In the late 1800s, a Russian scientist, Ivan Pavlov (1849-1936), was studying the digestive systems of mammals. He abandoned this study when he noticed something interesting. He saw the dogs in his study begin to salivate when they saw anyone in a white lab coat. The people who fed the dogs all wore white lab coats, but the dogs drooled even if the technicians were not bringing food. This recognition led Pavlov to differentiate between unconditioned and conditioned responses.
Pavlov called the dogs’ salivation in the presence of food an unconditioned response — it was not something they had learned. They did it as naturally as they would scratch an itch or wag their tails when they heard a kind voice — it was unconscious.
Pavlov’s Experiments with Conditioned Learning
In Pavlov’s experiments, the dogs were isolated and harnessed, and their food bowls placed in front of them. Tubes in their cheeks measured salivation. Where salivation around food is an unconditioned response, Pavlov determined the dogs’ response to lab assistants without food was conditioned. They developed the reaction because they had come to associate people in white coats with food.
Pavlov’s Experiments Expand
Pavlov wondered what would happen if he placed a neutral sound within each dog’s hearing and did not associate that sound with food. Pavlov chose a metronome, a tedious sound that would not be of much interest to a dog, particularly a hungry one. The dogs ignored the metronomes. Then he turned off the metronomes. He turned them on only when food was about to be served. Before long, the dogs were exhibiting the same conditioned response as they had with the lab assistants. They had learned that the sound of the metronome meant food was coming, and they began salivating when they heard the tone.
What About the Bells?
The standard story about Pavlov’s experiments is that he rang bells before he fed his lab dogs, and they would salivate. After a while, he could ring bells without offering food and they would salivate anyway. The truth is that Pavlov tried various stimuli. He did bells especially effectively — the least amount of time that elapsed between the stimulus and the reward, the quicker the dogs reacted.
Pavlov and Human Psychology
Pavlov’s experiments proved that there is a difference between natural, unconditioned behavior and learned behaviors, also called Pavlovian or classical conditioning. If you jump at a clap of thunder close to your house, you are exhibiting an unconditioned response. Human beings naturally react to loud, unexpected noises — this is not something we must learn. A simple example of classical conditioning is a child growing up with a close pet dog; he or she will likely accept and love dogs because of classical conditioning. On the other hand, children who are bitten or threatened by dogs at an early age will probably avoid them and may even be afraid of them as adults.
Pavlov and Advertising
Since the goal of advertising is to appeal to people’s desire to purchase various products, marketers quickly became interested in how Pavlovian theory could help them sell their products. Advertisements aim to connect feelings or responses we understand with products that do not naturally cause those feelings. For example, a Coca-Cola ad showing a desirable woman with a look of desire encourages viewers to feel that longing for the cold beverage.
Pavlov’s Dogs and Children
No, Pavlov didn’t experiment on children. But parents and teachers, and others who work with children, often use classical conditioning without even realizing it. Remember when you were in first grade and your teacher put a big, colorful sticker on your paper? Maybe it said “Wow! Great job!” or “You’re a star!” That made you feel so good that you took it home to show to your parents. They said, “Wonderful! Keep up the good work!” You learned that if you did your best at school you’d be rewarded not only with stickers but with everyone’s approval and happiness. In fact, this all started when you learned to crawl, said your first word, or ate your first bite of broccoli. You learned, “If I behave a certain way, it makes other people happy.” We quickly come to realize the various benefits of such behaviors.
They’re Playing Our Song
Many couples refer to a certain song as “our song.” Years later, when they hear that song, there is a rush of memories. If you listen to a sad song, you may remember when you too felt like that. Music makes you tap your feet without even realizing it — an unconditioned response — but the feeling we associate with a certain tune is an example of classical conditioning.
Dogs Still Exhibit Pavlovian Responses
Why does your dog think you’re about to leave the house? Why is she running for the door and acting the way she always does when you take her for a ride? You only took your keys out of your pocket and put them on the table. Those jingling keys were the stimulus. Better not touch the leash.
Fun with Pavlov
If you have a dog, you can try the classic Pavlov experiment yourself. Just ring a bell or tap the side of a metal food dish with a spoon right before you feed your dog. Then try making the same sound without providing food. See if you can duplicate Pavlov’s results.