Emotional Competency

Explore the Logic of Passion

Conditioned Responses
Learned Behavior Below Cognition

We so often act without even thinking because we have been conditioned to respond. Habituation, sensitization, classical conditioning, and operant conditioning are all learning processes that associate a specific behavior with a particular stimulus and cause us to act before we can think. These responses account for a substantial portion of our behavior. They are often learned quickly, sometimes unknowingly, and can only be changed by carefully and systematically extinguishing them.

Conditioned responses make up the third layer of the architecture for interaction.


  1. Learning: Persistent changes in behavior that result from experience

Habituation and Sensitization

Habituation and sensitization help organisms adapt to their environment by focusing on what is important.

Habituation is learning not to respond to the repeated presentation of a stimulus. As an example, people generally get used to noises, such as a commuter train arrival or traffic noise, that are regularly present in their living environments. Familiarity breeds indifference. Habituation may play a role in developing tolerance to certain drugs.

Sensitization is an increase in responsiveness to a stimulus.

Pavlov's Dogs - Classical Conditioning

While studying digestion in dogs, Ivan Pavlov understood well the reflex that causes dogs to salivate when food is presented. His surprising new finding was that the salivation response could be elicited by ringing a bell, even in the absence of food, if the dog had been conditioned in a particular way to associate the ringing bell with the delivery of food and subsequent salivation. During several conditioning events, a bell was rung immediately before food was presented to the dog. Of course, the dog salivated as the food was presented. However, after several events that paired the ringing bell with salivation, the food was no longer needed to elicit the same salivation response. When the bell rang, the dog salivated even though no food was present. A new behavior was learned.

The general phenomenon of learning to associate a new, neutral stimulus (e.g. ringing the bell) with a previously existing response (e.g. salivation) is called classical conditioning.

To become conditioned, the subject must discern the contingency between the stimulus and the response. This usually requires a consistent presentation of the stimulus rapidly paired with the response. However, in some important examples, such as associating poisons with particular tastes, learning still takes place even when the response is significantly delayed.

Skinner's Box - Operant conditioning

Edward Thorndike, B. F. Skinner, and many others dedicated their careers to studying the range of animal and human behaviors that can be influenced by environmental consequences such as rewards—known as reinforcements—and punishments. The general concept of modifying voluntary behavior through the use of consequences is known as operant conditioning, and is sometimes also called instrumental conditioning or instrumental learning.

Learned Helplessness

Prolonged exposure to uncontrollable events can cause people to become inappropriately passive while they believe they can no longer control the outcome of similar future events. This is called learned helplessness. The theory describes what happens when a person comes to believe they have no control over their situation and that whatever they do is futile. As a result, the person will stay passive in the face of an unpleasant, harmful, or damaging situation, even when they actually do have the ability to improve the circumstances.

Extinguishing Conditioned Behaviors

A dog that has been conditioned to associate a ringing bell with food, and responds by salivating can have this behavior reversed through a process called Extinction. Extinction is accomplished by repeating the procedure of ringing a bell and not presenting food.  After several exposures the learned association of the bell with food, and the subsequent salivation, is gradually extinguished. Experimental evidence is strong that the original learning that associates a bell with salivation is not removed, however. Instead, extinction seems to add the new learning that a bell is no longer a reliable indicator of food.

Examples of Conditioned Human Behavior

Classical and operant conditioning contribute to a variety of human behavior that is often described as involuntary. When you feel like you “can't help yourself” you may be largely correct, because the behavior will persist until the association is systematically extinguished. Here are some examples of conditioned behavior:

Emotional Responses

Several emotional responses are primarily conditioned responses. If you open the mail and find a letter in an envelope addressed from an old friend, you may spontaneously feel the warmth and affection you have learned to associate with that close friend. This response could not be innate and would not be felt unless you had grown fond of the person and learned to associate these warm feelings with a letter reminding you of them.


