A guide to everyday psychology


Classical Conditioning – essential understanding for anxiety sufferers!

Why does this matter? It plays a crucial role in everyone’s life. Without a basic understanding of Classical Conditioning, it is impossible to fully understand how we learn things – including our attitudes, fears, phobias, racial/other prejudices and anxieties.

For example, when people experience post-traumatic stress, it is very often because of Classical Conditioning – and usually a particular offshoot of Classical Conditioning called ‘stimulus generalisation’.

It is partly through ‘classical conditioning’ that we learn (and identify) many meaningful relationships between events in our lives. Not all of the relationships that we learn are genuinely connected… Spiders are not usually something that we need to fear (not in the UK at least). But an important point is this: learned and ‘irrational’ fears do not necessarily feel like irrational fears to the person who has them!!

Happily, none of this is complicated.

But first we must understand the basics…


Ivan Pavlov discovered Classical Conditioning in the 19th century. He conducted a series of now-famous experiments with dogs (“Pavlov’s dogs”). It’s worth noting that if he had carried out the experiment using humans, the result would have been pretty much the same!

In a nutshell:

1) When hungry dogs see food, their reflexive (inbuilt) response is to salivate.

2) The dogs also salivate when they see the food and hear the sound of a bell.

3) If the sight of food is paired with the sound of the bell often enough, the dog eventually salivates when it only hears the sound of the bell – even without the food appearing. This is called a ‘conditioned response’.

4) Even though the dog can’t eat the bell, hearing it produces exactly the same effect on the dog as the sight of food – salivation.

5) Importantly, many conditioned responses last a lifetime. The dog might continue to salivate at the sound of the bell/buzzer long after it is no longer connected with the presentation of food. This same principle applies to humans. giving us lifelong habits, phobias and superstitions. [see the post on superstitions for a more extensive discussion of this]

5) Every animal on the planet can learn conditioned responses – because to do so is so useful.

So, what’s going on inside, when we acquire conditioned responses?

We are predisposed to learn things through Classical Conditioning because it is one of our inbuilt psychological processes – installed in all of us. When two things happen close together, humans are predisposed to believe that the first event has caused the second. Why are we predisposed like this?

Because, most of the time, a repeated association between two events does mean that the first caused the second. Consequently, if we are predisposed to assume such connections it improves our chances of surviving. For example, because of Classical Conditioning our ancestors knew that “black clouds = rain coming”, without having any understanding of the mechanisms involved. Very useful indeed.

But there is a downside.

Mentally connecting things just because they happen together is a crude tool. We will often make connections that are wrong – or make faulty assumptions about the causes of real connections (humans are uniquely capable of finding complicated wrong explanations!). And it is when we search for causes that we end up with many of our complex prejudices and fears. The association of rudeness with one French waiter, for example, might lead us to believe that the cause of the rudeness is ‘Frenchness’. In other words, all French people are rude! Or we might believe that the connection between black clouds and rain is because of a rain-God living in the clouds.

Our lives are built on thousands of learned associations, some true and some false. They are not all simple associations (like bell=food). Many of the associations that humans learn build upon one another to create multiple layers of ‘higher-order conditioning’. For example, I might become conditioned to desire good educational qualifications because I associate them with a good job, which I associate with lots of money, which I associate with nice clothes, which I associate with attracting a desirable mate.

So, in a circular kind of way, I got A levels in order to find a girlfriend.

How is classical Conditioning involved in post-traumatic stress, anxiety and fear?

To understand post-traumatic fears and anxieties, we must understand a sub-feature of Classical Conditioning – the notion of ‘stimulus generalisation’. If we learn to fear one person or thing, that fear ‘generalises’ to similar objects and situations.

We can find countless examples. If we get bitten by one dog, that learned fear might generalise to all dogs. Conversely, if a dog is mistreated by one human, that fear might generalise to all humans.

The point about stimulus generalisation in the context of traumatic events, is that it enables fear to occur even when the original trigger is not present – but when something similar is present.

The cliched example of the soldier suffering from shell-shock (or post-traumatic stress/anxiety) is understandable within Classical Conditioning…

The Battlefield

Here’s a simple example… All of us ‘jump’ when exposed to a sudden loud bang. A soldier is on a battlefield might be exposed constantly to sudden loud explosions. And those sudden loud explosions become associated with death of colleagues, rather than just a momentary startle. Because of that, those loud explosions might result in a range of intense responses from disabling fear to headlong flight – rather than just the ‘jump’ caused to the rest of us by a sudden loud bang.

Soldiers are not allowed to do the ‘natural’ thing – the thing that evolution has prepared them to do: run, and get away from the source of the bangs. And so, the association of loud bangs with death and terror is inescapable and relentless.

Years later, the association that was learned between those loud battlefield noises and terror might remain. So, when we hear similar but unthreatening loud noises – for example, the sound of a popping car exhaust, that sound will cause the terror response. Where, once upon a time, only battlefield explosions produced the terror response, now all loud explosions act as a stimulus that produces terror. This is stimulus generalisation.

The circumstances that allow humans to be exposed to such negative Classical Conditioning are rare in the natural world. If humans lived ‘natural’ lives, they would do what any other animal would do, when faced with a barrage of loud explosions. They would run away and hide.

Soldiers in trenches do not have this choice. Their learned social requirement (stay and fight) overrides their evolutionary disposition (run away). They must stay and be exposed to danger, terror – and the potential for conditioned post-traumatic fear in later life.

How is Classical Conditioning involved in other forms of anxiety?

Again, there are countless examples. Sometimes it just happens randomly. Things we come across by accident become associated with anxiety – like an aggressive dog – which might create our general views about dogs. But sometimes the learning of anxiety does not occur by chance.

Throughout life, we are taught to associate guilt, shame and anxiety with behaviours (and thoughts) that society considers to be ‘wrong’. Not every society has the same teachings, of course. And the particular behaviours and feelings that we learn to associate with guilt (etc) also change over time.

Meanwhile, there is religion. Cynics will argue that religious belief is deliberately manipulated in order to associate anxiety with particular ‘sinful’ thoughts and behaviours. Eventually, even when you’re only thinking about stealing your neighbours’ property, you will believe that God is reading your mind. This has the potential to create lifelong trauma.

God might be doing all of those things. But if so, God is using the mechanisms of Classical Conditioning to make it work!

1 Comment

  1. The experiencing self & the observing self; our dubious ability to contemplate our own death is both a blessing & a curse & correlates with the madness of the isolated, the cut off ones ie: the exiled, destined to die alone & be forever wandering purgatory in eternal torment…

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