The human being and the rest of the animals are active beings, who interact with a medium on which they depend for their survival. But why do we do what we do? How do you explain that, for example, when a dog hears a bell, it starts to salivate or why we run to seek shelter when we hear an alarm? In this article we will provide you What is a conditioned stimulus?
This is how and why we act as we do is something that has always been of great scientific interest and which, through psychology, has studied and investigated different theoretical currents. One of them, behaviorism, considers that it is due to a conditioning process. And within this process, the bell or alarm would be fulfilling the role of the conditioned stimulus . It is about this concept, the conditioned stimulus, that we will talk about throughout this article.
What is a conditioned stimulus?
It receives the name of conditioned stimulus, all that element that, being initially neutral and not causing the person or animal any reaction by itself, acquires the property of generating a response to the association with another stimulus that generates a reaction .
Using the example used in the introduction, we react with fear to the sound of an alarm, not because the alarm itself generates a reaction, but because we know that this sound is linked to the existence of danger or pain (the entry of an intruder, an enemy attack or fire, for example). In the case of the dog and the bell (part of Pavlov’s experiments that gave rise to the study of classical conditioning), the dog will start salivating at the sound of the bell, since it associates it with bringing food (the sound of the bell being a conditioned stimulus). ).
This relationship is produced by the ability to associate between stimuli, which the most classic conditioning considered specifically characteristic of the stimulus itself (although today, through other currents, we know that other aspects such as will, motivation or cognition influence) .
There needs to be a minimal contingency (i.e., that the appearance of one predicts the appearance of another or that they occur largely simultaneously or are followed) between the conditioned stimuli and those that allowed them to become such, unconditioned stimuli. . It is also necessary that the response generated by this be strong and, although it is not essential that there is any relationship between them.
Virtually any type of neutral stimulus can become conditioned whenever it is perceptible. Perception can come from any channel or sense, and can be something visual (lights, image, etc.), sounds (timbres, voices, specific words, etc.), tactile perceptions (texture, temperature, pressure), tastes or smells . Even in some cases, stimuli that generate a response can be conditioned if they are combined with stimuli that generate a response that is more relevant to the subject.
Likewise, as we have seen, conditioning appears in a large number of living beings . It can be observed in humans, but also in dogs, monkeys, cats, rats or pigeons, among many others.
The birth of a conditioned stimulus
Thus, for there to be a conditioned stimulus, there must be something that conditions it: the unconditioned stimulus that itself generates a response. And the relationship established between them is what comes to be called conditioning. The birth of a conditioned stimulus occurs in the so-called acquisition phase (in which it acquires the properties that change it from being neutral to being conditioned).
From the point of view of classical conditioning, one stimulus is conditioned by another due to the generation of a link between the appearance of initially neutral and unconditioned stimuli, which already generates an appetitive or aversive response (called unconditional response).
Gradually and as they are presented together or in a short interval , the subject is making associations, causing the initially neutral stimulus to acquire appetitive or aversive characteristics and stops generating a response to generate the same one that generates the stimulus that caused it. an answer. Thus, it will eventually generate a conditioned response and the neutral stimulus is considered a conditioned stimulus. Henceforth, the appearance of the conditioned stimulus will generate the same reaction as the unconditioned stimulus.
With the possibility of extinction
The fact that a stimulus is conditioned and generates a conditioned response can arise in everyday life or be provoked voluntarily, but the truth is that this association will tend to be extinguished if the subject observes that the joint appearance of non-conditioned and conditioned stimuli stops happening. Thus, the conditioned stimulus will become neutral again and will not generate any further responses .
This extinction process can be more or less prolonged, depending on several factors.
Among them, we found how strong the association was between stimuli or the times they were repeated, or whether we found that the unconditioned stimulus always appears in all situations where conditioning appears or most of the time (although it may seem counterintuitive). intuitive, the association takes longer to extinguish if we are not used to the two stimuli always appearing together).
Of course, it is sometimes possible for spontaneous association recoveries to appear.
Relationship with psychological problems
There are many behavioral problems related to conditioning, specifically with a stimulus becoming a conditioned stimulus and generating a conditioned response.
In general, the presence of any fear or even a phobia can be linked (although a large number of factors come into play and not just these ones) to this type of association, if a stimulus has been associated with pain or suffering.
Thus, if once a dog bites us, it is possible to associate any dog with pain, something that will make us fear new exposures and avoid them (the dog is the conditioned stimulus). And not only fear of phobias, but also that of post-traumatic stress disorders (for example, in people who have suffered rape, fear of sex or people with characteristics similar to the perpetrator may appear).
It can also happen the other way around, that we associate something with pleasure or avoidance of dissatisfaction and excitement or excessive appetite for that stimulus, conditioned. For example, conditioning has been used in an attempt to explain some paraphilias, impulse control disorders, eating disorders, or addictions.