Pavlov and classical conditioning


As I was going through the sports news recently after completing my piece on conditioning as the topic of my last week’s article, I was sad to have read that two players of the PNG Hunters team were terminated because they did not follow some basic or important rules set by the management team.
It is sad that though talented as they are, their chances of rising to a higher level in rugby league competition have come to a stop for the moment due to disciplinary issues.
In other words, they were not conditioned enough to take on better and tougher rules to raise the level of their performance.
Conditioning is not just about doing tougher exercises – it is also about taking up better habits and values to excel in your duties or sports.
I may return to such bad behaviour and consequences in a future article.

Learning interesting stuff in education
For now, let me turn to something interesting that I learned when I studied education for a year at the University of Goroka many years ago.
I was one of those teachers who went out to teach with a science degree without an education component in my studies.
So, I was advised to do the education diploma to qualify me to be registered as a teacher.
The one whole year of studies in Goroka helped me in many ways, including learning courses in education as well as reading education journals and learning about education initiatives in other countries – some in recent years and in also over the centuries.
Two of the first-semester courses that gave me a better and meaningful slant to my job as a teacher were Introduction to Educational Psychology and Philosophy and Curriculum in Education.
I will share some interesting things I learned in those two courses.
In this article, I will share a bit of what I learned in the first course.

Education psychology’s unique assignments
In the education psychology course, our lecturer Dr David Boorer assessed us in an interesting and unique way.
He gave us five topics in that semester and told us to write an essay on each theme.
He then graded us on those. (He did not do actual instruction on those themes, he told us to go research ourselves and write essays – that is, about one essay each fortnight.)
Each time he gave us back our marked papers, Boorer would correct what was wrong in our understanding regarding each concept that he gave us, as well as giving us additional views or applications of what we studied.
One of the papers I wrote was on the theme of Ivan Pavlov and classical conditioning.
(Do note that the way “conditioning”, which was used in last week’s article, cannot be taken to be the same as “classical conditioning” as studied by Pavlov.)
For a science graduate who never took any course in psychology or physiology (branch of biology that deals with the normal functions of living organisms and their parts) in my BSc study programme, classical conditioning was an interesting topic and some aspects of it can used in education or learning.

Who is Pavlov?
Ivan Pavlov (1849-1936) was a Russian scientist (a physiologist) interested in studying how digestion works in mammals.
He observed and recorded information about dogs and their digestive process, as described at
As part of his work, he began to study what triggers dogs to salivate. It should have been an easy study: mammals produce saliva to help them break down food, so the dogs should have simply began drooling (or salivating) when presented with food.
But what Pavlov discovered when he observed the dogs was that drooling had a much more far-reaching effect than he ever thought: it paved the way for a new theory about behaviour and a new way to study humans.

Pavlov and classical conditioning
The people who fed Pavlov’s dogs wore lab coats. Pavlov noticed that the dogs began to drool whenever they saw lab coats, even if there was no food in sight. Pavlov wondered why the dogs salivated at lab coats, and not just at food.
He ran a study in which he rang a bell every time he fed the dogs. Pretty soon, just ringing a bell made the dogs salivate.
Pavlov said the dogs were demonstrating “classical conditioning” (also called operant conditioning).
He summed it up like this: there’s a “neutral stimulus” (the bell), which by itself will not produce a response, like salivation.
There’s also a non-neutral or “unconditioned stimulus” (the food), which will produce an “unconditioned response” (salivation).
But if you present the neutral stimulus and the unconditioned stimulus together, eventually the dog will learn to associate the two. After a while, the neutral stimulus by itself will produce the same response as the unconditioned stimulus, like the dogs drooling when they heard the bell. This is called a “conditioned response”.
Think of an unconditioned response as completely natural and a conditioned response as something that we learn.

