We so often act without even thinking because we have been conditioned to
respond. Habituation, sensitization, classical conditioning, and operant
conditioning are all learning processes that associate a specific behavior with a
particular stimulus and cause us to act before we can think. These responses account for a
substantial portion of our behavior. They are often learned quickly, sometimes
unknowingly, and can only
be changed by carefully and systematically extinguishing them.
Conditioned responses make up the third layer of the
architecture for interaction.
- Learning: Persistent changes in behavior that result from experience
Habituation and Sensitization
Habituation and sensitization help organisms adapt to their environment by
focusing on what is important.
Habituation is learning not to respond to the repeated presentation of a
stimulus. As an example, people generally get used to noises, such as a commuter
train arrival or traffic noise, that are regularly present in their living
environments. Familiarity breeds indifference. Habituation may play a role in
developing tolerance to certain drugs.
Sensitization is an increase in responsiveness to a stimulus.
Pavlov's Dogs - Classical Conditioning
While studying digestion in dogs,
Ivan Pavlov understood well the reflex that
causes dogs to salivate when food is presented. His surprising new finding was
that the salivation response could be elicited by ringing a bell, even in the
absence of food, if the dog had been conditioned in a particular way to
associate the ringing bell with the delivery of food and subsequent salivation.
During several conditioning events, a bell was rung immediately before food was
presented to the dog. Of course, the dog salivated as the food was presented.
However, after several events that paired the ringing bell with salivation, the
food was no longer needed to elicit the same salivation response. When the bell
rang, the dog salivated even though no food was present. A new behavior was
The general phenomenon of learning to associate a new, neutral stimulus (e.g.
ringing the bell) with a previously existing response (e.g. salivation) is
called classical conditioning.
To become conditioned, the subject must discern the contingency between the
stimulus and the response. This usually requires a consistent presentation of
the stimulus rapidly paired with the response. However, in some important
examples, such as associating poisons with particular tastes, learning still
takes place even when the response is significantly delayed.
Skinner's Box - Operant conditioning
and many others dedicated their careers to studying the range of animal and
human behaviors that can be influenced by environmental consequences such as
rewards—known as reinforcements—and punishments. The general concept of
modifying voluntary behavior through the use of consequences is known as
and is sometimes also called instrumental conditioning or instrumental
Prolonged exposure to uncontrollable events can cause people to become
inappropriately passive while they believe they can no longer control the
outcome of similar future events.
This is called learned helplessness. The
theory describes what happens when a person comes to believe they have no
control over their situation and that whatever they do is futile. As a result,
the person will stay passive in the face of an unpleasant, harmful, or damaging
situation, even when they actually do have the ability to improve the
Extinguishing Conditioned Behaviors
A dog that has been conditioned to associate a ringing bell with food, and
responds by salivating can have this behavior reversed through a process called
Extinction. Extinction is accomplished by repeating the procedure of ringing a
bell and not presenting food. After several exposures the learned
association of the bell with food, and the subsequent salivation, is gradually
extinguished. Experimental evidence is strong that the original learning that
associates a bell with salivation is not removed, however. Instead, extinction seems to
add the new learning that a bell is no longer a reliable indicator of food.
Examples of Conditioned Human Behavior
Classical and operant conditioning contribute to a variety of human behavior
that is often described as involuntary. When you feel like you “can't
help yourself” you may be largely correct, because the behavior will persist
until the association is systematically extinguished. Here are some examples of
Several emotional responses are primarily conditioned responses. If you open
the mail and find a letter in an envelope addressed from an old friend, you may
spontaneously feel the warmth and affection you have learned to associate with
that close friend. This response could not be innate and would not be felt
unless you had grown fond of the person and learned to associate these warm
feelings with a letter reminding you of them.
It is likely that classical conditioning plays an important role in learning
the various irrational fears know as phobias. A person suffering from a
phobia can be systematically desensitized to the object or situation causing
their fears. Eventually their fears can be extinguished. The technique is
to expose them in carefully controlled conditions to a less fear inducing, but
related form of stimulus, while they practice relaxing in the presence of that
stimulus. For example, a person with a fear of heights would begin at a small
elevation, achieve relaxation at that level, then progress to higher elevation.
