What is Neopavlovian Conditioning

Conditioning: meaning, definition, order, forms, reinforcers, theories and limits


Conditioning is a form of learning that is linked to certain stimuli. A distinction is made between first and second or higher order conditioning. There is also the classic conditioning and the operant.

What does conditioning mean

In psychology, conditioning is understood as the phenomenon that after a stimulus or a behavior, a certain reaction or a consequence to the behavior occurs.

The concatenation of stimulus and reaction is also called classical conditioning, while operant conditioning is the connection between a behavior and a subsequent consequence.

This concept has been thoroughly researched by the representatives of behaviorism. These included B.F. Skinner, Edward Thorndike or John B. Watson. However, Ivan Pavlov laid the foundation for research into these learning processes.

Pavlov's dogs became well known. Ivan Pavlov was a Russian physiologist and physician who discovered the link between stimulus and response rather by accident. Originally he was actually interested in the digestive processes, which he examined in dogs.

In the dog, as in humans, digestion begins with the ingestion of food. Because the saliva already breaks down the food and splits up parts of it. So Pavlov's work also consisted of examining dog saliva.

During his experiments, he noticed that the dogs did not produce more saliva only when they were eating. They salivated at the mere sight of the filled food bowl. He also recognized that it was not only the bowl that triggered the response to the increased salivation as a stimulus. The repeated combination with a neutral stimulus also led to this reaction.

If a bell was rung at the same time as the dog was receiving the food, the dog reacted to the ringing of the bell with increased salivation after a few times. The salivation started without even looking at the food.

Thus, the food could be replaced as a stimulus and yet the physiological process of saliva formation occurred. That the bell also means food was thus conditioned or learned.

Classic conditioning

A distinction is made between several variants of stimuli and reactions.

An unconditional stimulus triggers an unconditional response. These are innate and not learned. This includes reflexes, for example. A human example is the suckling reflex in babies. This is not learned, but they show this behavior as soon as they are confronted with the unconditional stimulus - in this case, for example, the mother's breast. In the example of Pavlov's dogs, the food represents the unconditional stimulus that triggers the unconditional response in the form of increased salivation.

There is also the neutral stimulus and the neutral reaction. There is no specific response to this stimulus. Without the association between ringing the bell and food, the sound of the bell remains a neutral stimulus for the dog. He does not show any particular behavior on it, but just looks around for the source of the noise if necessary.

A conditioned stimulus is a neutral stimulus that has been linked to an unconditional stimulus

After conditioning, the conditioned stimulus (bell ringing) and the conditioned reaction (salivation) come into play.

Neither is innate, but learned. The conditioned stimulus (bell) is originally a neutral stimulus, which is coupled to an unconditional one (feeding). The dog has established a connection between the bell and the food, and the unconditional response becomes a conditional one. It is now a consequence of the conditioned stimulus.

Conditioning of higher or second order

Second-order conditioning involves coupling a neutral stimulus with the conditioned stimulus.

This further connection leads to a conditioned response, although there was no connection between the new stimulus and the unconditioned stimulus.

That sounds a bit confusing at first, so let's take the example of Pavlov's dogs again: The dog has already learned that the ringing of the bell announces the food and begins to salivate. The ringing of bells is the conditioned or conditioned stimulus and salivation is the conditioned or conditioned response.

Now there is a new attraction. This can be, for example, the lighting up of a light signal. The light is still a neutral stimulus and has no connection with the reaction, the food or the ringing of bells. If the light lights up repeatedly when the bell rings, a new chain is created. The dog associates the light with the bell, which is associated with the food. After further conditioning, the dog will begin to salivate if only seeing the light.

Possibilities and limits of classical conditioning

Classical conditioning can be used to acquire emotional reactions and to build up or break down conditioned behaviors.

If the dog is repeatedly not given food despite the bell ringing, the flow of saliva will eventually decrease. A deletion or extinction takes place. The association between bell sound and food continues to decrease, whereupon the reaction is also shown less frequently.

In addition to deletion, there is also the option of counter-conditioning, also known as desensitization. The learned association is replaced by another. This function can also be used in the context of psychotherapy, for example to treat anxiety disorders.

Timing is everything in conditioning

Classic conditioning reaches its limits if the time interval between the unconditional and the neutral stimulus is too great. In the example of Pavlov's dogs, the bell ringing (neutral stimulus) and the food (unconditional stimulus) must be closely linked in time so that conditioning can take place.

If the bell only follows the food after a long time, the dog no longer recognizes a connection between the two stimuli. The flow of saliva remains limited to the feed stimulus. That would also be the case if the bell sounds first and the dog is only given the food after a long delay.

Operant conditioning

Operant conditioning means that a certain behavior is followed by a consequence.

In contrast to classical conditioning, the operant variant does not use stimuli that should be followed by a reaction. The decisive factor here is a behavior.

