Understanding the Science of Learning

Classical conditioning explained

Has your dog ever run into the kitchen when you opened the cupboard because he expected a treat? Or perhaps you’ve cringed at the thought of touching a doorknob on those days that you’ve been shocked a few times? Those are just two everyday examples of the role of classical conditioning in the learning process.

In classical conditioning our mind (and body) are conditioned to expect a certain feeling when we see a certain object, hear a certain sound, smell a specific smell, or any other sensation based on past experiences. Think back to the static electricity example; you didn’t expect to be shocked the first time it happened on that day, but after it happened a few times you quickly began to dread touching doorknobs. In this example the doorknob is the object that begins to elicit a feeling (fear) of being shocked.

So how can you apply classical conditioning to your everyday life? Do you have a dog? You can use a clicking device, available at most pet stores, to use classical conditioning to train your dog. In this training method the animal is first taught to expect a treat when he hears a loud clicking sound created by the training device.

After a few training sessions (the exact number depends on the dog; some learn in as few as 10 pairings and others require several days) you will notice that your pet begins to expect the treat after hearing the click; for example your dog may lick his lips at the sound. Once the animal expects to get a treat after hearing the click you’re ready to train the animal using classical conditioning.

First you reward your pet for close approximations of the behavior you want him to do. For example, you might tell your dog to sit and gently push down on his behind while rewarding him with a click. It’s very important to use the clicking device immediately after the animal does what you want. You then begin to only reward behaviors which are closer and closer to the final goal, until the animal does exactly what you want. This training method is how service animals are trained; for instance a Seeing Eye dog can be taught to operate light switches in only a few hours using these methods.

Of course pets aren’t the only example of classical conditioning in every day life; perhaps you’ve felt dread upon seeing your district manager’s car pull into your office parking lot (this of course assumes that you fear him!). Or maybe you feel good when looking at a picture of your romantic partner. These are also examples of classical conditioning in our everyday lives.