At each step, the person achieves relaxation and gains confidence before
progressing to the next level.
Most men have a spontaneous and positive response to seeing the image of a
beautiful woman. Advertisers then pair the name, image, or sounds of their
product or brand with images of beautiful women. It is not long before the
viewers are conditioned to associate a positive response with the product alone.
Immune System Responses
Several experiments demonstrated that mice could be conditioned to increase
their immune system in response to saccharin-flavored water. Other experiments
demonstrated mice could be conditioned to decrease their immune system in
response to the same saccharin-flavored water stimulus. The relevance of these
findings for human immune system response is has not been adequately studied.
There has been some success in conditioning alcoholics to associate nausea
with alcohol consumption, with the goal of helping them avoid alcohol
consumption for some period of time.
Riding a bicycle, learning to skate or ski, touch typing, balancing,
juggling, golfing, throwing, hitting, or catching a ball, driving a car,
dancing, or playing a musical instrument are all examples of learned motor
skills. These behaviors are learned most easily and quickly when timely and
specific feedback on the accuracy and effectiveness of the actions, called
knowledge of results, is provided to the student. How far was the ball hit,
how well did the bicycle balance, did the correct words get typed, and similar
specific information about the results of each attempt speed the learning of
motor skills. Comparing the student's technique in detail to an ideal
performance can improve learning even more. Focused practice periods,
interspersed with rest periods, seem to be most effective distribution of
In the United States drivers quickly learn to keep their automobiles in the
right-hand traffic lanes. When learning to drive, staying to the right is
reinforced by the approval, expectations, and perhaps praise apparent from the
driving instructor, passengers, and sometimes other drivers. Also, leaving the
right-hand lanes and traveling in the left-hand lanes is discouraged (i.e.
punished) by corrections or reprimand from the instructor, and often fearful
exclamations from passengers and other drivers. Driving on the right is safe and
rewarded, driving on the left is dangerous and punished. The message is clear
and drivers quickly learn to stay to the right without conscious thought. This
behavior is something that is practiced, and reinforced, almost daily. In the
United Kingdom drivers learn to stay to the left rather than to the right. The
two customs are simple, arbitrary, and equivalent. Compared to the complexities
of learning to drive, this convention seems simple. However, it is very
difficult for a driver with years of experience driving on one side of the road
to drive on the other side when visiting a foreign country. The driver must
focus strict attention; reminding himself constantly to stay on the unfamiliar
of the road.
Playing the Slots
Slot machines, the infamous “one-armed bandits” of the gambling casino, are
well engineered instruments of operant conditioning. The human operator inserts
coins and pulls the handle. After some random number of attempts, the gambler is
rewarded by a jackpot of coins, ringing bells, and distinctive sounds. The
gambler is quickly trained to feed coins into the machine and pull the handle in
pursuit of further rewards.
Acquired food preferences and aversions
Humans quickly develop a strong aversion to a particular food if they become
ill after ingesting the food.
Other conditioned responses
- A wide variety of experiments have shown that the number of plural nouns
(for example) produced by a subject will increase if the experimenter says “right” or
“good” when one is produced [Chom]
Learning and Memory,
by Barry Schwartz, Daniel Reisberg
Domjan and Burkhard's the Principles of Learning and Behavior,
by Michael Domjan
Psychology: Core Concepts, by Phillip G. Zimbardo, Ann L. Weber, Robert
Learning and Behavior,
by James E. Mazur
Ivan Petrovich Pavlov
Web site, including the full text of his lectures.
Maps of Bounded Rationality: A Perspective on Intuitive Judgment and Choice,
Nobel Prize Lecture, December 8, 2002 by Daniel Kahneman
Review of B. F. Skinner's Verbal Behavior
in Language, 35, No. 1 (1959), 26-58, by Noam Chomsky
Is the Operant Contingency Enough for a Science of Purposive Behavior?,
William Timberlake, Behavior and Philosophy, 32, 197-229 (2004)