Understanding a Conditioned Stimulus and Its Role in Psychology

Michelle Overman LMFT
Updated on December 27, 2020

Most people have at some point heard of Pavlov’s famous dog. Ivan Pavlov was a Russian psychologist famous for study on conditioned stimuli. He took dog food (the natural stimulus) and paired it with a bell (the neutral stimulus). The bell would be rung and the dog would be given food. After repeating this procedure for a while, even if there was no food present, the dog would begin to salivate after hearing the bell.

Pavlov's Dog and Conditioned Stimulus

This experiment illustrated a concept called classical conditioning. Over time, previously neutral stimuli can be paired with natural, biological stimuli, becoming a conditioned stimulus. Pavlov’s experiment with the dog illustrated the concept of conditioning and laid the foundation for behaviorism.

Classical Conditioning Applied to Humans

How does the concept of conditioned stimuli look in the life of a regular person? Imagine you have a job where you are on call regularly for potential emergencies. These kinds of jobs could include doctors, counselors, veterinarians, firefighters, police officers, etc. After 6 months of working the job, you have been called out on 10 different occasions. On those occasions, you have dealt with different kinds of emergencies and crises which were stress inducing and anxiety provoking.

Now, every time your phone rings after hours, you notice your heart begins to race and your adrenaline begins pumping at the sound of your ringtone. Even if it is not a crisis, maybe it is just a call from your mom, you notice it takes a bit for your heart rate and blood pressure to return to normal. This is a conditioned stimulus. The ringtone now elicits a physiological response when it previously had not. That is an example of what classical conditioning can look like for people.

The example above may seem to only relate to certain people. However, conditioned stimuli can occur all the time for anyone and everyone. How it seems to manifest is through associations people make. It happens more often than you think. If you need to wake up early for work and struggle to fall asleep because you are afraid you will sleep through your alarm, you might begin associating early mornings with the stress of trying to fall asleep.

If you suddenly have high blood pressure when you go to the doctor, you might associate the thought of going to the doctor with feeling nervous. If you have an anxiety attack when riding public transportation, you might find yourself associating riding a bus or subway with feeling anxious. Even if those particular examples do not resonate with you, everyone likely has a certain song associated with a particular time of life or a certain smell associated with a specific memory like the smell of a perfume your grandma used to wear. They are conditioned stimuli. They create almost an automatic response where there was no response previously.

Final Thoughts

Classical conditioning and conditioned stimuli are important concepts in psychology that have many applications in day-to-day life. On the surface, they simply provide insights on connections and associations people maintain. On a deeper level however, they delve into the roots of issues related to anxieties, fears, and insecurities. These core concepts in psychology are invaluable to therapists looking to gain broader context on clients they are treating, as well as anyone looking to better their own behaviors and conditioned responses.

Michelle Overman LMFT

Michelle Overman is a Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist working as a counselor for students, faculty, and staff at Abilene Christian University in Abilene, Texas. She works with athletes, bridging the gap between athletics and mental health at ACU. She is becoming a Certified Mental Performance Consultant in sports psychology. Michelle ran her own private practice in Austin, Texas where she worked with a diverse population, including couples and families. Michelle earned a Master's in Marriage & Family Therapy and has been working in the field for 6 years.

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