Classical conditioning is a Pavlovian perspective which says that learning occurs through association. To put this process simply, two stimuli are linked to produce a new learned response. It is a process that applies to humans and animals. John Watson used the observations from Ivan Pavlov to even suggest that this process can explain every aspect of human psychology.
Everything from our emotional responses to our speech patterns come from stimulus and response opportunities. Watson would even go on to suggest that the existence of a “mind” instead of the presence of a brain was unfounded. All individual differences in personal behavior were because of the presence of unique learning processes.
“Give me a dozen healthy infants, well-formed, and my own specified world to bring them up in,” said Watson. “I’ll guarantee to take any one at random and train him to become any type of specialist I might select: doctor, lawyer, merchant-chief, artist, beggar, or thief, regardless of his talents, penchants, tendencies, abilities, vocations, and the race of his ancestors.”
List of the Pros of Classical Conditioning
1. Classical conditioning emphasizes learning from our environment.
Instead of pursuing a vocation that you are passionate about in some way, it is not unusual for someone to choose a career that helps them to achieve a specific goal outside of their working life. You might decide to become an accountant because it pays the bills. If you like to help others, then you could opt for becoming a social worker.
Classical conditioning says that who we are is a reflection of our environment. People learn every day because of what happens in the world around them. This behaviorism creates responses which cause us to make specific decisions that dictate the course of our life. You might like to help others because your environment never helped you as a child. Paying the bills might be important to you because you were always living in debt growing up. These processes allow us to change the world.
2. It suggests that nurturing is more critical to development than nature.
Our environment involves more than the physical surroundings that exist around each person. The social interactions that we receive from family and friends each day helps us to develop as well. Classical conditioning suggests that the reason why we pursue specific outcomes is because the important people in our lives encouraged us to do so.
Let’s say that a child in your life (a son, daughter, cousin, niece, nephew, etc.) comes to you seeking advice about their future career options. They show you a piece of artwork and ask for your opinion on it, never saying anything about the purpose of the question. If you say that it is a great piece, then you’ll push them forward toward a career in that industry. If not, then you could cause them to change their mind.
3. This response to stimuli becomes a method of self-protection.
One of the unique qualities about the classical conditioning process is that it provides individuals with an adaptive mechanism. We all choose behaviors or actions based on what we perceive the outcome to be. There are not always moral or spiritual elements to these choices as well. You can see an attractive person, imagine that you’re having sex with them, and then decide to pursue a relationship to achieve that outcome because of a basic physiological desire. That is why the premarital sex statistics, teenage sexual activity statistics, and divorce statistics are all similar across numerous demographics, including those with backgrounds in spiritual teaching.
We follow our physical longings because of the outside stimulus that is available more than we do our mental processes. Classical conditioning argues that this creates an environment where outside stimuli is almost always more powerful than anything internal.
4. It can help people to modify destructive behaviors.
Classical conditioning is often used in treatment programs because it can help individuals to see why they make specific choices even if they want to take a different action. Smoking, alcoholism, illicit drug use, and even sexual addiction can all see changes occur when the therapies including systematic desensitization to the stimulus that triggers a specific choice. Aversion therapy and flooding can encourage people to stay away from their triggers as well, which then modifies the behavior because their environment changes.
The reality of classical conditioning is that we can choose our environments, which means we make choices about our behaviors and actions at the same time. Even when an outside party initiates this process, it can help us to get rid of bad habits quickly because they receive an association with an unpleasant experience.
5. We can use it every day or receive it to create changes.
Classical conditioning applies in numerous ways throughout the environments we encounter every day. When you see an advertisement that shows someone enjoying one product and hating a competitor’s item, then this process is being utilized to convince you to make a purchase. We look at the price of two items and then choose the product which offers the most value to use in that moment.
People associate good and bad experiences with every action they take in life. If you get a “bad taste in your mouth” for a specific brand, item, or concept, then the struggle to change your mind is real. You feel a deep aversion to that situation because of the negative experiences you encountered in the past.
6. It can be used to boost the positive feelings that individuals have to other people.
One of the most devastating issues that the U.S. military is trying to resolve is an increase in servicemember suicide. An average of 20+ soldiers from all branches take their life on the average day. Working on the theory that classical conditioning could strengthen relationships, reduce divorce rates, and improve this problem, a research trial in 2017 matched pictures of positive items with a deployed Marine’s significant other. To create a control group, the teams paired neutral images (buttons) with their spouse or partner.
This study found that when partner photos were paired with positive images, then it could stimulate positive feelings for that person. With enough exposure to these photographs, a positive feeling could occur without complementary photos of sunsets, puppies, or wedding cakes helping the process.
7. Classical conditioning offers the potential to eliminate phobias.
There is a difference between hatred and fear. If you truly hate something, then you will never be around it unless there is no other choice. Fear is an emotion that holds you back. It is easy to confuse the two reactions when dealing with a phobia.
The reason why classical conditioning can help to treat various phobias is that it changes the environment which triggers the response in the first place. It then repeats the cue exposure in positive ways to address the anxiety which can surge through the body. Over time, the stimulus loses its power to make you feel afraid, thereby causing the phobia to begin reducing its influence in your life.
List of the Cons of Classical Conditioning
1. Classical conditioning does not account for the idea of free will.
Pavlov and Watson both suggest that the classical conditioning process changes how we approach every situation in life. Watson even goes to the extent to say that consciousness is only a reflection of the outcomes we push toward through this process. If this learning setup has an element of truth to it, then we do not have the levels of free will that we think are available to us.
