What is Classical Conditioning of Behavior?

What is Classical Conditioning of Behavior?

Learn about classical conditioning and its impact on behavior.

To begin, let’s break down the definition of classical conditioning. Classical conditioning is a form of learning originally studied and conceptualized by Ivan Pavlov (more on his work later) in the late 19th century. In this process, an unconditioned stimulus, an inherently salient stimulus that elicits an automatic behavior, and a previously neutral stimulus are repeatedly paired together in a subject’s experience. Over time, the subject is then conditioned to produce the same automatic behavior, the conditioned response, upon experiencing the previously neutral stimulus.

A popular introductory psychology textbook broke it down like this:

“The essential operation in conditioning is a pairing of two stimuli. One, initially neutral in that it elicits no response, is called the conditioned stimulus (CS); the other, which is one that consistently elicits a response, is called the unconditioned stimulus (US). The response elicited by the unconditioned stimulus is the unconditioned response (UR). As a result of the pairing of the conditioned stimulus (CS) and the unconditioned stimulus (US), the previously neutral conditioned stimulus comes to elicit the response. Then it is called the conditioned response (CR).” – (Morgan & King, 1966)

Another important point to note is that the temporal proximity of the two stimuli is critical to forming the conditioned association. The conditioned stimulus effectively serves to predict the unconditioned stimulus. If the two events aren’t so close in time, the relationship likely won’t form (Rescorla, 1988). 

“Behaviour is a mirror in which every one displays his own image.”
― Johann Wolfgang

Classical Conditioning & Ivan Pavlov

Much of our initial understanding of classical conditioning came from the work of Ivan Pavlov, a Russian physiologist of the late 19th and early 20th century. Even if you’ve never taken a psychology course, you’ve likely heard of Pavlov and his dogs. They’re an omnipresent cultural reference, from plotlines in cartoons to Rolling Stones lyrics. But how did they teach us about classical conditioning?

Pavlov’s discovery of classical conditioning was actually discovered not through a study of learning, but through an experiment studying the physiological process of salivation in dogs (Mallea et al., 2019). After years of studying the production of gastric juices in dogs presented with food, Pavlov observed that their salivation started to occur before even seeing the food—the response came as soon as the dogs heard the footsteps of the experimenter who came to feed them. To a naive dog, the footsteps are essentially meaningless, generating no response. But after they reliably signaled the arrival of food, the dogs produced the same response (salivation) to the sound of footsteps as they had to the food itself.

After witnessing this, Pavlov began to more deeply explore what he deemed “psychic secretions” caused by stimuli other than direct exposure to food and how they can be refined and changed. For example, Pavlov would set a metronome at a particular speed each time he fed a dog; from then on, hearing a metronome at any speed would elicit a response in the dog. However, if multiple speeds were presented but the food appeared only with one speed, the dog’s response would become more discerning—it could discriminate between meaningful vs. neutral stimuli (Specter, 2014). This was just the beginning of research seeking to understand the boundaries and possibilities of classical conditioning.

Classical Conditioning Examples in Everyday Life

We’ve explored a number of examples of classical conditioning in dogs, but it’s easy to find examples in your everyday life. Here are some scenarios where classical conditioning impacts human behavior:

● When he’s watching TV, Ibrahim has started using commercial breaks to head to the kitchen for a snack. Now, even if he’s not really hungry, seeing commercials between parts of his favorite shows makes him think about having a snack.

● Marisol has been a smoker for 10 years, nearly always having a cigarette when she gets home from work. She’s now working hard to quit smoking, but it’s challenging to break that habit—every day when she arrives home from work, she really craves a cigarette.

● One night, Sam is driving to his friend’s house and gets into a car accident at a major intersection. He’s ultimately okay, but very shaken up. Now, whenever he sees that intersection or tries to drive his car, his heart races and his palms get sweaty.

Perhaps you can think of some examples of classical conditioning in your own life.

In Sum

Classical conditioning is much more than an experimentally observable psychological phenomenon—it forms the basis of many of our behaviors and attitudes. It can help to explain the development of behaviors that may harm your physical and mental health, but understanding classical conditioning can also be leveraged to improve your habits. Importantly, research on classical conditioning also shows that while these learned associations are potent, behavior can change, which is a valuable lesson to anyone looking to make a shift in their life.


● Mallea, J., Bustamante, J., Miguez, G., Laborda, M.A. (2019). Classical Conditioning. In: Vonk, J., Shackelford, T. (eds) Encyclopedia of Animal Cognition and Behavior. Springer, Cham.

● Morgan, C. T., & King, R. A. (1966). Introduction to psychology (3rd ed.). McGraw-Hill.

● Rescorla, R. A. (1988). Pavlovian conditioning: It’s not what you think it is. American Psychologist, 43(3), 151–160.

● Specter, M. (2014, November 24). Drool. The New Yorker.