Principles of Classical Conditioning

Acquisition, Extinction, Spontaneous Recovery and More

Training dog with classical conditioning
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Classical conditioning involves learning new behaviors through the process of association. Behaviorists have described a number of different phenomena associated with classical conditioning. Some of these elements involve the initial establishment of the response while others describe the disappearance of a response. These elements are important in understanding the classical conditioning process.

Let's take a closer look at five key principles of classical conditioning:

1. Acquisition

Acquisition is the initial stage of learning when a response is first established and gradually strengthened. During the acquisition phase of classical conditioning, a neutral stimulus is repeatedly paired with an unconditioned stimulus. As you may recall, an unconditioned stimulus is something that naturally and automatically triggers a response without any learning. After an association is made, the subject will begin to emit a behavior in response to the previously neutral stimulus, which is now known as a conditioned stimulus. It is at this point that we can say that the response has been acquired.

For example, imagine that you are conditioning a dog to salivate in response to the sound of a bell. You repeatedly pair the presentation of food with the sound of the bell. You can say the response has been acquired as soon as the dog begins to salivate in response to the bell tone.

Once the response has been established, you can gradually reinforce the salivation response to make sure the behavior is well learned.

2. Extinction

Extinction is when the occurrences of a conditioned response decrease or disappear. In classical conditioning, this happens when a conditioned stimulus is no longer paired with an unconditioned stimulus.

For example, if the smell of food (the unconditioned stimulus) had been paired with the sound of a whistle (the conditioned stimulus), it would eventually come to evoke the conditioned response of hunger. However, if the unconditioned stimulus (the smell of food) were no longer paired with the conditioned stimulus (the whistle), eventually the conditioned response (hunger) would disappear.

3. Spontaneous Recovery

Sometimes a learned response can suddenly reemerge even after a period of extinction. Spontaneous Recovery is the reappearance of the conditioned response after a rest period or period of lessened response. For example, imagine that after training a dog to salivate to the sound of a bell, you stop reinforcing the behavior and the response eventually becomes extinct. After a rest period during which the conditioned stimulus is not presented, you suddenly ring the bell and the animal spontaneously recovers the previously learned response.

If the conditioned stimulus and unconditioned stimulus are no longer associated, extinction will occur very rapidly after a spontaneous recovery.

4. Stimulus Generalization

Stimulus Generalization is the tendency for the conditioned stimulus to evoke similar responses after the response has been conditioned. For example, if a dog has been conditioned to salivate at the sound of a bell, the animal may also exhibit the same response to stimuli that are similar to the conditioned stimulus. In John B. Watson's famous Little Albert Experiment, for example, a small child was conditioned to fear a white rat. The child demonstrated stimulus generalization by also exhibiting fear in response to other fuzzy white objects including stuffed toys and Watson own hair.

5.  Stimulus Discrimination

Discrimination is the ability to differentiate between a conditioned stimulus and other stimuli that have not been paired with an unconditioned stimulus. For example, if a bell tone were the conditioned stimulus, discrimination would involve being able to tell the difference between the bell tone and other similar sounds. Because the subject is able to distinguish between these stimuli, he or she will only respond when the conditioned stimulus is presented.

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