Pavlovian Conditioning: Ivan Pavlov’s Dogs Experiment
Ivan Petrovich Pavlov (1849-1936) lived during a golden age of scientific discovery.
Born into the Russian Empire, and known within his family for being intellectually curious and unusually energetic from a young age, Pavlov won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1904 for his work on the physiology of digestion, making him the first Russian Nobel laureate. Despite this, Pavlov’s most well-known contribution to science was through his dogs experiments, which became the basis for Pavlovian conditioning (also known as classical conditioning).
In this article I’m going to look into Pavlov’s dogs experiment, followed by a detailed look at the what, where, and why of Pavlovian conditioning, before moving on to a section on further reading for anyone interested in learning more about where this field has moved to since.
What is Pavlov’s Dogs Experiment?
Ivan Pavlov’s dogs experiment is an experiment that took place in the 1890s in which the Russian physiologist surgically implanted small tubes into the cheeks of dogs to measure the buildup of saliva that took place under a variety of conditions.
Pavlov’s dogs experiment came about as part of an accidental discovery. Pavlov had at the time been conducting research experiments into the dogs’ gastric systems. As part of this research, Pavlov and his assistants would enter the room where the dogs were housed with a variety of edible and non-edible items, with the intention of measuring the amount of saliva that each dog produced when each item was placed in front of them.
Pavlov prediction that the dogs would salivate when presented with edible items was soon proved correct. This represents an unconditioned response in the animals, in which the sight and smell of the food causes them to salivate. Pavlov couldn’t have predicted what happened next.
A Pavlovian Response
While conducting his gastric experiment, Pavlov began to notice something peculiar. He noticed that the dogs would begin salivating not when food was placed in front of them, but when they heard the footsteps of one of Pavlov’s assistants coming down the hall to bring food to them.
Pavlov soon realized that he could teach his dogs to associate almost any sound, item, or event with the reward of food. To put this another way, it became clear that salivation was a learned response. The most famous item used in Pavlov’s dogs experiment was that of a bell—Pavlov or one of his assistants would ring a bell before feeding his dogs. Soon enough, the single act of ringing the bell would be enough for the dogs to associate this seemingly neutral act with the promise of food.
Pavlovian conditioning was born, and Pavlov’s dogs experiment became his life’s work.
With its genesis in Pavlov’s dogs experiment, Pavlovian conditioning is defined as a form of behavioral psychology (or behaviorism) in which an animal, or human, can be conditioned to respond in a certain way to a stimulus that, had it not been conditioned, should in no way be associated with the act in question.
Let me show you what I mean:
An Unconditioned Stimulus Causes an Unconditioned Response
Prior to Pavlov’s experiment and the discovery of Pavlovian conditioning, it was well-known in the scientific world that an unconditioned stimulus causes an unconditioned response.
An example of this in terms of Pavlov’s dogs experiment would be the food being placed directly in front of the dogs, causing them to salivate. The unconditioned stimulus in this example is the food, and the unconditioned response is the salivation. Pavlov’s dogs’ response (to salivate) was unconditioned because they didn’t need to be trained to respond to the food in this way—it simply happened naturally.
A Neutral Stimulus Causes No Response
In the same way that an unconditioned stimulus causes an unconditioned response, Pavlov confirmed the commonly agreed-upon theory that a neutral stimulus causes no response.
An example of this in terms of Pavlov’s dogs experiment would be the act of Pavlov or one of his assistants ringing a bell before feeding the dogs, before they had taken the time to condition the bell as a stimulus to the food. If they were to ring the bell while it was still a neutral stimulus, no response, conditioned or unconditioned, would have occurred. (Depending on how loud the bell was, the dogs may have been startled the first few times it rang, but this is superfluous to the experiment.)
A Conditioned Stimulus Causes a Conditioned Response
Finally, Pavlov discovered through the course of his experiment that a conditioned stimulus causes a conditioned response.
An example of this in terms of Pavlov’s dogs experiment would be the act of Pavlov or one of his assistants ringing a bell before feeding the dogs, after they have already conditioned the sound of the bell to the promise of food. In this case, the sound of the bell has graduated from being a neutral stimulus to a conditioned stimulus, therefore the dogs’ response (to salivate) became a conditioned response.
In this article I have introduced Pavlov’s dogs experiment and Pavlovian conditioning. The field of classical conditioning and behavioral psychology is vast, and if you found this article interesting I recommend you take a look at some of the following:
- Behaviorism, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
- A Short History of Behaviorism, Washington State University
- Behavioral Principles: Classical Conditioning, St. Cloud University
Ivan Pavlov’s dogs experiment and the birth of Pavlovian conditioning was an instrumental scientific discovery at its time that deserves the acclaim and spirited conversation that it entails to this day.
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