Pavlov’s experiment on dogs and other studies on the conditioning of our behaviors

How can you create in the mind of a human being or another animal aassociation between an external stimulus and a conditioned reflex, thus provoking a precise and automatic response? That’s what he asked himself Pavlov, Russian doctor, physiologist and ethologist, between the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century. To answer this question Pavlov made a experiment on his dogs: for a certain period of time every time he gave them from eatsounded one bell. This created a conditioned association between the two elements, food and the bell, so much so that subsequently, every time the scientist rang the bell, even without feeding the animals, this caused a strong feeling in them. salivation. The experiment is part of a current of study of psychology call behaviorism and, in particular, in the theory on classical conditioning. Let’s delve deeper into the question.

What is behaviorism

The behaviorism (also known as “behaviorism”) is a current of study of psychology born in the early 1900s in United States. Its founder was JB Watsonwho described the human psyche like one “black box”: according to the author, the complete functioning of the psyche is not fully knowable; therefore, psychologists should limit themselves to study scientific of what is objectively observable and measurable, i.e. the behavior manifested by the individual.

The area of ​​research most developed by behaviorists islearning: among the most famous experiments, we find those of Pavlov who, by studying the behavior of dogs and the increase in their salivation following certain stimuli, laid the foundations of the theory on classical conditioning hey conditioned and unconditioned reflexes.

Behaviorism has influenced psychological research until the 1960sfocusing on the external, directly observable aspects of mental activity, voluntarily leaving out the symbolic world and the unconscious, considered even irrelevant in the learning process.

Pavlovian classical conditioning

Stimulus-response psychology

Behaviorists believe that it is possible to explain psychic phenomena by eliminating any reference to concepts that cannot be verified experimentally and that human behavior, like that of other animals, is the result of chains of stimulus-response associations with the external environment. In short, stimuli from the outside would enter the “black box” of our psyche and responses (i.e. behavior) would come out. For this reason, behaviorism has also been defined as “stimulus-response psychology”.

According to behaviorists it is not important to know what the contents or mental processes behind our actions are, but only the stimuli (input) that are provided to us from the outside and how these translate into precise behaviors (output).

Classical conditioning and Pavlov’s experiment

The classical conditioning it’s a form of stimulus-response learning in which a subject learns to associating the same behavior with two previously different and separate stimuli. The case ofPavlov’s experiment with their own dogsalready briefly explained in the introduction of the article: he managed to make them associate the sound of a bell toincreased salivation (reflexes that did not appear together before his experiment), even without it being necessary to provide food.

So yes consolidate a stimulus-response association, for Pavlov it is necessary that a certain stimulus (defined as a conditioned stimulus – e.g. the bell) is presented in association with a second stimulus (defined as an unconditioned stimulus – e.g. food) which spontaneously provokes a specific response in the subject/animal (at the sight of food the dog spontaneously increases its salivation ). After the two stimuli are presented together several times (bell rings – food arrives), it can be observed that the animal begins to increase its salivation not when the food arrives, but when the bell rings.

Pavlov announced his discovery In the 1903 and, thanks to his study, the following year, in 1904won the Nobel Prize for Medicine and Physiology.

The Pavlovian reflex and little Albert

The Pavlovian reflex it has found countless applications in various fields of study and was revived at the beginning of the twentieth century by Watson and Rayner in the famous case of little Albertknown for being the “first case of experimentally induced phobia”. The experimenters, according to an experimental practice that today would not be permitted for ethical reasons, associated a neutral stimulus, a baby mouse white, to a noise strong and frightening, while also frightening the child subjected to the experiment. After numerous repetitions, Albert not only began to demonstrate fear at the sight of the mouse, but he also generalized this phobia to various small and furry objects that could remind him of it.