was learned; it is the conditioned response.

This theory states that CS (bell) becomes a substitute after pairing with UCS (food) and acquires the capacity to elicit a response. It is because the association (conditioning) is formed between CS and UCS. This may be symbolically presented as follows:

UCS<————– UCR

(Food)          (Saliva)


CS<——————- CR

(Bell)                (Saliva)

Sub-principles of Classical Conditioning:

There are certain sub-principles which explain the different phenomena of this experiment.

  1. Extinction and spontaneous recovery: Extinction means cessation of a response. The strength of the CS gradually decreases when it is presented alone and not followed by UCS for a number of trails. This process is called ‘extinction’. In this experiment when only bell is presented without food for a number of trials, the dog stopped salivation gradually.
    • But when the CS (bell) was paired again with UCS (food) for some trials, the CR (salivation) recovered. This is known as ‘spontaneous recovery’. In spontaneous recovery the dog required less number of trials than the first time, because the association between CS and UCS still existed in the brain of the animal.
  2. Stimulus generalization:
    A tendency to respond to a stimulus which is similar to original one is called stimulus generalization, the greater the similarity, the more the generalization. In this experiment, the dog started salivating even for the sound of a buzzer which was similar to bell.
  3. Stimulus discrimination:
    When there is much difference between two stimuli, the animal can discriminate between the two. For example, if the dog is conditioned to salivate at the signal of red light, it will not salivate when green light is presented.
  4. Higher order conditioning:
    If a ‘light’ is presented followed by bell and then by food for a number of trials, the dog will start salivating to light itself. This phenomenon is called higher order condition.

All these principles are very useful in behaviour therapy. Conditioning is not confined only to the laboratory.

In our day-to-day’s life we come across many instances of such learning. For example, a small child who does not know, touches a burning candle, it gives him a painful experience and withdraws his hand. Later this experience will make him withdraw from burning objects and avoid them all together.

Conditioning is used as psychotherapeutic technique very effectively in the treatment of abnormal behaviours such as phobias, alcoholism, enuresis, etc. These are called behaviour modification techniques, Watson and others have conducted many experiments to prove the usefulness of this method.

  1. Operant Conditioning Theory:

This method of conditioning was developed by an American psychologist BF Skinner. This theory is also known as ‘Instrumental conditioning’, because the animals use certain operations or actions as instruments to find solution.

Skinner conducted his famous experiment by placing a hungry rat in a box called after his name ‘Skinner box‘. This box was containing a lever and a food tray in a corner of the box. It was so arranged, that the animal was free to move inside the box, but the pressing of the lever would get the animal a pallet of food in the tray as reinforcement.

Arrangement was also made to record the number of pressings of the lever by a mechanical device. It was found in the beginning that the rat pressed the lever occasionally and used to get food as reinforcement for each pressing.

Gradually, as the animal learnt the pressing of lever would give some food, it repeated the responses very rapidly. This rapid increase in pressing the lever is the indication of the animal conditioned to get food.

In day-to-day’s life also, much-learning takes place in animals as well as in human beings by this method. The reinforcement will be the motivating factor. It will make the organism to repeat its action.

It is on the basis of these experiments, Skinner made his famous statement “Rewarded behaviour is repeated”. Instrumental conditioning involves more activity by the learner than classical conditioning. Skinner conducted his experiments on different animals like pigeons, rats, etc.

Reinforcement which is the most important aspect of this experiment is divided into two types: positive reinforcement is used in reward training. Negative reinforcement-like punishment is used to stop undesired responses or behaviours. Operant conditioning is useful in shaping undesirable behaviour and also in modification of behaviour.

This is also useful in training of mentally retarded children to learn dressing, eating and toilet training skills, treatment of phobias, drug and alcohol addictions, and psychotherapy and to teach needed behaviour in children. Further, these experiments have proved that intermittent reinforcement yields better results than continuous reinforcement.

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