Individual Differences


Classical (Pavlovian) Conditioning
Perspectives on Personality

Last updated:
29 Sep 2003

Conditioning theory can be broken down into 2 types:

  • Classical Conditioning

  • Instrumental / Operant Conditioning

Classical Conditioning is also called Pavlovian Conditioning.  It explains how a previously neutral stimulus can come to have a learned effect on someone.  This takes place by pairing (associating) a unconditioned stimulus (which already produces an unconditioned response) with a neutral stimulus (conditioned stimulus).  In this way,  the organism learns to respond to the conditioned stimulus with a conditioned response which is like the  unconditioned response.

Learned associations provide the Building Blocks of Behaviour & Personality.

“Most of the likes and dislikes, the preferences and biases that define one’s personality, develop through emotional conditioning”
“In sum, it seems not unreasonable that classical conditioning processes may underlie many of people’s preferences for persons, events, things, places, and ideas.  Inasmuch as these preferences are important aspects of personality, conditioning processes would appear to represent important contributors to human experience.”
- Carver & Scheier, 2000, p.320

In order for Classical Conditioning to occur:

  1. Organism must already respond predictably and automatically to a STIMULUS

Unconditioned Stimulus -> Unconditioned Response
US -> UR

  1. A second stimulus is paired in time and space with the Unconditioned Stimulus.

Conditioned Stimulus -> Conditioned Response
CS -> CR

There must already be a reliable, automatic response whenever a certain stimulus occurs (a reflex if you like) e.g. if you drink a sharp, acidic wine (US) your salivary glands start to work (UR). (These reflexes can be innate or learned in themselves).

The second thing that’s required is that the stimulus causing the reflexive response must be associated (in both time and space) with another stimulus. This stimulus is usually neutral and so wouldn’t in itself cause a particular reflexive response.

So now the learning can take place. This is when the neutral stimulus occurs at the same time and place (or it might be just before) as the original US.

So if you drink this sharp, acidic wine in the same bar (Joe’s bar) every night you may come to salivate every time you walk into that bar:

So now JOE’S BAR becomes the CONDITIONED stimulus (CS) and the SALIVATION is the CONDITIONED response (CR)


Dry wine -> Salivation
US -> UR

Joe’s Bar -> Salivation
CS -> CR

The more often this pairing occurs the more likely that learning will have taken place. Or if the US is VERY strong e.g.

Chemotherapy -> nausea
US -> UR

Canberra Hospital -> nausea
CS -> CR

Once conditioning i.e. LEARNING has taken place the CS -> CR can go on to function just as any innate reflex (which is why I said earlier that the reflex can be innate or learned)

Canberra Hospital -> nausea

Doctor Smith -> nausea


US -> UR
Kissing -> Feeling Sexy!

CS -> CR
Particular Song -> ‘Feeling Sexy!’

= a learned response to a previously neutral stimulus

Advanced Classical Conditioning Concepts

  • Discrimination
  • Generalization
  • Extinction

I’d just like to point out SOME but not all of the concepts relating to Classical Conditioning.

Classical conditioning provides a mechanism for new responses to become attached  to neutral stimuli. But the CS often doesn’t occur in exactly the same form as it did earlier and of course you may come across stimuli that are similar to but not the same as the original CS. So what happens is that we can DISCRIMINATE on the one hand and GENERALIZE on the other.

For example, you can of course DISCRIMINATE one bar from another so not all bars may provoke the same response (as Joe’s bar). On the other hand, if you walked into a bar that was VERY similar you may get the same response (CR) i.e salivation. This is known as GENERALIZATION.

Sometimes conditioned responses go away: this is called EXTINCTION. When a CS come repeatedly without the US this occurs (so when you go to Joe’s bar all the time after you’ve gone on the wagon (that is no wine) then you no longer get the CR (salivation) when you go to Joe’s.

Or when you see Dr Smith (CS) down at the golf club all the time rather than at Canberra Hospital (US) – the sight of him will no longer make you vomit! Mind you he’ll probably still always make you feel slightly queasy!

Emotional Conditioning

  • previously neutral stimuli can be conditioned to bring about good or bad feelings
  • the CRs are emotional reactions

With classical conditioning many of the stimuli that that lead to reflexive reactions are stimuli that bring about GOOD or BAD FEELINGS (joy, excitement, pleasure, fear, anger, pain).

EMOTIONAL CONDITIONING is the term which refers to classical conditioning where the CRs are emotional reactions. So you can see how you start to build up a way of behaving in the world and responding positively or negatively to certain people, situations, surroundings etc.

Conditioning theorists suggest that most likes and preferences AND dislikes and biases that DEFINE our personality develop through EMOTIONAL CONDITIONING.


  • Linking neutral stimulus with pleasant event/feeling --> positive preference
  • Linking neutral stimulus with upsetting event/feeling --> aversion or bias