Evaluate classical conditioning as a theory of learning
Pavlov noted that certain “unconditioned” (unlearned) stimuli (UCS) produce biological or reflexive behaviours (unconditioned responses) and said that if a new or ‘neutral’ stimulus is repeatedly presented with an unconditioned stimulus, eventually this new stimulus will produce the same response as initially produced by unlearned stimulus alone. He called this process classical conditioning.
One strength of classical conditioning is that the theory is supported by Pavlov’s (1927) study, where he found that dogs could be conditioned to salivate to the sound of a metronome (NS), which previously brought about no change in the dog’s salivation. He found that after 20 pairings of the ticking metronome with the food powder (UCS) one of his dogs started salivating 9 seconds after the presentation of the metronome alone (CS) and that after 45 seconds he had collected 11 droplets of saliva in the cannula. This is important because when the dogs were initially presented with the ticking metronome there was no salivation however, after the ticking metronome had been paired with the food powder 20 times, the metronome sound alone was enough to bring about salivation (CR) and had clearly become a conditioned stimulus.
This study provides strong support for classical conditioning because Pavlov used the experimental method and ensured that all variables that might have affected the level of salivation to the metronome were carefully controlled across the two conditions (before and after the pairings with the food powder). For example, the dogs were in sound-proofed chambers so they could hear no other noises and the time lag between the ticking and the food powder would have been the same for each dog. This means that his findings have strong internal validity; the pairing of the NS and the UCS really was responsible for the change in the dog’s behaviour towards the metronome suggesting that his theory of classical conditioning is well supported by research evidence.
However, some psychologists argue that despite similarities in the various brain regions of dogs and humans, this study tells us little about whether classical conditioning usefully explains human learning due to the greater development of regions such as the frontal lobes in humans and also intervening factors such as language and culture which exist in humans and may affect learning in ways that are incomparable in dogs.
This objection is countered by evidence from Watson and Rayner (1920) who conducted an infamous study on a baby known as Little Albert. Watson was keen to show that a fear response could be conditioned in a human infant. At the start of the experiment 11 month old Albert was not remotely scared by many stimuli presented to him including a rat, rabbit, monkey, dog and even a burning newspaper (NS). Next Watson repeatedly presented a rat whilst hitting a steel bar with the hammer (UCS). The loud noise caused a startle reaction in Albert and he was seen to whimper and crawl away. After 7 pairings, Albert started to cry and try to get away as soon as the rat was shown to him. The rat had become a conditioned stimulus. Watson also supported Pavlov’s ideas about stimulus generalisation as he showed that Albert was not just scared of the white rat but when tested 5 days later he whimpered cried and tried to get away when presented with a rabbit, a fur coat and Santa Claus mask. However, his negative response to the rat decreased over time and this supports the idea of extinction.
This study provides strong evidence for classical conditioning as there were multiple witnesses including Rayner and the boy’s mother to corroborate the observation that Albert was not scared of the various stimuli at the start of the study but showed a marked fear after the pairings.
This said, some psychologists have argued that because there is only one participant in this study the results may not be generalizable to other toddlers or indeed to adults. Little Albert’s real identity is contentious with the likes of Hall Beck believing the child to have been Douglas Merritte, a little boy who was developmentally delayed and suffered from hydrocephaly. Ifthis is the case, Watson’s study only supplies weak evidence for the applicability of classical conditioning as a theory of learning to children without such delays. However, others believe the boy to have been William Albert Barger, a healthy, typically developing child, rendering this criticism redundant.
Further sources of support for classical conditioning come from its many applications to everyday life for example classical conditioning can be used to explain the acquisition of phobias as the Little Albert study shows but has also been helpful in treating phobias as in systematic desensitisation where a feared object is paired with a relaxing stimulus leading the fear response to subside. This is an excellent application of classical conditioning and this theory has therefore provided an important contribution to society that has helped many people to live fuller, happier lives.
Despite these strengths, classical conditioning cannot explain why certain responses can be much more quickly conditioned than others, for example in one trial learning, people can learn a taste aversion or acquire a long lasting fear after just one pairing. This seems to be the case in situations which are stressful or affect our survival and may be linked to the presence of certain hormones in our bodies such as adrenaline which may help us to learn about certain stimuli very rapidly in order to protect us in the future. As classical conditioning does not take account of biological factors such as this that affect the learning process, the theory has been accused of being reductionist. Classcial conditioning also fails to explain the development of completing new behaviours and only explains the way pre-existing involuntary behaviours can be shown to new triggers. The learning of new behaviours is better explained by appealing to theories such as operant conditioning where the consequences of a behaviour help to determine whether it will be repeated or social learning theory where other people’s behaviours are observed and imitated.
In conclusion, classical conditioning has been supported by a wide range of animals experiments including dogs, mice and rabbits and this theory is clearly useful in understanding experiences in humans such as why we find our heart racing when a particular song comes on the radio or when we hear a certain sound. The theory has also been useful in treating problems such as alcoholism through aversion theory however its use in treating homosexuality through conversion therapy has demonstrated a far more unsavoury side to classical conditioning as it can be used to control and manipulate people.