Thorndike was the first to study the mechanism of operant conditioning. To do this, he uses a puzzle box. It was a box that could be opened from the inside using a simple mechanism. For example, by moving a bolt. Thorndike put a cat in the puzzle box.

The experimental animal inside took a long time to operate this mechanism and open the door on the first attempt. As soon as the cat came out of the puzzle box, there was food as a reward. The first time it took the animal a relatively long time to get out of the box. Only when it accidentally triggered the mechanism did the door open. So the cat did not come to an insight, but learned the behavior through trial and error.

Practice creates masters

After a few attempts, the animal managed to free itself from the box and to get to the food faster and faster.

Soon the cat managed to free itself from the puzzle box within a few seconds. So she had learned that her behavior (actuating the mechanism) has a consequence (the door opens and there is food).

Thorndike explained this with the law of effect. The animal associates the reward behavior with the situation. If this is repeated or a similar situation occurs, the animal will adopt the same behavior. Conversely, this means: If a behavior is not accompanied by success, this behavior will no longer be shown in the future.

Another example is the Skinner box. Burrhus F. Skinner also worked with laboratory animals who received a reward through certain behavior. However, he did not work with cats, but with pigeons and rats. He put his experimental animals in a box with a button or lever. When the animal pressed this trigger, a compartment with food opened. Once the animals understood this, they pulled the trigger more and more frequently.

The consequences affect the likelihood of the behavior occurring. Reward and punishment are crucial here. Both are divided into two categories. The reward is also called reinforcement and can be positive or negative. A positive reward means that behavior is associated with a pleasant consequence.

With a negative reward, there is no unpleasant consequence. The second category is punishment or attenuation. It also includes a positive and a negative variant. The positive punishment is accompanied by an unpleasant consequence, while this is not the case with the negative punishment.

In the context of operant conditioning, positive and negative means less “good” or “bad”, but simply describes the presence or absence of a certain consequence.

Primary and secondary enhancers in conditioning

So the reinforcement describes the consequence.
Amplifiers, on the other hand, refer to pleasant or unpleasant stimuli that influence behavior. A distinction is made here between primary and conditioned amplifiers. Primary reinforcers are innate and therefore biologically anchored. Examples of this are food or water.

So Thorndike and Skinner used primary enhancers when rewarding their test animals with food. Conditioned or secondary reinforcers are learned. They are just the association between a neutral stimulus and a primary enhancer. For example, money is a secondary reinforcer.

In itself, money is a neutral stimulus, but it is coupled with a primary reinforcer. After all, money can buy us something to eat, and food is a primary amplifier. Other examples of conditioned amplifiers are praise, grades, or awards.

Conditioning can be measured with amplifier plans

The type of reinforcement that is most effective can be illustrated using reinforcement plans.

A distinction is made between fixed and variable quota plans and fixed and variable interval plans. The quota plan provides a reward after a certain number of behaviors shown. In the fixed variant, for example, a rat receives food whenever it has pressed a button five times.

With a variable quota plan, she receives the reward on average after every fifth press. But not always: the first time the feed can appear after pressing the button twice, the second time only after pressing it seven times, and so on.

The same applies to interval plans. The time interval between the rewards plays a role here. For example, the rat receives a new portion of food every ten seconds, regardless of the number of behavior shown. With variable interval plans, the reward occurs on average every ten seconds, but at irregular intervals. For example, first after eight seconds, then after twelve, then after nine seconds, etc.

Learned behavior can also be deleted as soon as the behavior is no longer rewarded. However, variable reinforcement plans make behaviors more resistant to erasure. Certain behavior is learned more slowly through these plans, but it remains more sustainable. This is due to the fact that a reinforcer did not always lead to behavior during learning.

If the amplifier fails at some point, the behavior will still be shown over a longer period of time. After all, the amplifier could still appear again. One example of the effectiveness of variable reinforcement plans is gambling addiction. The reward doesn't come every time you try, but it can happen every now and then. Therefore, the behavior persists persistently, which in this case can be very disadvantageous.

Possibilities and limits of classical conditioning

Operant conditioning can be used in education or in everyday school life.

If a child shows a desired behavior, a corresponding consequence follows. For example, they can be made to keep their room tidy. If it receives an amplifier for every cleanup (for example, its favorite show as a reward), it will show the behavior more frequently.

It is similar with positive punishment. If the child shows undesirable behavior, they will be scolded and the behavior should decrease. However, the problem with punishment is that it can lead to a generalization of the entire situation. In this case the child does not really know what it is being punished for.

Time delays also reduce the learning success here. If a child is not punished or rewarded directly after a behavior, they can no longer assign the consequence to any behavior. Regularity is also important. As soon as the behavior is followed by another consequence, the link between the two factors is weakened.