Pavlov Theory Case Study


Classical Conditioning Case Studies

Examining classical conditioning case studies is one of the best ways to understand how classical conditioning works, its history and implications for its use.

Also known as Pavlovian or respondent conditioning, classical conditioning is a behaviourist approach that was popularised between 1920 and 1950 that focuses on behaviour analysis theory that dictates psychology should be conducted in a scientific manner, with empirical data that is obtained through controlled observation and behaviour measurement.

At its basic level classic conditioning achieves modified behaviour by pairing neutral stimulus with potent stimulus. After the conditioning has been performed, the potent stimulus can be removed and the neutral stimulus should then elicit the same response as if the potent stimulus was still present.

On to the case studies:

#1 Classical Conditioning Case Study: Pavlov’s Dog 

The original classical conditioning study, performed by Ivan Pavlov during the 1890’s. In the experiment Pavlov used a bell as the neutral stimulus, whenever Pavlov gave food to his dog he rang the bell, this was repeated several times until he tried to ring the bell on its own (with no food).

Pavlov found that after the conditioning (food+bell) had been completed then the bell alone would then cause increased salivation in the dog (as if food was still being presented).

Pavlov was able to conclude from this that the dog had learnt the association between the bell and food and that a new behaviour had been learnt.

Pavlov found that these associations could be made when two stimuli are presented close together, when the time between the two stimuli was too great then the association and subsequent learnt behaviour was not created.

#2 Classical Conditioning Case Study: Little Albert Experiment

The Little Albert Experiment is most famous in todays psychology textbooks as being a prime example of an unethical psychology study.

In the experiment a 9-month old infant known as Little Albert was presented with various stimuli such as a monkey, masks, a rat and a rabbit. While Albert showed no fear of any of these stimuli, one particular stimuli did startle him and cause him to cry: a hammer striking a steel bar just behind his head.

Its no wonder Little Albert was upset by this particular stimuli. 

But the ‘researchers’ didn’t stop there, at 11-months old Albert was presented with the rat in combination with the hammer striking the steel bar again, this was performed 7 times over the following 7 weeks, upsetting Albert on every occasion.

As with Pavlov’s dogs over the 7 weeks an association between the neutral (the rat) and potent stimulus (hammer striking) created and association and now when Albert was shown just the rat he would cry and try to crawl away. 

Key Concepts

Several types of learning exist. The most basic form is associative learning, i.e., making a new association between events in the environment[1]. There are two forms of associative learning: classical conditioning (made famous by Ivan Pavlov’s experiments with dogs) and operant conditioning.

Pavlov’s Dogs

In the early twentieth century, Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov did Nobel prize-winning work on digestion[2]. While studying the role of saliva in dogs’ digestive processes, he stumbled upon a phenomenon he labeled “psychic reflexes.” While an accidental discovery, he had the foresight to see the importance of it. Pavlov’s dogs, restrained in an experimental chamber, were presented with meat powder and they had their saliva collected via a surgically implanted tube in their saliva glands. Over time, he noticed that his dogs who begin salivation before the meat powder was even presented, whether it was by the presence of the handler or merely by a clicking noise produced by the device that distributed the meat powder.

Fascinated by this finding, Pavlov paired the meat powder with various stimuli such as the ringing of a bell. After the meat powder and bell (auditory stimulus) were presented together several times, the bell was used alone. Pavlov’s dogs, as predicted, responded by salivating to the sound of the bell (without the food). The bell began as a neutral stimulus (i.e. the bell itself did not produce the dogs’ salivation). However, by pairing the bell with the stimulus that did produce the salivation response, the bell was able to acquire the ability to trigger the salivation response. Pavlov therefore demonstrated how stimulus-response bonds (which some consider as the basic building blocks of learning) are formed. He dedicated much of the rest of his career further exploring this finding.

In technical terms, the meat powder is considered an unconditioned stimulus (UCS) and the dog’s salivation is the unconditioned response (UCR). The bell is a neutral stimulus until the dog learns to associate the bell with food. Then the bell becomes a conditioned stimulus (CS) which produces the conditioned response (CR) of salivation after repeated pairings between the bell and food.

John B. Watson: Early Classical Conditioning with Humans

John B. Watson further extended Pavlov’s work and applied it to human beings[3]. In 1921, Watson studied Albert, an 11 month old infant child. The goal of the study was to condition Albert to become afraid of a white rat by pairing the white rat with a very loud, jarring noise (UCS). At first, Albert showed no sign of fear when he was presented with rats, but once the rat was repeatedly paired with the loud noise (UCS), Albert developed a fear of rats. It could be said that the loud noise (UCS) induced fear (UCR). The implications of Watson’s experiment suggested that classical conditioning could cause some phobias in humans.

Additional Resources and References



  1. Mackintosh, N. J. (1983). Conditioning and associative learning (p. 316). Oxford: Clarendon Press.
  2. Pavlov, I. P., & Anrep, G. V. (2003). Conditioned reflexes. Courier Corporation.
  3. Watson, J. B. (2013). Behaviorism. Read Books Ltd.

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