Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Learning Theory 101: Classical Conditioning

Through the process of classical conditioning, Maisy has developed so many 
positive feelings for her crate that she'll try to get in it even when it's folded up for storage!

The behaviorism branch of learning theory says that you can tell if learning has occurred by looking at a living being’s (in this case, a dog’s) behavior. The assumption is that behavior changes because the dog has learned that it is in his best interest to make that change. Behaviorism says that this learning takes place through two types of conditioning. Today, I’m going to tell you about one of them: classical conditioning.

Classical conditioning was studied and described by psychologists first, while its counterpart- operant conditioning- came roughly twenty to thirty years later. I assume that for those years, classical conditioning was simply referred to as “conditioning,” and that the prefix was added to differentiate it from that new-fangled stuff B.F. Skinner was doing. It was the “classic” version, hence the name (although it is also sometimes referred to as Pavlovian conditioning or respondent conditioning instead).

Although a general understanding of classical conditioning can be found in fiction as early as the mid-1700s, the concept wasn’t scientifically recognized until Russian scientist Ivan Pavlov began studying digestion in the late 1800s (for which he won the 1904 Nobel prize in physiology). It was during the course of this study that he accidentally discovered that he could cause dogs to salivate upon hearing a bell ring. He first presented a paper on conditioning in 1903. (As an interesting historical note, the father of operant conditioning, B.F. Skinner, was born a year later, and didn’t publish his first paper on conditioning until 1930.)

The Definition
In a nutshell, classical conditioning is the process of transforming something meaningless into something meaningful. If a completely neutral stimulus is paired with one of importance enough times, that neutral thing becomes important by association. The classic example: Pavlov’s dogs began salivating every time they heard a bell ring because they learned that sound happened when food arrived. The meaningless sound became meaningful because of classical conditioning.

The Importance
So why should you learn about classical conditioning? Because training is both an art and a science. Although some people are “naturals,” most of us need to learn how to train our dogs; this is where the science comes in. Classical conditioning is important because it we can use it to create a tool that bridges the gap between the dog’s behavior and the consequences. We do this by teaching our dogs that a certain sound (or sight or smell) predicts a certain consequence simply by associating them often enough.

Clicker trainers do this all the time. The sound of a clicker has no particular meaning to dogs until it has been “charged”- conditioned to mean good things- by pairing the sound with a tasty treat. Dogs quickly learn that the distinct clicking noise actually predicts a treat. But classical conditioning isn’t the sole domain of the clicker trainer. Since the purpose of a learning theory is to describe how dogs learn, anytime training works, learning theory is at work. This means that traditional trainers are using learning theory, too; the metallic sliding sound of a choke chain becomes associated with a collar correction. These sounds, too, have gone from being meaningless to meaningful through classical conditioning.

The Scientific Mumbo-Jumbo
Going back to my definition, you can see there are a number of concepts at work. You’ve got the neutral stimulus, and you’ve got the meaningful one, and when you pair them, you can see a change in behavior. There are terms for all these things.

The unconditioned stimulus (US) is the meaningful thing. Your dog doesn’t need to learn that the meaningful thing is important because it’s been hardwired into his brain. His reaction is called an unconditioned response (UR) because nobody needs to teach a dog how to react to food or pain- he just knows. It’s a reflex, in the same way that pulling your hand away from a hot stove is reflexive for you.

The conditioned stimulus (CS)- the thing that used to be meaningless- becomes important because it was associated with the important thing (the US). The result is that the dog will respond to the neutral thing (the CS) as if it were the important thing (the US). This new response is called a conditioned response (CR).

So, going back to the example of Pavlov’s dogs: they understood what food was, so the food was the US. When they salivated because they saw the food, this response was a UR because salivation is a reflexive response to food. The bell was initially meaningless to them, but they gradually learned that it was associated with food, therefore the bell is a CS. When they salivated when they heard the bell, the salivation became a CR. Clear as mud, right?

The Implication
Don’t worry about remembering all the terminology. While it’s interesting, you don't need to keep it all straight when training. However, I explained it because you should understand that when a dog learns to respond to the conditioned stimulus- to the formerly meaningless but now meaningful thing- that reaction becomes automatic, and the dog can’t stop it any more than he can stop his reflexes. And here’s the important thing: while the example of Pavlov’s dogs describes a physical reaction, it can happen with emotions, too.

In other words: through the process of classical conditioning, we can create certain feelings in our dogs. Classical conditioning can be used to create good feelings, or it can be used to create bad ones. Clicker trainers often note the joy their dogs have in working for that silly clicking noise. Conversely, in 1920, psychologist John B. Watson performed the famous Little Albert experiment, in which he conditioned a baby to be afraid of white, fuzzy things.

What’s more, classical conditioning is going on all the time. Anything can get associated with anything… the trick is getting our dogs to make the associations we want. This is part of why I personally choose to avoid pain and fear in training- I don’t want Maisy to associate those feelings with me, nor would I want her to associate them with anything else that might be present in her environment, like children or other dogs. (To be fair, these mis-associations happen with positive methods too. The first time Maisy met Beckett, I gave her lots of treats in hopes that she would love him. Instead, she loves his person, Elizabeth.)

The good news is that when these associations go wrong, we can fix them through a process called counter-conditioning. I will tell you about that in my next post on learning theory. In the meantime, feel free to ask questions, make corrections (I know I have some readers who are better educated than I am), or share examples of the associations your dog has made.

In addition to the links in this post, you may find the following websites interesting:
This collection of links. on learning theories as a whole, and behaviorism in specific.
A general overview of classical conditioning.
Another description of the US, UR, CS, and CR.
Pavlov’s lectures on conditioning.
Watson’s paper on Little Albert.


Anonymous said...

Good overview; thank you for that write-up.

Crystal said...

Thank you, I'm glad you enjoyed it.

Tegan said...

"In a nutshell, classical conditioning is the process of transforming something meaningless into something meaningful." - Fantastic nutshell! In a post that is well explained overall.

Crystal said...

Thanks, Tegan. I worked really hard to be clear and concise. I was surprised by how difficult it was, and wasn't sure I'd made it.

Kristine said...

Fascinating, stuff, thanks for putting this altogether. There is a lot of debate about the efficacy of classical conditioning in today's animal training world. Sometimes it is important to go back to the roots, where it all started, to get an idea of the real science behind what it is we try to adhere to. It's not easy, but it is important. I hope it is okay if I like to your post in the future.

Crystal said...

Yes, anyone can link to my blog at any time.

Kristine, I'd love to hear about some of the debate. I haven't really run across much of that (although I did learn an awful lot- there are many different ways of creating classical associations, and that some methods work better for some applications than others- fascinating stuff for geeks).