Neutral Stimulus: Definition & Examples

In classical conditioning, a neutral stimulus is something that does not elicit a response. Read on to find out more about the meaning of neutral stimulus and how it can change into a conditioned stimulus, and discover real-world examples of this type of stimulus.

What Is a Neutral Stimulus?

A neutral stimulus is a stimulus that does not produce an automatic response. In classical conditioning, a neutral stimulus turns into a conditioned stimulus. To understand this better, let’s look at an example.

Whenever Carly’s boyfriend calls her, her phone plays a specific song as a ringtone. Carly doesn’t have strong feelings either way about the song, but her boyfriend likes it. When the song is played on the radio, Carly doesn’t have any strong reaction to it. The song is a neutral stimulus because it doesn’t elicit any strong emotions from Carly.

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However, Carly really likes talking to her boyfriend. Every time they talk, she smiles because she likes him so much. Her boyfriend is an unconditioned stimulus because he elicits an automatic reaction from her. The reaction (smiling) is an unconditioned response.

After a lot of phone calls from her boyfriend coupled with a lot of times hearing the song as her ringtone, Carly again hears the song on the radio. She finds that she’s smiling at the song. She has begun to associate the song with the feelings she gets from her boyfriend. As a result, she reacts to the song the same way she reacts to her boyfriend, with a smile, which is a conditioned response. And, since she now reacts to the song, it is no longer a neutral stimulus but a conditioned stimulus.

Pavlov and His Dogs

Classical conditioning was first discovered by Ivan Pavlov. While studying digestion in dogs, Pavlov noticed that the dogs began to drool whenever they saw someone in a lab coat. Pavlov realized this was because the people who fed the dogs always wore lab coats, so the dogs associated eating with lab coats.

To test his theory, Pavlov set up an experiment: he rang a bell every time he fed the dogs. After many meals with which they heard the bell, the dogs began to drool when they heard the bell – even if there was no food around.

Examples of Neutral Stimuli

Sam puts a hard candy in his mouth, and it gets lodged in his throat. After that, every time someone offers him that brand of hard candy, Sam’s throat hurts. The candy was a neutral stimulus that was turned into a conditioned stimulus when he choked on it.

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 was a neutral stimulus that was turned into a conditioned stimulus with the addition of the loud noise.

Jennie is watching a commercial for a company she’s never heard of. The commercial features several images of beautiful, happy people holding hands and hugging. Afterwards, every time Jennie hears the name of that company, she feels happy and loved. The brand was a neutral stimulus that was turned into a conditioned stimulus by the commercial.

Lesson Summary

Let’s review. In classical conditioning, a neutral stimulus is something that does not produce a specific reaction. After being paired with an unconditioned stimulus, it becomes a conditioned stimulus that elicits a conditioned response.

Lesson at a Glance

Something that initially did not produce a certain reaction can eventually stimulate one based on association. Discovered by Ivan Pavlov, classical conditioning can turn a neutral stimulus into a conditioned stimulus.

Pavlov experimented with a bell and was able to get his dogs to drool, even if there was no food around.
neutral stimulus

Learning Outcomes

After completing this lesson, you should be able to accomplish the following tasks:

  • Describe the process of classical conditioning as it relates to neutral and conditioned stimuli
  • Cite some examples of neutral stimuli
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