Classical Conditioning Case Studies

Examining classical conditioning case studies is one of the best ways to understand how classical conditioning works, its history and implications for its use.
Also known as Pavlovian or respondent conditioning, classical conditioning is a behaviourist approach that was popularised between 1920 and 1950 that focuses on behaviour analysis theory that dictates psychology should be conducted in a scientific manner, with empirical data that is obtained through controlled observation and behaviour measurement.

At its basic level classic conditioning achieves modified behaviour by pairing neutral stimulus with potent stimulus. After the conditioning has been performed, the potent stimulus can be removed and the neutral stimulus should then elicit the same response as if the potent stimulus was still present.

On to the case studies:

#1 Classical Conditioning Case Study: Pavlov’s Dog 

Pavlov's Dogs - Classic Conditioning

The original classical conditioning study, performed by Ivan Pavlov during the 1890’s. In the experiment Pavlov used a bell as the neutral stimulus, whenever Pavlov gave food to his dog he rang the bell, this was repeated several times until he tried to ring the bell on its own (with no food).

Pavlov found that after the conditioning (food+bell) had been completed then the bell alone would then cause increased salivation in the dog (as if food was still being presented).

Pavlov was able to conclude from this that the dog had learnt the association between the bell and food and that a new behaviour had been learnt.

Pavlov found that these associations could be made when two stimuli are presented close together, when the time between the two stimuli was too great then the association and subsequent learnt behaviour was not created.

#2 Classical Conditioning Case Study: Little Albert Experiment

Little Albert, classic conditioning

The Little Albert Experiment is most famous in todays psychology textbooks as being a prime example of an unethical psychology study.

In the experiment a 9-month old infant known as Little Albert was presented with various stimuli such as a monkey, masks, a rat and a rabbit. While Albert showed no fear of any of these stimuli, one particular stimuli did startle him and cause him to cry: a hammer striking a steel bar just behind his head.

Its no wonder Little Albert was upset by this particular stimuli. 

But the ‘researchers’ didn’t stop there, at 11-months old Albert was presented with the rat in combination with the hammer striking the steel bar again, this was performed 7 times over the following 7 weeks, upsetting Albert on every occasion.

As with Pavlov’s dogs over the 7 weeks an association between the neutral (the rat) and potent stimulus (hammer striking) created and association and now when Albert was shown just the rat he would cry and try to crawl away.