5.2 Classical Conditioning

Although Ivan Pavlov won a Nobel Prize for studying digestion, he is much more famous for something else: working with a dog, a bell, and a bowl of saliva. Many people are familiar with the classic study of “Pavlov’s dog,” but rarely do they understand the significance of its discovery.

Although classical conditioning may seem “old” or “too simple” a theory, it is still widely studied today for at least two reasons: First, it is a straightforward test of associative learning that can be used to study other, more complex behaviors. Second, because classical conditioning is always occurring in our lives, its effects on behavior have important implications for understanding normal and disordered behavior in humans. In fact, Pavlov’s work helps explain why some people get anxious just looking at a crowded bus, why the sound of a morning alarm is so hated, and even why we swear off certain foods we’ve only tried once. Classical (or Pavlovian) conditioning is one of the fundamental ways we learn about the world around us. But it is far more than just a theory of learning; it is also arguably a theory of identity. For, once you understand classical conditioning, you’ll recognize that your favorite music, clothes, even political candidate, might all be a result of the same process that makes a dog drool at the sound of bell.

Classical conditioning is the process whereby a stimulus-response (S-R) bond is developed between a conditioned stimulus and a conditioned response through the repeated linking of a conditioned stimulus with an unconditioned stimulus. This process is shown in Figure 5.1 below The classic example of Pavlov’s experiments illustrates the process. Pavlov was initially interested in the digestive processes of dogs but noticed that the dogs started to salivate at the first signal of approaching food. On the basis of this discovery, he shifted his attention to the question of whether animals could be trained to draw a causal relationship between previously unconnected factors. Specifically, using the dogs as subjects, he examined the extent to which the dogs could learn to associate the ringing of a bell with the act of salivation. The experiment began with unlearned, or unconditioned, stimulus-response relationships. When a dog was presented with meat (unconditioned stimulus), the dog salivated (unconditioned response). No learning was necessary here, as this relationship represented a natural physiological process.

Figure 5.1 Before conditioning, an unconditioned stimulus (food) produces an unconditioned response (salivation), and a neutral stimulus (bell) does not produce a response. During conditioning, the unconditioned stimulus (food) is presented repeatedly just after the presentation of the neutral stimulus (bell). After conditioning, the neutral stimulus alone produces a conditioned response (salivation), thus becoming a conditioned stimulus. Image: A project created by ISKME. Classical Conditioning, CC BY-NC-SA 4.0. [click to enlarge]

Next, Pavlov paired the unconditioned stimulus (meat) with a neutral one (the ringing of a bell). Normally, the ringing of the bell by itself would not be expected to elicit salivation. However, over time, a learned linkage developed for the dog between the bell and meat, ultimately resulting in an S-R bond between the conditioned stimulus (the bell) and the response (salivation) without the presence of the unconditioned stimulus (the meat). Evidence emerged that learning had occurred and that this learning resulted from conditioning the dogs to associate two normally unrelated objects, the bell and the meat.

Another example you are probably very familiar with involves your alarm clock. If you’re like most people, waking up early usually makes you unhappy. In this case, waking up early (US) produces a natural sensation of grumpiness (UR). Rather than waking up early on your own, though, you likely have an alarm clock that plays a tone to wake you. Before setting your alarm to that particular tone, let’s imagine you had neutral feelings about it (i.e., the tone had no prior meaning for you). However, now that you use it to wake up every morning, you psychologically “pair” that tone (CS) with your feelings of grumpiness in the morning (UR). After enough pairings, this tone (CS) will automatically produce your natural response of grumpiness (CR). Thus, this linkage between the unconditioned stimulus (US; waking up early) and the conditioned stimulus (CS; the tone) is so strong that the unconditioned response (UR; being grumpy) will become a conditioned response (CR; e.g., hearing the tone at any point in the day—whether waking up or walking down the street—will make you grumpy). Modern studies of classical conditioning use a very wide range of CSs and USs and measure a wide range of conditioned responses.

Although Pavlov’s experiments are widely cited as evidence of the existence of classical conditioning, it is necessary from the perspective of organizational behavior to ask how this process relates to people at work. Ivancevich et al. (1977) provide one such work-related example of classical conditioning:

An illustration of classical conditioning in a work setting would be an airplane pilot learning how to use a newly installed warning system. In this case the behavior to be learned is to respond to a warning light that indicates that the plane has dropped below a critical altitude on an assigned glide path. The proper response is to increase the plane’s altitude. The pilot already knows how to appropriately respond to the trainer’s warning to increase altitude (in this case we would say the trainer’s warning is an unconditioned stimulus and the corrective action of increasing altitude is an unconditioned response). The training session consists of the trainer warning the pilot to increase altitude every time the warning light goes on. Through repeated pairings of the warning light with the trainer’s warning, the pilot eventually learns to adjust the plane’s altitude in response to the warning light even though the trainer is not present. Again, the unit of learning is a new S-R connection, or habit (Ivancevich et al., 1977).

Although classical conditioning clearly has applications to work situations, particularly in the area of training and development, it has been criticized as explaining only a limited part of total human learning. Psychologist B. F. Skinner (1963) argues that classical conditioning focuses on respondent, or reflexive, behaviors; that is, it concentrates on explaining largely involuntary responses that result from stimuli. More complex learning cannot be explained solely by classical conditioning. As an alternative explanation, Skinner and others have proposed the operant conditioning model of learning which will be discussed in the next section of this chapter.


This section is adapted from:

 4.1 Basic Models of Learning in Organizational Behaviour, OpenStax and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, unless otherwise noted.

Conditioning and Learning by Mark E. Bouton in Discover Psychology 2.0: A Brief Introductory Text, NOBA and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Ivancevich, J. M., Szilagyi, A. D., & Wallace, M. (1977). Organizational behavior and performance. Goodyear Publication Co.

Skinner, B. F. (1963). Operant behavior. American Psychologist, 18, 503–515.


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Psychology, Communication, and the Canadian Workplace Copyright © 2022 by Laura Westmaas, BA, MSc is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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