What a conditioned stimulus, and Albert reacted

What is a conditioned stimulus, and what does it have to do with commercials and rats? Read on to learn the definition and review some real-life examples of conditioned stimuli. Then test your knowledge with a quiz.

Conditioned Stimulus Defined

Jenny drives the same route to work every day.

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One morning, a car runs a red light and hits Jenny at a prominent intersection on her normal route. After that, every time she approaches the intersection, Jenny’s hands begin to sweat and her heart races.The intersection is a conditioned stimulus for Jenny. A conditioned stimulus is created when we learn to react to something because we associate it with something else. It’s part of the psychological theory of classical conditioning.

Classical Conditioning

A classic experiment involving dogs illustrates classical conditioning. Ivan Pavlov, the Russian physiologist, was studying the digestive system of dogs when he noticed that the dogs began to drool every time they saw someone in a lab coat.

He discovered that this happened because the dogs were always fed by assistants wearing lab coats. The coats had become so associated with food that the dogs would salivate at the sight of them, whether or not the food was present.Pavlov then further tested this response using a bell.

He would ring a bell each time he presented food to the dogs, who would drool at the sight of the food. Eventually, ringing the bell alone elicited a response of salivation from the dogs. In this experiment, the bell starts out as a neutral stimulus (it elicits no response), and the food is an unconditioned stimulus (it elicits an unconditioned, or natural, response).

Eventually, the dog learns to associate the bell with food, at which point, the bell becomes a conditioned stimulus.

Rats, Commercials, and Conditioned Stimuli

At some point or other, everyone has experienced classical conditioning and the power of a conditioned stimulus. Let’s look at a few examples.Sam eats at a nice restaurant and then gets sick from the flu. Now every time that he goes to the restaurant, he feels nauseated.

The restaurant has become a conditioned stimulus that Sam associates with being sick.Little Albert was shown a white rat, and he had no reaction to it. Then, he was shown the rat several more times, and each time he heard a loud noise that scared him and made him cry. Eventually, just the sight of the white rat was enough to scare him and make him cry. The rat is a conditioned stimulus, and Albert reacted to it the same way that he reacted to the loud noise.Jane is watching a commercial for a brand that she’s never heard of. The commercial features several images of beautiful, happy people holding hands and hugging.

Afterwards, every time Jane hears the name of the company, she feels happy and loved. Jane experiences these feelings because she was conditioned to react to the brand; the brand is a conditioned stimulus.

Lesson Summary

In classical conditioning, a conditioned stimulus is something that elicits a reaction because it is associated with something else. Pavlov first explained conditioned stimuli after he experimented on dogs, but there are numerous examples of human conditioning in everyday life.

Learning Outcomes

Finishing this lesson prepares students to:

  • Define & explain a conditioned stimulus
  • Describe Pavlov’s well-known classical condition experiment involving dogs
  • Recall some real-world examples of classical conditioning and conditioned stimuli
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