Ivan Pavlov, a Russian physiologist born in the mid 1800s, had started the early part of his career focusing on digestion (Chance 2014, Chapter 3). While he earned a Nobel Prize for this work, he soon decided to move over to psychology in order to make a bigger impact on the world and get on the ground floor of exciting new research. He worked primarily on the subject of temperament and reflex, showing how people reacted to pain and stress. Throughout his career in the medical profession, he was a passionate and dogged investigator, and was instrumental in contributing to the concept of classical conditioning.
Pavlov’s primary means of studying conditioning was a famous experiment in which he studied the salivation that was produced when meat powder was put in the mouth of a dog, ringing a bell beforehand. By repeating this intervention, Pavlov learned that eventually the dog would drool just by the sound of the bell, subconsciously expecting the meat powder – he had conditioned the dogs to do this through repeated action (Pavlov, 1960). Classical conditioning such as Pavlov’s is achieved through a procedure called ‘forward conditioning,’ as the conditional stimulus (e.g. the bell) precedes the unconditioned stimulus (e.g. the meat powder). Each of these stimuli have conditional and unconditioned responses (e.g. the drool); Pavlov’s successful conditioning made the drool both the conditional and unconditioned response.
Pavlov’s work in classical conditioning helped him achieve the fame and notoriety he desired after having given up his life’s work in the field of digestion. His contribution to classical conditioning through the Pavlov’s dog experiment helped to establish and legitimize an entire field of science.
Discussion 2 The Case of Little Albert
The case of Little Albert was an extension of Pavlov’s experiment in classical conditioning, but this time it revolved around a human being – in this case, a child. Watson and Rayner, the experimenters, sought to create phobias into a nine-month-old child who was erstwhile emotionally stable (Hill 2009, p. 27). In order to perform the experiment, Watson and Rayner would introduce a loud noise (which acted as the unconditioned stimulus) to the room, making the child scared (the unconditioned response). Then, they would put a rat in the room, a neutral stimulus at first, along with the loud noise – this would create the same fear response found in the unconditioned stimulus. Eventually, through introducing the rat enough times, they were able to induce fear in the child without the loud noise, but simply through seeing the rat (making it a conditioned stimulus). The fear then became a conditioned response.
The goal of the experiment was to create a conditioned fear response to the rat through the association of the fear coming from the loud noise to the rat itself (Chance, Chapter 4). Granted, one of the most interesting and controversial elements of the experiment is the ethics involved with using a human child in an experiment; some later research indicates that Little Albert was not a normal, healthy child, but a child that had “substantial behavioural and neurological deficits” that could have contributed to the experiment’s results (Fridlund et al. 2012, p. 302). To that end, while the Little Albert case is fascinating from a scientific perspective, the ethics and efficacy of the case are somewhat questionable in light of recent discoveries.
Chance, P. (2014) Learning & Behavior (7th Edition). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.
Fridlund AJ, Beck HP, Goldie WD, & Irons G. (2012). Little Albert: A neurologically impaired child. Hist Psychol 15(4): 302-327.
Hill, G. (2009). AS & A Level Psychology Through Diagrams.
Pavlov, I. P. (1927/1960). Conditional Reflexes. New York: Dover Publications.
Watson, J.B. and Rayner, R. (1920). Conditioned Emotional Reactions. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 3(1), 1-14.