It is likely that classical conditioning plays an important role in learning the various irrational fears know as phobias. A person suffering from a phobia can be systematically desensitized to the object or situation causing their fears. Eventually their fears can be extinguished.  The technique is to expose them in carefully controlled conditions to a less fear inducing, but related form of stimulus, while they practice relaxing in the presence of that stimulus. For example, a person with a fear of heights would begin at a small elevation, achieve relaxation at that level, then progress to higher elevation. At each step, the person achieves relaxation and gains confidence before progressing to the next level.


Most men have a spontaneous and positive response to seeing the image of a beautiful woman. Advertisers then pair the name, image, or sounds of their product or brand with images of beautiful women. It is not long before the viewers are conditioned to associate a positive response with the product alone.

Immune System Responses

Several experiments demonstrated that mice could be conditioned to increase their immune system in response to saccharin-flavored water. Other experiments demonstrated mice could be conditioned to decrease their immune system in response to the same saccharin-flavored water stimulus. The relevance of these findings for human immune system response is has not been adequately studied.

Aversive Conditioning

There has been some success in conditioning alcoholics to associate nausea with alcohol consumption, with the goal of helping them avoid alcohol consumption for some period of time.

Motor Skills

Riding a bicycle, learning to skate or ski, touch typing, balancing, juggling, golfing, throwing, hitting, or catching a ball, driving a car, dancing, or playing a musical instrument are all examples of learned motor skills. These behaviors are learned most easily and quickly when timely and specific feedback on the accuracy and effectiveness of the actions, called knowledge of results, is provided to the student. How far was the ball hit, how well did the bicycle balance, did the correct words get typed, and similar specific information about the results of each attempt speed the learning of motor skills. Comparing the student's technique in detail to an ideal performance can improve learning even more. Focused practice periods, interspersed with rest periods, seem to be most effective distribution of practice time.

Cultural Preferences

In the United States drivers quickly learn to keep their automobiles in the right-hand traffic lanes. When learning to drive, staying to the right is reinforced by the approval, expectations, and perhaps praise apparent from the driving instructor, passengers, and sometimes other drivers. Also, leaving the right-hand lanes and traveling in the left-hand lanes is discouraged (i.e. punished) by corrections or reprimand from the instructor, and often fearful exclamations from passengers and other drivers. Driving on the right is safe and rewarded, driving on the left is dangerous and punished. The message is clear and drivers quickly learn to stay to the right without conscious thought. This behavior is something that is practiced, and reinforced, almost daily. In the United Kingdom drivers learn to stay to the left rather than to the right. The two customs are simple, arbitrary, and equivalent. Compared to the complexities of learning to drive, this convention seems simple. However, it is very difficult for a driver with years of experience driving on one side of the road to drive on the other side when visiting a foreign country. The driver must focus strict attention; reminding himself constantly to stay on the unfamiliar of the road.

Playing the Slots

Slot machines, the infamous “one-armed bandits” of the gambling casino, are well engineered instruments of operant conditioning. The human operator inserts coins and pulls the handle. After some random number of attempts, the gambler is rewarded by a jackpot of coins, ringing bells, and distinctive sounds. The gambler is quickly trained to feed coins into the machine and pull the handle in pursuit of further rewards.

Acquired food preferences and aversions

Humans quickly develop a strong aversion to a particular food if they become ill after ingesting the food.

Other conditioned responses

  • A wide variety of experiments have shown that the number of plural nouns (for example) produced by a subject will increase if the experimenter says “right” or “good” when one is produced [Chom]


Learning and Memory, by Barry Schwartz, Daniel Reisberg

Domjan and Burkhard's the Principles of Learning and Behavior, by Michael Domjan

Psychology: Core Concepts, by Phillip G. Zimbardo, Ann L. Weber, Robert L. Johnson

Learning and Behavior, by James E. Mazur

Ivan Petrovich Pavlov Web site, including the full text of his lectures.

Maps of Bounded Rationality: A Perspective on Intuitive Judgment and Choice, Nobel Prize Lecture, December 8, 2002 by Daniel Kahneman

[Chom] A Review of B. F. Skinner's Verbal Behavior in Language, 35, No. 1 (1959), 26-58, by Noam Chomsky

Is the Operant Contingency Enough for a Science of Purposive Behavior?, William Timberlake, Behavior and Philosophy, 32, 197-229 (2004)

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