Behaviorist theories of learning see all animals as a blank slate at birth, with learning takng place as a result of making an association between events and their environment. There are two forms of associative learning, classical conditioning, which is associative learning before an event, which takes the form of a reflexive response to it, and operant conditioning, which is associated learning after an event, due to its’ consequences. This essay will look at theories behind classical conditioning and their use in the treatment of phobias and addiction.
Classical conditioning was discovered through for the work of the 20th century Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov who was conducting Nobel prize-winning work on digestion. While investigating the role of saliva in dogs’ digestive processes he stumbled upon a phenomenon he labeled psychic reflexes; the dogs, which were restrained in an experimental chamber were presented with meat powder and their saliva collected by a surgically implanted tube in the saliva glands while measuring the dogs’ salivation on the production of meat powder, Pavlov realised the dogs started to salivate not just at the appearance of the meat powder, but at the appearance of the lab assistant who usually fed them, or at the sound of the containers used to feed them. Realising the importance of his accidental discovery, Pavlov began to experiment by creating an association for the dogs, by ringing a bell each time they were given meat powder; eventually, as he hypothesised, the dogs would salivate on hearing the bell, without any food being produced. Pavlov used this relatively simple experiment as a model for describing much of the automatic/nonconscious learning that occurs in everyday life, the basic characteristic of classical conditioning is that the learning is automatic and non-conscious. Pavlov identified four basic he typical procedure for in classical conditioning involves presentations of a neutral stimulus (the bell) along with a stimulus that elicits an automatic response (the meat powder), which he termed the unconditioned stimulus (US). Presentation of the US necessarily evokes a reflexive, response (salivation). Pavlov called this the unconditioned response (UR). If the neutral stimulus is presented along with the unconditioned stimulus, it would become a conditioned stimulus (CS). If the CS and the US are repeatedly paired, eventually the two stimuli become associated and the organism begins to produce an unconscious response to the CS (salivation on hearing the bell). Pavlov called this the conditioned response (CR). Other features of classical conditioning identified by Pavlov were extinction, spontaneous recovery, discrimination and generalization. Extinction occurs when the CS is no longer paired with the US, for instance when the bell was rang without food being produced the dogs eventually stopped salivating on hearing it; the CR, unlike the UR does not become permanently established and can be unlearnt. However under the right conditions (for instance after a time lapse) the CR can reappear, which Pavlov termed spontaneous recovery. Generalization could occur when presented with a different but similar stimulus to the CS (for instance the dogs hearing a different tone), and discrimination was their ability to tell them apart, so that only the CS elicits the CR. A famous example of generalization is shown in John B. Watson’s study of Little Albert. Watson elicited fear (the CR) in Little Albert after pairing loud noise with a white rat, and this quickly became a generalized response by Little Albert to a rabbit, a dog, cotton wool, and a fur coat. However Little Albert did not become frightened of the room he was placed in when the conditioning occurred, the building blocks he was playing with, or peoples’ hair; showing discrimination. Watson’s research shows that classical conditioning applies to humans as well as animals, and led Watson to conclude that it formed the...
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