Learning through Conditioning - Learning Essay Example

                                               Learning through Conditioning

                                                     Abstract and Introduction


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            Virtually, all animals are born with few set of reflexes, or the genetically embedded responses to specific environmental stimuli. More precisely a reflex denote the relationship that exist between a given environmental event, referred to as a stimulus (S) and a fixed behavioral action, referred to as a response (R) that the reflex induces. As such therefore, reflexes are very essential for the survival of any given animal. However, due to genetic variance, some organisms may have more or less of these reflexes, and therefore for survival they will need to modify or extend their reflexes. This modification or extension of genetically endowed reflexes is what forms the basis for conditioning (Pavlovian conditioning). [Tom, (1998)]

Pavlovian conditioning is believed to be the bedrock for learning. As a matter of fact, Pavlovian conditioning forms the basis of all animals’ adaptation to their immediate environment. In order to modify, extend, or induce conditioning, a neutral stimulus alongside another stimulus which has got some significant are introduced. On the one end, the neutral stimulus can be any event that does not necessarily leads an overt behavioral response from the investigated animal. This is what Pavlov referred to as Conditioned Stimulus (CS). On the other end, the significant stimulus that is presented should induce an innate and reflexive response, termed by Pavlov as Unconditioned Stimulus (US) and Unconditioned response (CR) respectively. In the event of repeatedly pairing the CS and US, they will eventually become associated and the organism will definitely begin showing behavioral response to the CS, a phenomenon termed by Pavlov as Conditional Response (CR). [Pavlov (1927/1960)]

One of the most used form of conditioning is the classical conditioning, it has got two main views that underlies its application in learning, they are, that; (a) the CR can be very different from the UR, and that; (b) the function of classical conditioning is to elicit a preparatory response CR that enables the subject to cope better with an impending event [Holland (1984); Hollis (1984)] In this view, the CR is a preparation for US, while UR is a reaction to it. The first view is also described by a demonstration carried out by Bindra & Palfai (1967), they found that CR and UR can be quite very different in the signaled-shock procedure: the rat’s UR to a shock was to run around and shriek: its CR was to freeze. This was landmark change of approach in classical conditioning, unlike it was initially described when CR and UR where very similar and therefore causing confusion and therefore causing confusion and despair among students studying psychology. (Sparrow & Fernald, 1989)

In order to investigate the effect of conditioning in learning, this paper will describe an experiment that involved eight regular balloons that were inflated to approximately the same size. The essence behind the experiment will be to approximate the subjects’ rate of startle response through seven trials in presence or absence of conditioned stimulus (CS). The paper’s main sections will include; the experiment procedures, results, discussions, cover page, conclusions, and lastly a reference page.


The experiment comprised of eight regular balloons which were inflated to approximately the same size though they were not measured. The participants were instructed by the experimenter to create a data sheet that consisted of trials one through seven. The experimenter explained that she would pop balloons and the participants should rate their startle response from zero through ten. The experimenter stood in front of the room, a balloon in her hand, she counted “one-two-three” and then popped the balloon. This procedure was done for trials one through five. For trial six the experimenter counted to three and made the movement to pop the balloon but she did not actually do it. In trials seven the experimenter began to talk to the participants as if they were in between trials and without warning she popped the balloon. Data was then collected for all participants. NB: see graphs at the last page.                                                                                                       Results

The results showed that the subjects startle response rate went on decreasing from trial one all the way to six. Though trial six did not involve the actual popping of the balloon (only CS was presented) the subjects entered in their record sheets as if an actual popping took place. For trial seven, when the US was presented without the CS (no pop, it was different, the subjects’ rate of startle response was considerably high compared to that recorded in trials one through six. NB: see graphs at the last page.


The experiments results showed that there was a considerable decrease on responding from trials one through six. This can be attributed to learning of an association (counting of one-two-three) because the warning was preparing the subjects of the just-about-to be done activity (popping). In other words they received a stimulus which conditioned them. The CS made them to tense (anticipatory compensatory response) so they did not startle as much when the balloon was popped. In trial six, the balloon was not actually popped, interestingly the subjects responded as if actual popping took place. This was an indicator that the subjects had undergone the process of learning (conditioned learning) as per Domjan’s (1998) description of learning: the enduring change in mechanisms of behavior involving specific stimuli and/or responses that result from prior experience with stimuli and responses. In trial seven the experimenter did not give a warning that she was going to pop the balloon (i.e., conditioned stimulus was not presented) as a result there was very large startle response compared to the other trials.

One would argue that the behavior of the students was a result of habituation to the loud noise made in trial one through five. But this seems the most unlikely argument, as it cannot account for the large difference in startle response on the trial.

