Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Classical Conditioning

So we just covered classical and operant conditioning in my Psych class and I thought I’d leave you all with part of my paper on the classical-side.  Classical conditioning is the idea that you can condition someone to associate a stimulus with a behavior it isn’t naturally associated with.  For example, when your mouth waters because you smell a cake cooking.  Your mouth watering is because it was conditioned to after you associated eating the cake with the smell.

Operant conditioning is the action/consequence way of learning.

Anyway, the paper babbles about unconditioned and conditioned stimulus and responses, etc but its the content that I thought you’d all be interested in.  It certainly isn’t my best written paper.  I think I talked about it long ago in my blog but this puts it pretty succulently.

Needless to say, this was the thing that got me into therapy in the late 90’s and I have since more or less gotten over it.


When I was a child I used to be taken to an eye doctor by my mom in a city about 30 miles away from where I grew up. During this trip we would always pass a rest stop on the highway. Anxiety from not being able to get out of going to the doctor – from being out of my control – would be very intense for me on the trip. When I would get anxious I would need to use the bathroom; the origin of which is beyond this example. Usually we were running late and would not have time to stop at the rest stop on the way. I would put my head down and try to pretend the rest stop was not there because I had no control over whether we stopped or not. What happened as this situation repeated itself was that I began to associate being trapped or not in control with the need to go to the bathroom. Eventually, I associated being trapped or not in control (the conditioned stimulus) with having to go to the bathroom (the conditioned response).

This response faded over time (extinction) once I stopped having to go to the eye doctor and was able to leave a particular situation when I wanted to. Years later I went to New York City for New Year's and was put into a situation that induced spontaneous recovery of the associated behavior. I arrived with my friends four hours early and were confined to an area that I could not leave until after New Year's had come and gone. Once I realized I was basically trapped for four hours or so the need to go to the bathroom became overwhelming which in turn led to anxiety bordering on a panic attack.

Similar events in my life have played out on this association that are an example of generalization. For example, at the height of this problem I was unable to be in any situation that would prevent me from having total control. Lines at the grocery store, roller coasters, being the passenger in someone's car would all cause an intense need to use the bathroom.

Being stuck in traffic is an example of discrimination. If I was the one driving I didn't have any problems. If I was in the passenger seat and we hit traffic the association would be very powerful.

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