Classical conditioning is one of the most controversial and thus well-known concepts in psychology. While the famous early studies that looked into it were potentially inhumane and while we have moved away from a purely behavioral view of human psychology; classical conditioning can nevertheless very easily be considered as the starting point of modern psychology and we wouldn’t have CBT or other methods today if it had never been suggested.
So what is classical conditioning? What is behaviorism? And what inhumane studies am I referring to? Let’s dive in and take a look at one of the most influential studies in all of psychology…
What Is Behaviorism?
The best place to start is by discussing the broader topic of behaviorism. Behaviorism is a school of psychology that attempted to take a more basic and scientific approach to devising a mental model than what had gone before.
And what had gone before was Freud’s psychodynamic theory of psychology. This is the famous three-pronged explanation of psychology that describes humans as having an ‘id, ego and superego’. The ego is essentially our conscious personality while our id and superego are in constant battle. Then we have our ego defence mechanisms, our repressed memories, our psychosexual developmental stages, a death instinct… it all gets pretty complicated.
Behaviorism took this mess and applied Occam’s Razor – the principle that any scientific theory should be boiled down to the most basic and fundamental explanation.
And behaviorism puts forward a very simple explanation of human behavior. Our psychology and behavior, according to this school of thought, is entirely the result of learning. And that learning occurs simply as a result of connections forming in our brains between ideas, senses, experiences etc. More fundamentally still, it boils down to reward vs. punishment.
So, if we eat cake and it feels good, we create a positive association and we eat cake again. If we put our hand on a hot stove and it feels bad, we create a negative association and we make sure not to do it again. The more we repeat the positive behavior, the more we ‘enforce’ that connection and the more it becomes a deeply ingrained behaviour.
This explains how we go from the relative blank slate we start off as in infancy to being able to walk and talk. We learn to walk by repeatedly falling over and by getting positive rewards each time we successfully stand. We learn that if we reach for food, we get fed. And if we say please at the same time, we get fed faster.
Pure behaviorists would have us believe that this is all there is to human psychology. That we develop our personalities, skills, preferences and more all from simple rote learning and ‘carrot and stick’. All our motivation is ultimately driven by experience and the belief that this experience will lead to us feeling good.
The Role of Classical Conditioning
Classical conditioning is perhaps the cornerstone of this theory and the one that is easiest to demonstrate. This describes a type of learning whereby a positive experience is mentally ‘paired’ with a neutral stimulus.
For example, if you always get fed when you hear a certain song, then eventually you’re going to learn to love that song! This is how a dog learns to become excited when they hear the sound of the gate clang before someone arrives home.
Classical conditioning is just one type of conditioning however. Another is operant conditioning. Operant conditioning is slightly different as whereas classical conditioning links two different stimuli, operant conditioning links a behavior to a stimulus. So for example, if you pull a button and get a sweet, you’ll learn to pull that button pretty fast. Meanwhile, there is also such thing as ‘vicarious conditioning’ or ‘vicarious reinforcement’. This is an example of observational learning, meaning that you can learn to associate two things by observing an action and reaction. If you see your Mother put her fingers in an electric socket and receive a terrible shock, then you eventually learn not to put your fingers in a socket!
Likewise, there is a difference between positive reinforcement and negative reinforcement. Positive reinforcement means that a stimulus is added, whereas negative reinforcement means a stimulus is removed – it has nothing to do with whether or not the stimulus is objectively ‘desirable’.
Pavlolv’s Dogs is one of the most infamous and influential studies in all of psychology (1). This is partly due to the impact it had on the study of psychology and partly due to its somewhat inhumane nature.
Here, dogs were made to listen to the sound of a bell which would always immediately precede getting food. It was found that the bell would eventually cause the dogs to salivate, even when the food was not present – thereby demonstrating that the dogs had been conditioned to associate the sound of the bell with the food.
The cruel part of the study was the way that the dogs were restrained with their mouths forced permanently agape so that saliva could be accurately measured from around the gums. Today such studies would not be allowed to go ahead on ethical grounds…
Behavioral Psychology – The Basics
Classical conditioning went on to inform the direction of psychology for many years subsequently. From then onward, behaviorism was commonly used to explain human behaviors and to provide treatments as well. One of the most obvious fits was the approach to phobias. Here, a phobia can be described as being the result of an association forming between a stimulus and something negative.
So for example, if you were to get bitten by a dog, then you might learn to associate dogs with pain and you might therefore develop a phobia of dogs. Likewise, if you were to observe someone being bitten by a dog, then you might also learn the same association through observational learning and vicarious conditioning.
It’s also worth noting that the emotional impact of the stimulus can cause an association to be formed more strongly. So, if something is traumatic or exciting enough, then you might not need to have it reinforced multiple times – just the once could be sufficient!
The way you would then go about treating the phobia would be to use ‘reassociation’, desensitization or exposure therapy. The idea here is to create new associations between those stimuli in patient’s mind. This could be accomplished for example by gradually exposing them to the spider/gun/snake/open spaces and then helping them to stay calm and happy during that exposure; possibly through the use of breathing techniques, self-talk and meditation.
This has been found to be largely effective and would go on to form the basis of many psychotherapeutic techniques going forward.
The Role of Behaviorism in Modern Psychology
So, does it hold up? Are we still using behaviorism to treat and explain various mental health conditions?
The answer, in short, is ‘sort of’.
One interesting point is that you can now largely explain the effects of behaviorism by looking at the neuroscience. Neuroplasticity for example, explains the ability of the brain to form new connections and even to birth new brain cells (neurons). The way that new connections are formed is by first firing two cells at the same time (‘what fires together, wires together’) and then by repeatedly reinforcing that connection by getting those neurons to fire in tandem again and again. Sound familiar?
Neuroscience can also explain vicarious reinforcement, which is likely controlled by the firing of mirror neurons – neurons that fire when we see things happen to other people.
And lo and behold, any significantly emotional event will also encourage connections to form more quickly and to become stronger. This is the result of neurotransmitters such as dopamine, which increases BDNF (Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor).
But all this is not to say that behaviorism is fully backed by science, or that it hasn’t been somewhat replaced by newer methods. The main criticism levelled at behaviorism today is that it oversimplifies the human brain. It is a large claim to state that all of human behavior can be explained by conditioning and reinforcing and this fails to explain the ‘internal’ lives that we lead when we think about things, imagine potential futures etc.
It also fails to explain how might develop a phobia without having ever been exposed to the stimulus, for example. How are people afraid of things like snakes without having ever seen a snake or seen one on TV? And why are some people able to fall from heights and still not develop phobias?
The answer might be to do with our ‘internal’ experiences, which is the added layer provided by CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy). CBT explains how we can actually reinforce certain associations simply by thinking about them and thereby rehearsing them in our mind. We might be afraid of heights because we’ve internally convinced ourselves that we’re likely to fall.
CBT builds on the foundation laid out by behaviorism and classic conditioning and while it is still not perfect, it is currently the preferred psychotherapeutic technique for many mental health institutions. With all that in mind, it is clear to see the amazing influence that behaviorism has had on psychology and the instrumental role it has played!