Again, the students’ behavior can be explained using operant conditioning context in that, the discriminative stimulus “one-two-three” prepared the students, to start emitting the operant response of tensing their muscles. In turn, the tensing response may have been reinforced by minimizing the startle response. However, this argument poses some difficulties in determining whether the response is operant, classical, or a mixture of both. This leads to the conclusion that operant and classical conditioning overlaps on most times and are therefore capable of producing similar responses. Sometimes operant and classical conditioning have been used sustain a pattern of behavior as in auto-shaping. [Kohn & Kalat (1992)]

On the other hand, in order to understand the psychological reasons underlying the results of the experiment, we can also contrast the student’s behavior using the results that were derived from a similar balloon popping demonstration carried out by Vernoy (1987). In his demonstration, Vernoy used a long needle to pop a balloon that was closely held by his students. Following the popping of the balloon, it produced a noticeable startle reaction that was the UR. The demonstration was repeated with another 5 to 8 balloons while the students held them, lastly, Vernoy took hold of the balloon himself and carefully inserted the needle into the balloon in such a way that it did not pop the balloon. His results indicated that, the students still showed startle though there was no US, just like in this paper’s demonstration. However, there are some differences between this paper’s experiment and Vernoy’s. [Kohn & Kalat (1992)]

            The difference is that the students in Vernoy’s procedure may have experienced pseudo-conditioning. In pseudo-conditioning, successive presentations of the US, especially of an inventive US sensitizes subjects and thereby increases the probability of their emitting the UR, following a neutral stimulus (Staddon & Eitinger, 1989)

            Again, the preparatory nature of Vernoy’s demonstration was very different from the experiment discussed in this paper. In Vernoy’s experiment the balloon was very near to the students’ faces, and it is therefore possible the students learned the natural preparatory action CR of pulling back from the balloon as the needle approached it. In this papers experiment, however, the students were seated farther away from the balloons. [Kohn & Kalat (1992)]


 The demonstration had some limitations, that there was no measure of tensing, that, it was not a real experiment since it only relied on counterbalancing, and that, there was no objective measure of fear, the heart rate measure or video taping it would have done for the measure of fear. Again, two impartial (blind) judges (people) would have been used to rate the subjects’ responses and the average inter-observer agreement between the two taken.

                                               Cover Page

Classical conditioning has evolved from its initial situation whereby the CR and UR were thought to be very similar to the modern version whereby the CR is very different from the UR. With demonstrations indicating that the CR is a preparation for US, while UR is a reaction to it. This change shows that classical conditioning has been evolving, and that, who knows? It may be subject to further change or development. Nevertheless, classical conditioning as it is now, accounts for our emotional and motivational lives.


            The core objective of this paper was to study learning by classical conditioning, an objective which has been duly achieved. The experiment demonstrated the importance of conditioning in virtually every activity that human beings partake of. It is conditioning that makes us to be the experts we are in the areas that we work in. Every now and then potential employers give employment opportunities to those people whom they deem ‘qualified’, qualified taken to refer to academic qualifications but more importantly; working experience. The reason is obvious, that people who are experienced (conditioned) will adjust to their duties quickly than those who are inexperienced (unconditioned). The learned lesson in this experiment is that forewarning and tensing can lead to the perfecting of an action. Again, negative conditioning such as fear also exists and can be very bothersome if not overcome.


Domjan, M. (1998). Going in the laboratory: Learning about species typical cues. In D. L. Medin (ed.) the Psychology of learning and Motivation (Vol. 38, pp. 155- 186), accessed on April 21, 2009

Holland, P. (1984). Origins in Behavior in Pavlovian Conditioning. In G. Bower (Ed.), Psychology of Learning and Motivation: Advances in Research and Theory, 18, (pp. 129-174). Academic Press, accessed on April 21, 2009

Hollis, K .L. (1984). The biological function of Pavlovian Conditioning: The best defense is a good offense. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Animal Learning and
Behavior, 10, 413-425, accessed on April 21, 2009

Kohn, A., & Kalat, J. W. (1992). Preparing For an Important Event: Demonstrating the Modern View of Classical Conditioning. Teaching of Psychology, Vol. 19, No. 2, accessed on April 22, 2009

Pavlov, I. P. (1927/1960). Conditional Reflexes. New York: Dover Publications, Oxford University Press, accessed on April 21, 2009

Sparrow & Fernald (1989). Teaching and demonstrating classical conditioning.
Teaching in Psychology, 16, 204-206, accessed on April 21, 2009

Staddon, J.E.R., & Eitinger, R.H. (1989). Learning: An introduction to the principals of adaptive behavior. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, accessed on April 21, 2009

Creed, T. (1998) “Pavlovian Conditioning,” available online at;

http://employees.csbsju.edu/tcreed/pb/pavcon.html, accessed on April 21, 2009

Vernoy, M.W. (1987). Demonstrating classical conditioning in introductory psychology: Needles do not always make balloons pop! Teaching of Psychology, 14, 176 – 177, accessed on April 21, 2009

(1) Experimental


X – Axis represents the trial numbers, 1 – 7

Y – Axis represents the subjects startle responses NB: the average rate of startle response for the eight subjects was calculated for each trial.

(2) Control Experiment: Unpaired 123


X – Axis represents the trial numbers, 1 – 7

Y – Axis represents the subjects startle responses


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