Learning involves acquiring knowledge or skills through experience. It may occur in response to direct study or instruction, but often the process of learning is more subtle and subconscious than we might think or give credit to. Our tendency to behave in certain ways is continually modified in response to what we learn through our various life experiences. Conditioning is a specific type of learning that involves linking particular stimuli (people, places, things, etc.) with other stimuli or responses. It is sub-divided into classical conditioning and operant conditioning.
Classical conditioning affects involuntary, automatic behaviors, and is also known as learning through association. It is a learning process that occurs when two things become paired together in a way that they both eventually elicit the same response. Have you heard of Pavlov’s dogs? Pavlov famously recognized the process of classical conditioning when he realized that his dogs learned to salivate to the sound of a bell. How did that happen? Dogs (and humans for that matter) naturally salivate when they smell food. Since Pavlov would ring a bell moments before presenting his dogs with their food, over time, they began to salivate when they heard the bell. They learned that the bell signified the upcoming presence of food.
Classical conditioning can happen overtly to the extent that we’re quite conscious of the association being made, but it can also be subtle and occur unconsciously. Pay attention the next time you attend a major sporting event. You might notice that your heart rate goes up when you hear “The Star-Spangled Banner.” This is the case for many people because they have learned to associate (classical conditioning) hearing that song with the fast-approaching start of an exciting sporting event. This is likely to occur beneath conscious awareness; many people will not even notice that their heart rate increases unless they deliberately bring their attention to it!
Classical conditioning also plays a big role in food associations. Do you have popcorn at the movies even if you aren’t particularly craving it? It could be that you associate going to the movies with having popcorn; that is, the once neutral stimulus of the movie theater has become a conditioned stimulus that leads you to crave that special treat the moment you enter the building (or park your car!). Associations between particular stimuli and food are incredibly common. It could be anything from ginger ale on airplanes, to dinner feeling incomplete without a dessert, to expecting turkey on Thanksgiving; our food-related desires and expectations are largely related to the associations we’ve learned over time.
Classical conditioning does not always have positive results and can lead to the development of taste aversions. Imagine that you’re coming down with the stomach flu but aren’t aware of it yet. After dinner, you decide to have a large piece of peach pie for dessert. About 30 minutes later you’re feeling nauseous and feverish and you start to worry that the peach pie may have been expired or spoiled somehow. You feel progressively sicker over the course of the night and vow never to eat peach pie again. The next day, you realize it was the stomach flu, but for years afterward, even the smell of peach pie makes you feel queasy and disgusted. From an evolutionary perspective, it serves the function of biological preparedness; that is, it helps keep humans and animals alive by reducing the chances that they continue to consume poisonous or other harmful ingredients (a 2nd time, anyway!).
Negative associations do not have to pertain to food. In fact, one major contributing factor to most phobia relates to the fear response people develop through classically conditioned learning. This process was demonstrated in a famous expert on a baby named Little Albert. A white rat was presented to Little Albert before the researcher made a very loud noise; over time, he became fearful of not only white rats but generalized that fear to other white objects, including cotton and his family dog. People (and animals) can also develop classically conditioned phobias of bridges, cars, confined spaces, flying, heights, and an indefinitely long list of other options!
Extinction is a term that refers to the disconnection, or unlearning, of a classically conditioned response. It lies at the heart of therapeutic approaches known as “exposure techniques” that help people overcome ineffective responses to feared triggers, such as spiders, elevators, or crowded places. Exposure provides the person ample opportunities to experience the feared trigger until the classically conditioned response (in this case, fear), begins to dissipate such that the person learns that they can handle that trigger and that experiencing it doesn’t have to lead to distress.
In general, fewer long exposure activities are more powerful in terms of promoting extinction than many short exposure activities as they give the individual the opportunity to get past their initial discomfort and truly realize that they’re capable of getting through it without the feared consequences that motivated their avoidance in the first place. Is there something you’re afraid of? Science says get out there and experience it! Nothing will teach your brain that you can handle it more than doing it, and you can’t put a price on proving to yourself that you’re stronger and more capable than you thought you were!