Usefulness of Conditioning for Understanding Human Behavior

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Classical conditioning, also known as Pavlovian conditioning, is used to explain a wide range of behaviors, including why people enjoy or dislike certain foods, what causes sexual arousal, why certain people have phobias, why people feel uncomfortable while speaking in public, and so on. Another sort of training, known as operant conditioning, demonstrates how reinforcement can alter human behavior (Wyrwicka, 2000). Despite the fact that both studies were conducted on animals, they provide some answers to issues about human behavior. As a result, the purpose of this research is to assess the utility of conditioning in understanding human behavior.  Conditioning in Human Behavior

 According to Russian scientist Pavlov, a person is conditioned or taught to have a certain behavior by using reflexes. Human behavior is closely associated with learning that deals with conditioned and unconditioned reflexes. People learn how to perform certain tasks in order to receive a particular result. Learning here becomes a condition to a certain behavior in the future (classical conditioning). For example, to perform some actions athletes have first to be trained. However, not all changes occur through learning (Taotes 156).

Pavlov’s learning theory preceded the reinforcement theory in which reward and punishment are key terms. This theory is using not classical but operant conditioning. One of the issues that is closely connected with conditioning is phobia or an irrational fear of something. Often, people are afraid of something because it has negative associations that are rooted in previous experience. For example, a person can have a fear of dogs, if he was beaten by one in childhood. As a result, any dog is now associated with a painful bite (Henton, 1978). A good example of condition to fear is also “Little Albert” experiment. An American psychologist John Watson conducted an experiment in which a little boy was conditioned to fear furry objects because of association of them with loud noises. Although an experiment is unethical, it is highly scientific and shows how many phobias appear and what mechanisms trigger them. From that point of view, each person can be conditioned to develop an irrational fear of something, although initially no phobia will be diagnosed (Gray, 1987).

On the other hand, conditioning can be used as a reversed mechanism to treat phobia. For the same reasons, it shows why phobia possibly appears and, thus, provides answers on how to treat it. Psychoanalysts consider fear to be a defensive mechanism which is also only a symptom and an external manifestation of some deeper trauma. Thus, in order to deal with irrational fear, a person has to face the real cause of phobia. His behavior will change accordingly (Gray, 1987). A South African psychologist Joseph Wolpe introduced a new approach to treating phobias, controversial to that of psychoanalysis. He believed that phobia can be treated by changing behavior of a patient. His treatment was called behavioral psychology and required only a short period of time (12 sessions) for full independence from a particular phobia. His treatment is divided into three stages: the first is muscle relaxation in thinking about phobia, the second stage involves imaging feared situation from light to gravy ones; the third stage is exposure to the cause of fear. Wolpe’s method was called systematic desensitization and proved to be successful in 80-90% of cases (Burns, 1983)

Pavlov’s work on conditioning was expanded by Thorndike and Skinner. Unlike Pavlov’s dog, their subjects had control over the course of events. They are instrumental in the experiment and, thus, this type is known as instrumental or operant conditioning. Skinner also introduced a number of terms important in conditioning. Firstly, he explained the principle of reinforcement: the behavior of an individual changes if there is a consequence of one’s actions. This reinforcement can be positive or negative. The first one is known as a reward – when a person behaves in a certain way he or she gets a reward. This is widely used in up-bringing when a child received a reward for good behavior. There is also a negative reinforcement when a certain behavior helps to remove unpleasant condition (for example, removing a loud sound by pressing a lever). Both negative and positive reinforcement strengthen a certain type of behavior (Toates, 2008; Wyrwicka, 2000).

Extension is another term coined by Skinner that helps to understand the specifics of human behavior. Extension means that something that was present and was beneficial is removed from current conditions. It presupposes that if there is no reinforcement present for a long time than a person stops a certain behavior that led to this reinforcement. Certain behavior can also be stopped by using punishment. This principle is probably manifested the best in understanding human behavior. The entire legal system is built on the principle of punishment of a “wrong” behavior. It wants to reduce undesirable behavior by introducing punishment (Toates, 2008). On one hand this principle seems to be effective as the percentage of people who do not commit crimes is much higher than those who do. And, thus, punishment incentivizes people to perform a certain type of behavior opposite to that of a criminal behavior. On the other hand, it is a known fact that criminal offenders that received their punishment in a form of prison time are likely to commit another crime after they go out of prison. Hence, punishment is also assumed to have a positive effect on reducing undesirable behavior but the actual measurement is still has to be researched.


Both classical and operant conditioning play an important role in human behavior. Conditioning can start a certain behavior, stop or change it. It can also have positive consequences (as with a case of criminal system) and negative ones (as shown by “Little Albert” experiment). The important terms in understanding the role of conditioning in human behavior are reinforcements, extinction and punishment. It shows how people react to external factors in their lives and change their behavior accordingly. However, human beings are different from other species. Thus, results of experiments on conditioning with animals are not always applicable to humans.


Burns, R. B. (1983). Systematic Desensitization. Counselling and Therapy, 95-106.

Gray, J.A. (1987). The Psychology of Fear and Stress. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Henton, W. W. (1978). Response Patterning in Classical Conditioning. Classical Conditioning and Operant Conditioning, 299-346.

Toates, F. (2008). Changing behaviour. In Understanding Biological Psychology (pp. 150-168). Oxford: Blackwell Pub.

Wyrwicka, W. (2000). Conditioning: situation versus intermittent stimulus. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction .

April 19, 2023

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Behavior Learning

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