Pavlov's Theory of Classical Conditioning

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Ivan Pavlovs classical conditioning theory is one of the major theories in psychology, having created the foundation for behaviorism. Classical conditioning, also known as Pavlovian, is a theory of learning where innate responses towards potent stimuli are elicited in responses to previously neutral stimuli (Lefrancois, 2014). This process is achieved through a process of continuous or repeated pairing of potent stimuli and neutral stimuli. Ivan Pavlov developed the basic tenets of the classical conditioning theory form his experiments with dogs. Essentially, classical conditioning occurs when an unconditional stimulus (US) is paired with a conditional stimulus (CS). The conditional stimulus is usually the neutral stimulus while the unconditional stimulus is the potent stimulus (Lefrancois, 2014). The unconditional response towards and unconditional stimulus comes as unlearned reflex response. Through repeated pairings, an organism or an individual may learn the behavior and exhibit a conditional response towards the conditioned stimulus (Lefrancois, 2014). This conditioned response is similar to that which occurs in unconditional responses, but this must be gained or learned through experience and is for the most part impermanent.

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Pavlovs classical conditioning theory became a major theoretical framework for understanding the learning process. Several of the concepts that Pavlov introduced in this theory have become important factors in understanding the learning process. For instance, concepts such as acquisition, extinction and recovery, generalization and discrimination, and higher order conditioning are very crucial in understanding the learning process. These concepts are further discussed below;


This is one of the first phenomena that Pavlov examined in his experiments with dogs. It involves learning new things through repeated experiments. According to Pavlov, the acquisition process entails pairing the conditioned stimulus and the unconditioned stimulus (Lefrancois, 2014). The nature and the extent of the pairing process can be tracked through numerous test trials where the conditioned stimulus is first presented and the conditioned response recorded (Carlson, 2010). In some instances, a single pairing of the conditioned stimulus and the unconditioned stimulus can result in a desired conditional response, but in most cases, it is necessary to conduct the trials several times to get the desired outcome. The more the repeated number of experiments or trials the stronger the conditional response or the higher the frequency of portraying the conditional response. Therefore, the speed of the conditioning process depends on a number of issues including the strength and nature of the unconditional stimulus as well as the conditional stimulus, the motivation of the animal or organism in question, and its previous experience (Carlson, 2010).

Therefore, in a learning scenario, the concept of acquisition is at the core of the learning process. According to this concept, new behaviors or ideas can be learned or acquired through continued exposure to the new phenomenon. Repeated or continuous exposure to the new ideas can help create a conditional response, which will imply that the individual as already acquired a new form of behavior.

Extinction and recovery

This involves the process of helping the organism eradicate a behavior that has already been learned. Therefore, Pavlov observed that learned or acquired behavior can only be eradicated effectively if the conditioned stimulus is presented alone to the animal or organism without the presence of the unconditional stimulus (US) (Carlson, 2010). When this is repeated several times, the conditional stimulus will eventually stop eliciting the conditional response. As a result, the conditional response will be termed to have been extinguished.

Conversely, an extinct conditional response can also be recovered. This shows that the extinction does not completely eradicate the conditional response form the animal. Recovery takes place in five main processes or procedures namely reacquisition, Spontaneous recovery, Disinhibition, Reinstatement, and Renewal. In reacquisition, the conditional response is exhibited immediately the conditional stimulus is paired with the unconditional stimulus, only that this time it happens faster than in during the acquisition process. Spontaneous recovery, on the other hand, occurs when there is a reappearance of the conditional response after some period of rest (Carlson, 2010). For example, when a conditional stimulus is tested some hours after conditioning, there will be a conditional response only that this time it will be weaker than it was during before the extinction. Disinhibition involves a situation where there is a temporary conditioned response of the conditioned stimulus is tested just after extinction (Carlson, 2010). On the other hand, reinstatement occurs when the subject is presented with the unconditioned stimulus in the same environment that conditioning and extinction happened, but without the presence of the conditioned stimulus (Carlson, 2010). Finally, renewal occurs when the subject exhibits a conditioned response after extinction when it returns to the environment where the acquisition process occurred.

Generalization and discrimination

Generalization of the stimulus occurs in a situation where is there is specific conditioned stimulus that has led to exhibition of a conditioned response and there is another stimulus that can bring out the same conditioned response in the subject (Shettleworth, 2010). When there are many similar conditioned stimuli, the conditioned response will be stronger.

On the other hand, discrimination occurs when one conditioned stimulus brings out a particular conditioned response, but another stimulus brings out a different response or fails to bring up any response at all (Shettleworth, 2010). This can occur in instances where here is a pairing of a conditions stimulus with an effective unconditioned stimulus and presenting the other conditioned stimulus without the unconditioned stimulus.

Higher order conditioning

This is pone type of conditioning that Pavlov emphasized a lot in his experiments. This involves a modification of the reaction to a neutral stimulus that is associated with a conditioned stimulus, which was considered neutral before (Shettleworth, 2010). For example, when a bell is used as a conditioned stimulus and anther random object used as a neutral stimulus, the subject, a dog, will salivate when it hears the bell and sees the random object. When the bell is removed and the random object used as the neutral stimulus, the do will still salivate.


Carlson, Neil R. (2010). Psychology: The Science of Behaviour. New Jersey, United States: Pearson Education Inc.

Lefrancois, G. R. (2014). Acp Vs Ebk Psych 310: Theories Of Human Learning - 1080 Days, 6th ed.. [VitalSource Bookshelf Online]. Retrieved from, S. J. (2010) Cognition, Evolution and Behavior (2nd Ed), New York: Oxford.

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