Behaviourism theory vs humanistic theories
In psychology, there are number of general theories and the discovery made by Pavlov supports behaviourism theory, which is a theory of learning based on the idea that all behaviours are acquired through conditioning.
Behaviourism emphasises the role of environmental factors in influencing behaviour, to the near exclusion of innate or inherited factors. This amounts essentially to a focus on learning.
Psychologists like John B. Watson and B. F. Skinner advocated for behaviourism.
On the other side, some psychologists like Carl Rogers and Abraham Maslow promoted humanist theories, which emphasised the goodness of human beings.
Humanistic psychology is a perspective that emphasises looking at the whole individual and stresses concepts such as free will, self-efficacy, and self-actualisation.
Rather than concentrating on dysfunction, humanistic psychology strives to help people fulfill their potential and maximise their well-being.
(Note that faith or religion and values that foster acts of kindness and love would fall under humanistic psychology, not behaviourism.)

My view regarding the theories
As you can see, Pavlov’s conditioning and behaviourism in general have some very practical applications in learning, in that conditioning can help someone acquire a behaviour or habit. (The dogs salivate because they learned to associate lab coats with food.)
However, when you think about it, some elements of humanistic theories are also very practical in someone who wants to learn. The learner’s own thoughts, feelings, emotions, and reasons behind learning something or a set of skills (which are neglected under behaviourism) can make the U-turn in ushering a struggling learner to someone who would one day be a master of something or a set of skills.
That was what I argued then in my education psychology class and I still believe that today.
The “external environment” is not the only factor that causes someone to learn, the “internal environment” can change a struggling or average learner to one day be the top student in his or her class.
Despite that, Pavlov’s classical conditioning can offer a window out of which we can see some marvellous learning experiences.
Recently I was thinking about something I thought was interesting.
Do you get emotions and memories rushing through your mind when a song of the past decade comes on over the radio or stereo?
Your body reacts to the song as you start to feel tears forming in your eyes because your memory takes you back to that special mother or friend whose favourite song is that very one playing on the radio?
Do you ever experience such moments?
Can you see that such experience can be explained as a case in classical conditioning too?

A theory or a law?
Now, let me turn to something else – for those who like to debate on which theory is the best.
Before you start asking me questions on the validity of my view, let me make this clear.
A theory is a theory.
A theory is not a law, even though it could be taken to be so.
A theory is an accepted view of a concept or observation and as yet is supported by evidence, just like the theory of gravitation can be observed all around us when we see falling objects or us not floating in air due to the possible non-existence of gravity.
Aspects of a theory can be debated on with another better theory.
A theory held today could be a theory neglected tomorrow, or replaced by a better theory.
Or, aspects of one theory could be accepted with aspects of another theory – whether it is in science or social science (as in psychology).
Like, for thousands of years the world held fast on the Ptolemaic theory (the earth-centred model) but one day that was shown to be false (by scientists like Galileo Galilei) – so today we all accept the Copernican theory (the sun-centred model) and neglect the Ptolemaic theory.
So, an educator must feel free to make his or her own decision on what to take from different theories in psychology to make it work in the job of helping students learn.

Blame it on the rain?
One of the points I raised in my paper was that we have to be careful with the concept of classical conditioning and particularly behaviourists who often neglect the “internal environment” of a human being when they suggest that conditioning is key to everything.
The internal environment that I am referring to has to do with someone’s thoughts, feelings, emotions and even faith.
Such internal aspects of a person can make a big difference in a person learning new behaviour.
Adopting a new faith has shown to change lives, changed behaviour. We see those effects around us.
On the other hand, the concept of behaviourism (of which classical conditioning is part of) can take an irresponsible stance when things go wrong.
Someone who messes up can blame the environment and not taking responsibility for his or her mistakes or crimes.
I hope you see what I am saying here.
Some people always blame others for their mistakes – or, blame the environment.
To summarise, educators, teachers, instructors and coaches must be aware of the extremes of different theories but be bold enough to take pieces or bits from each to make your learning experiences exciting and rewarding for people under your tutelage.

• Next week: Maslow and self-actualisation. Thomas Hukahu is a freelance writer.

Leave a Reply