Conditioned Response in Classical Conditioning

Cat exhibiting conditioned response
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In classical conditioning, the conditioned response is the learned response to the previously neutral stimulus. For example, the smell of food is an unconditioned stimulus, a feeling of hunger in response to the smell is an unconditioned response, and the sound of a whistle when you smell the food is the conditioned stimulus. The conditioned response would be feeling hungry when you heard the sound of the whistle.

While studying classical conditioning, you might find it helpful to remember that the conditioned response is the learned reflexive response.

The classical conditioning process is all about pairing a previously neutral stimulus with another stimulus that naturally produces a response. After pairing the presentation of these two together enough times, an association is formed. The previously neutral stimulus will then evoke the response all on its own. At this point, the response becomes known as the conditioned response.

Identifying a Conditioned Response

Distinguishing between the unconditioned response and the conditioned response can sometimes be difficult. Here are a few things to remember as you are trying to identify a conditioned response:

  • The conditioned response must be learned, while the unconditioned response takes place with no learning.
  • The conditioned response will only occur after an association has been made between an unconditioned stimulus and a conditioned stimulus.

Some examples of conditioned responses include:

  • If you witness a terrible car accident, you might develop a fear of driving. Many phobias begin after a person has had a negative experience with the fear object.
  • If your pet is accustomed to being fed after hearing the sound of a can or bag being opened, they might become very excited when hearing that sound.
  • If your child receives regular immunizations, and cries as a result of these injections, they may come to associate a doctor's white jacket with this painful experience. Eventually, the child might begin to cry whenever they see anyone wearing a white coat.
  • If you are bitten by a barking dog, you may experience feelings of fear and anxiety whenever you hear a barking noise.

In Classical Conditioning

Let's take a closer look at how the conditioned response works in classical conditioning. Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov first discovered the classical conditioning process during his research on the salivary systems of dogs. Pavlov noted that the dogs would salivate to the taste of meat, but that after a while they also began to salivate whenever they saw the white coat of the lab assistant who delivered the meat.

To look a closer at this phenomenon, Pavlov introduced the sound of a tone whenever the animals were fed. Eventually, an association was formed, and the animals would salivate whenever they heard the sound, even if no food was present.

In Pavlov's classic experiment, the food represents what is known as the unconditioned stimulus (UCS). This stimulus naturally and automatically triggers an unconditioned response (UCR), which in this case was salivation. After pairing the unconditioned stimulus with a previously neutral stimulus, the sound of the tone, an association is formed between the UCS and the neutral stimulus.

Eventually, the previously neutral stimulus begins to evoke the same response, at which point the tone becomes known as the conditioned stimulus. Salivating in response to this conditioned stimulus is an example of a conditioned response.

Extinction

So what happens in cases where the unconditioned stimulus is no longer paired with a conditioned stimulus? In Pavlov's experiment, for example, what would have happened if the food was no longer present after the sound of the tone? Eventually, the conditioned response will gradually diminish and even disappear, a process known as extinction.

In one of our previous examples, imagine that a person developed a conditioned response to feeling fear whenever he or she heard a dog bark. Now imagine that the individual has many more experiences with barking dogs, all of which are positive.

While the conditioned response initially developed after one bad experience with a barking dog, that response may begin to diminish in intensity or even eventually disappear if the person has enough good experiences where nothing bad happens when he or she hears a dog's bark.

A Word From Verywell

The conditioned response is an important part of the classical conditioning process. By forming an association between a previously neutral stimulus and an unconditioned stimulus, learning can take place, eventually leading to a conditioned response.

Conditioned responses can be a good thing, but they can also be problematic. Associations can lead to desirable behaviors, but they can lead to undesirable or maladaptive behaviors (for example, phobias) as well. Fortunately, the same behavioral learning processes that led to the formation of a conditioned response can also be used to teach new behaviors or change old ones.

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Article Sources
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  1. Shechner T, Hong M, Britton JC, Pine DS, Fox NA. Fear conditioning and extinction across development: evidence from human studies and animal modelsBiol Psychol. 2014;100:1–12. doi:10.1016/j.biopsycho.2014.04.001

  2. Rehman I, Mahabadi N, Rehman CI. Classical Conditioning. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2020.

  3. American Psychological Association. Unconditioned stimulus.

  4. American Psychological Association. Extinction.

Additional Reading
  • Bernstein D. Essentials of Psychology. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth; 2014.
  • Nevid JS. Essentials of Psychology: Concepts and Applications. Boston: Cengage Learning; 2015.