Biological Preparedness and Classical Conditioning

Spider on web
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Biological preparedness is the idea that people and animals are inherently inclined to form associations between certain stimuli and responses. This concept plays an important role in learning, particularly in understanding the classical conditioning process.

Some associations form easily because we are predisposed to form such connections, while other associations are much more difficult to form because we are not naturally predisposed to form them.

For example, it has been suggested that biological preparedness explains why certain types of phobias tend to form more easily. We tend to develop a fear of things that may pose a threat to our survival, such as heights, spiders, and snakes. Those who learned to fear such dangers more readily were more likely to survive and reproduce.

Biological Preparedness Working With Classical Conditioning

One great example of biological preparedness at work in the classical conditioning process is the development of taste aversions. Have you ever eaten something and then gotten sick afterward? Chances are probably good that you avoided eating that particular food again in the future, even if it was not the food that caused your illness.

Why do we form associations between the taste of food and illness so easily? We could just as easily form such associations between people who were present when we became ill, the location of the illness, or specific objects that were present.

Biological preparedness is the key.

People (and animals) are innately predisposed to form associations between tastes and illness. Why? It is most likely due to the evolution of survival mechanisms.

Species that readily form such associations between food and illness are more likely to avoid those foods again in the future, thus ensuring their chances for survival and the likelihood that they will reproduce.

Many phobia objects involve things that potentially pose a threat to safety and well-being. Snakes, spiders, and dangerous heights are all things that can potentially be deadly. Biological preparedness makes it so that people tend to form fear associations with these threatening options. Because of that fear, people tend to avoid those possible dangers, making it more likely that they will survive. Since these people are more likely to survive, they are also more likely to have children and pass down the genes that contribute to such fear responses.

2 Sources
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  1. Seligman ME. Phobias and Preparedness - Republished ArticleBehav Ther. 2016;47(5):577‐584. doi:10.1016/j.beth.2016.08.006

  2. Chambers KC. Conditioned taste aversionsWorld J Otorhinolaryngol Head Neck Surg. 2018;4(1):92‐100. doi:10.1016/j.wjorl.2018.02.003

By Kendra Cherry
Kendra Cherry, MS, is the author of the "Everything Psychology Book (2nd Edition)" and has written thousands of articles on diverse psychology topics. Kendra holds a Master of Science degree in education from Boise State University with a primary research interest in educational psychology and a Bachelor of Science in psychology from Idaho State University with additional coursework in substance use and case management.