Because our environment dictates our behaviors and choices in this model, unexpected circumstances will dictate our preferences and actions. Think of it like this: a young child goes to the zoo for the first time. They see many animals that they’ve never encountered before. Then a stranger says, “I don’t like tigers because they are mean and ugly.” This statement forms a similar sentiment in the child because of the stimulus it creates. That first interaction can then create a lifelong distaste for that animal.
2. This learning process underestimates how unique human beings really are.
There are three specific traits which we can find in humanity that make us absolutely unique as a species with our current knowledge of the universe: symbolic abstract thinking, structure building, and a higher consciousness. The fact that you can read and comprehend this content right now is evidence that there is a background “mind” operating in the background while your brain takes care of the biological functions of your body.
Watson could probably encourage any child with the right training to enter any career field that he desired for them, but this famous proposition is only one element of the human existence. An individual can change their mind to pursue a different course at any time. Ken Jeong became a licensed physician, but he stopped practicing to pursue an acting career – and he is one of many different examples.
3. There is no predictive quality to classical conditioning.
People will respond in different ways to the stimulus they encounter in the environment around them. The smell of one food all of the time can cause one person to feel hungry all of the time while another becomes ill from it. Encountering negative information about airplanes can cause someone to become fearful of flying, while it inspires someone else to become a pilot to make changes to the industry. Although there are relevant moments for each one of us where someone or something influences the way we see the world, the actual reaction is still up to every person.
4. We must remember the difference between “creating” and “learning.”
Classical conditioning doesn’t help someone to create new behaviors. It is a learning process which connects a natural response to the stimulus that is in the environment. The difference between these two concepts involves the focus on the incident in the present moment. Learning a new behavior means that you repeat the same habit, choice, thought, or action every time a similar stimulus comes your way. Someone or something teaches you to react in a specific way.
Creating new behaviors is a natural outcome for the classical conditioning process. It is something which is challenging to measure because the response can provide different levels of success in each situation. Watson suggests that there is a specific action that occurs for each person, but environments are so varied that no two people or situations are 100% the same.
5. There are numerous variables which can change the possible outcomes.
There are numerous changes that can occur in stable environments which impact how someone can react. Individual experiences, perspectives, and habits are just as essential to the final outcome as the external factors that are present in the moment that a choice is made. Even when a specific stimulus is paired to a particular response, the activity that occurs afterward is not entirely predictable.
We can add predictability by finding something that a person likes, and then associating another action to it so that the feelings transfer to the additional action. Pavlov’s dogs discovered that food would create an unconditioned response, but a whistle would not. During the conditioning process, blowing the whistle while providing food would create positive associations to both. That means when someone sounds the whistle without food present, the dog will believe that he’s about to be fed anyway.
6. It requires someone to have positive associations to be useful.
If a person has set feelings about someone or something that is predominantly negative, then classical conditioning will not automatically turn a frown into a smile. People do not develop positive feelings toward anything that they dislike intensely. If you have a damaged relationship, hate the flavor of a specific food item, or don’t like visiting a specific community because of events that happened there, then seeing associations with happy moments will not change anything.
7. People can choose to act against their conditioning.
Let’s use the example from the Pavlov experiment to address this disadvantage of classical conditioning, but then apply it to people. An individual feels hunger pains in their stomach every time that they smell a pot roast cooking in a slow cooker. They begin to think of the potatoes, gravy, and vegetables, which only furthers the need to eat something. A timer going off at this moment can create a trigger which stimulates a similar physical response when it occurs every time the pot roast is cooking.
Then the individual remembers that they are trying to reach a specific weight goal for their diet. They need to avoid protein because of the nutritional guidelines their doctor prescribed to them. There is now a choice to be made: do you go with the doctor’s environment or the conditioned biological one? People can ignore their conditioned responses. It may still generate a specific reaction, but it does not always translate into behavior.
8. It provides a temporary effect when generating results.
Classic conditioning can create a positive response to a different stimulus that receives linking to something enjoyable. It will also transfer that emotion for a finite time. Pavlov discovered that associating a bell or whistle with the presentation of food could cause a similar biological response once the connections were made, but it would fade with constant use. If he kept ringing the bell several times without food, then the paired association of the items will end, which eliminates the physiological response.
The same issue occurs with cravings. If you’re used to smoking a cigarette when you get into your vehicle after work, then you will experience a robust urge to have one every time you start to head home after the work day. When you force yourself into a position where this outcome is no longer possible, then you will slowly reduce the power of the cue until it is no longer present.
A Final Thought on Classical Conditioning Advantages and Disadvantages
Behaviorism is based on the assumption that all learning occurs through interactions with a person’s environment. It must also assume that the behavior is shaped by the environment itself. Classical conditioning involves placing a neutral signal before a naturally-occurring reflex to create results. By associating a neutral stimulus with a positive environmental one, both can begin to create a specific response for any person or animal.
The problem that this learning method never addresses is the potential problem with a neutral response. If a dog had an abusive owner who blew a whistle as he hit the animal, then the sound of it would no longer create a neutral response. It would instead incite fear that would transfer over to the food presented to the animal, potentially causing the dog to stop eating.
These classical conditioning pros and cons show us that this response matrix can create positive outcomes, but it can also become problematic when there are unexpected results that occur. We must pay attention to what happens in the environment around us to remain safe and make healthy choices. If we can associate happy memories to specific situations, then we are more likely to recreate those circumstances.
Natalie Regoli is a child of God, devoted wife, and mother of two boys. She has a Master's Degree in Law from The University of Texas. Natalie has been published in several national journals and has been practicing law for 18 years.