What Is a Conditioned Response?

The Role of the Conditioned Response in Classical Conditioning

Cat exhibiting conditioned response
Vstock LLC / Tetra images / Getty Images

In classical conditioning, the conditioned response is the learned response to the previously neutral stimulus. For example, let's suppose that the smell of food is an unconditioned stimulus, a feeling of hunger in response the smell is a unconditioned response, and a the sound of a whistle is the conditioned stimulus. The conditioned response would be feeling hungry when you heard the sound of the whistle.

While studying classical conditioning, you might find it helpful to remember that the conditioned response is the learned reflexive response.

The classical conditioning process is all about pairing a previously neutral stimulus with another stimulus that naturally and automatically produces a response. After pairing the presentation of these two together enough times, an association is formed. The previously neutral stimulus will then evoke the response all on its own. It is at this point that the response becomes known as the conditioned response.

Conditioned Response Examples

Some examples of conditioned responses include:

  • Many phobias begin after a person has had a negative experience with the fear object. For example, after witnessing a terrible car accident, a person might develop a fear of driving. This fear is a conditioned response.
  • The sound of a can opener or bag being opened can trigger excitement in an animal. If your pet is accustomed to being fed after hearing the sound of a can or bag being opened, he or she might become very excited whenever they hear that sound. This behavior is a conditioned response.
  • Many children receive regular immunizations, and a child may cry as a result of these injections. In some instances, a child might come to associate a doctor's white jacket with this painful experience. Eventually, the child might begin to cry whenever they see anyone wearing a white coat. This crying behavior is a conditioned response.
  • A person who is bitten by a barking dog may experience feelings of fear and anxiety whenever they hear a barking noise. The fear that people feel when they hear a bark is the conditioned response.

The Conditioned Response in Classical Conditioning

Let's take a closer look at how the conditioned response works in classical conditioning. Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov first discovered the classical conditioning process during his research on the salivary systems of dogs. Pavlov noted that the dogs would salivate to the taste of meat, but that after a while they also began to salivate whenever they saw the white coat of a the lab assistant who delivered the meat.

To look closer at this phenomenon, Pavlov introduced the sound of a tone whenever the animals were fed. Eventually, an association was formed, and the animals would salivate whenever they heard the sound, even if no food was present.

In Pavlov's classic experiment, the food represents what is known as the unconditioned stimulus (UCS). This stimulus naturally and automatically triggers an unconditioned response (UCR, which in this case was salivation. After pairing the unconditioned stimulus with a previously neutral stimulus, the sound of the tone, an association is formed between the UCS and neutral stimulus.

Eventually, the previously neutral stimulus begins to evoke the same response, at which point the tone becomes known as the conditioned stimulus. Salivating in response to this conditioned stimulus is an example of a conditioned response.

How to Identify the Conditioned Response

Distinguishing between the unconditioned response and the conditioned response can sometimes be difficult. Here are a few things to remember as you are trying to identify a conditioned response:

  • The conditioned response must be learned while the unconditioned response takes place with no learning.
  • The conditioned response will only occur after an association has been made between an unconditioned stimulus and a conditioned stimulus.

    So what happens in cases where the unconditioned stimulus is no longer paired with a conditioned stimulus? In Pavlov's experiment, for example, what would have happened if the food was no longer presented after the sound of the tone? Eventually, the conditioned response will gradually diminish and even disappear, a process known as extinction.

    In one of our previous examples, imagine that a person developed a conditioned response to feel fear whenever they hear a dog bark. Now imagine that the individual has many more experiences with barking dogs, all of which are positive. While the conditioned response initially developed after one bad experience with a barking dog, that response may begin to diminish in intensity or even eventually disappear if the individual has enough good experiences where nothing bad happens when they hear a dog's bark.

    A Word From Verywell

    The conditioned response is an important part of the classical conditioning process. By forming an association between a previously neutral stimulus and an unconditioned stimulus, learning can take place, eventually leading to a conditioned response.

    It is important to remember that conditioned responses can sometimes be a good thing, but they can sometimes be problematic. Associations can lead to desirable behaviors at times, but they can also lead to undesirable or maladaptive behaviors as well. Fortunately, the same behavioral learning processes that led to the formation of a conditioned response can also be used to teach new behaviors or change old ones.

    Sources:

    Bernstein, D. Essentials of Psychology. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth; 2014.

    Nevid, JS. Essentials of Psychology: Concepts and Applications. Boston: Cengage Learning; 2015.

    Continue Reading