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Classical Conditioning

February 10, 2020

In the early 1900s, Ivan Pavlov, a physiologist by profession, discovered classical conditioning which explains about modifying behavior in such a way that when a conditioned stimulus is paired with an unconditioned stimulus, it elicits an unconditioned response. This theory received great support from John Watson, professor of psychology at John Hopkins University, who used it to study emotions in animals and was able to explain everything from verbal communication to affective responses as simply patterns of stimulus and response. Though the theory seems to ignore certain dimensions of human behaviour- cognition, thinking and consciousness- which animals lack, Watson gave high weightage to Pavlov’s work and continued using his theory to define human emotions on the basis of his experiments with animals. 

Although later schools of thought like the cognitive school of psychology refuted this theory and gave more importance to mental processes that pertain to how people think, perceive, remember and learn, classical conditioning seems to be relevant in today’s scenario especially with regard to today’s generation’s behaviour related to usage of technology. It raises questions in my mind about how they have become conditioned to technology. I have also personally observed a 2-year old holding the mobile phone and crying for it when it has been taken away from her, or refusing to eat unless her favorite cartoon is shown on it. How is this behaviour learnt by the child? How does this conditioning occur? The possible reason could be that parents have replaced the unconditioned stimulus of giving love and attention, and being personally engaged with the child with the conditioned stimulus of technology usage to buy some free time for themselves. As per classical conditioning, the extinction of conditioned response happens when unconditioned stimulus is not presented for long. However, that doesn’t seem to be the case here. Behaviour learnt in childhood seems to carry on without any extinction until adulthood and probably even until old age. I am leaving this discussion here and invoking some thoughts for the readers for further investigation and reflection on what sort generation they want to interact with in the days to come- conditioned or unconditioned?

Prof. Bhupinder Arora, Assistant Professor, UWSB

Disclaimer: The opinions / views expressed in this article are solely of the author in his / her individual capacity. They do not purport to reflect the opinions and/or views of the College and/or University or its members.

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