The computer chimes. Jim says, “Hey, Dwight. Do you want an Altoid?” Dwight extends his hand and says, “Sure”.

In a series of pranks, Jim Halpert on The Office conducts an experiment on his coworker Dwight Schrute. Each time his computer chimes, Jim offers Dwight an Altoid (or a mint). After a few rounds of this, Dwight automatically reaches out his hand upon hearing the same sound.

This is called classical conditioning theory developed by Ivan Pavlov, a Russian physiologist. One of his most well-known experiments is where he trained dogs to salivate each time they heard a metronome.

Classical conditioning theory can apply to how we learn as human beings. At its most basic, classical conditioning theory of learning is learning by association. You learn to associate the pride of your parents with good marks in high school. Instances throughout our childhood have shaped our response to various situations.

Read on to learn more about the Pavlov classical conditioning theory and how it works.


  1. What Is Classical Conditioning Theory?

  2. Elements Of The Classical Conditioning Theory

  3. Unlearn, Learn, Relearn With Harappa

What Is Classical Conditioning Theory?


In the Ivan Pavlov theory, there is a stimulus and a response. How the subject reacts to a stimulus depends on whether they’ve been conditioned or unconditioned. For instance, an infant wouldn’t know that a tiger in the wild can be dangerous. It’s only when they watch something educational or read about predators that they’ll find out.

Similarly, someone may try to touch a geyser in a hot tub with their bare hands without knowing the dangers. But a person who knows or has been conditioned to believe they can get burnt will avoid doing that.

The classical conditioning theory operates in stages. The first is where you have no knowledge of how the stimulus will elicit a response, if at all. The second is where the stimulus is known to produce a specific response. The response is the result of an unconditioned or conditioned stimulus, respectively.

Learning through association is universally applicable. For instance, employees who are discouraged from sharing their views the first three times may be too afraid to stand up the fourth time. In school, if a student is made to stand outside the class every time they talk to their friends it will likely change their habit. This is an example of learning through association.

A lot of processes and procedures in school, home and work can be attributed to the classical conditioning theory. Going to work on time, delivering work on time or being polite to your teachers can be a result of classical conditioning where the conditioned response can even be ‘fear’. Let’s understand the terminology of the Pavlov theory of learning.

Elements Of The Classical Conditioning Theory


The Pavlov theory of learning is built on unconditioned/conditioned stimulus and response. The first time you experience a stimulus, it has little to no impact on you. But after repetition, it will elicit a specific response from you. These stages are before and after conditioning.

Let’s explore the terminology of the classical conditioning theory and its three stages to understand the concept a little more.

1. Unconditioned Stimulus

Unconditioned stimulus or US refers to a new or never before experienced stimulus. It will be something that’s unlearned. For instance, experiencing a really harsh winter for the first time, trying out a new dish or hearing an unfamiliar sound. Each of these stimuli can elicit a specific response from the person. An unfamiliar taste can either make you really happy or really nauseous. For Pavlov’s dog experiment, the food, in this context, is the unconditioned stimulus. The reason being that its presence simply wasn’t based on prior experience.

2. Neutral Stimulus

A stimulus that doesn’t elicit a response is a neutral stimulus or NS. Something you experience for the first time may not produce a reaction from you. For instance, an employee who’s new at work may not be used to getting approval for everything. This way, they simply reach out to the person they need something from. But if their manager encourages them to follow protocol, they’ll likely be conditioned to go through the proper channels to get approval for a task. A neutral stimulus turns into a conditioned stimulus.

3. Conditioned Stimulus

A conditioned stimulus or a CS is when the response is associated with the stimulus. For instance, someone who lives in a really cold climate is conditioned to wear layers of winter clothes. They’re fully aware of how painful frostbite can be. The stimulus, which was once unconditioned, is now conditioned. It elicits a specific response from the person. In the Pavlov classical conditioning theory, the metronome a dog hears for the first time is a neutral stimulus. After it elicits a response, it becomes a conditioned stimulus. Each time a dog hears it, they’re conditioned to salivate. It’s a process of unlearning and learning by which we associate a stimulus with a feeling or an emotion. This then produces a predictable response.

4. Unconditioned Response

An unconditioned stimulus elicits an unconditioned response or UR. For instance, if you experience a harsh winter for the first time, your response will be unconditioned. You’ll be chilly, shivering and most likely uncomfortable. An external environment or a situation you’re not used to will elicit some sort of reaction or an emotion. This is an unconditioned response because it doesn’t depend on past experience. It’s new and happens after the first interaction with a stimulus.

5. Conditioned Response

A conditioned stimulus elicits a conditioned response. If you’re accustomed to the stimulus, you’ll likely respond in a similar fashion. In school, students are conditioned to have lunch or run to the grounds as soon as they hear the lunch bell. In the Pavlovian theory, a dog’s conditioned response is to salivate for the food as soon as they hear the metronome. As per research, some conditioned responses can be produced even in the first interaction. This is most common when the response is fear. As an example, if a dog bites a child, they may be conditioned to fear dogs for the foreseeable future.


These five elements make up the classical conditioning theory. Research on the theory is extensive and this merely provides an overview. Read further to learn about the three stages of the Pavlovian theory.


The three stages are:

1. Before Conditioning

A natural response to something unfamiliar, new and unexpected falls under the first stage of the classical conditioning theory. Before conditioning refers to an unlearned response to an unconditioned stimulus. It doesn’t mean a new behavior has been adopted. This is the first response produced by an unconditioned stimulus. The neutral stimulus that doesn’t elicit a response also falls under this stage in the classical conditioning theory of learning.

2. During Conditioning

During conditioning is the stage where a conditioned stimulus elicits a conditioned response. The unconditioned stimulus has to be associated with the conditioned stimulus for this stage to be successful. This can take several repetitions or even a single instance to work. The Pavlovian theory is based on learned responses. This is the step in the process where unconditioned responses to the stimuli get repeated and become learned responses. The next stage is where a response to an unconditioned or conditioned stimulus becomes conditioned.

3. After Conditioning

When the conditioned stimulus and the unconditioned stimulus have been identified, they will elicit a conditioned response. For instance, if you’ve experienced vertigo in the past, you’ll try your best to avoid heights or high places. The conditioned response to a high place would be to feel dizzy. After conditioning is the completion of the classical conditioning theory. It means the theory is effective and successful. Your behavior in response to a conditioned stimulus is the same.


The terminology and stages of classical conditioning theory help us understand the concept a little better. Readings and studies have much to offer in terms of evidential data and statistics. For now, classical conditioning in learning can teach us how we are capable of unlearning, learning and relearning. We can condition ourselves to learn new skills and relearn existing skills.

Unlearn, Learn, Relearn With Harappa


As professionals, it’s important to keep learning and growing. You don’t need to restrict yourself to a particular career path or a certain skill set. You can always reach for more. Unlearning and relearning is a liberating and empowering process where you have the chance to gain new perspectives. Harappa’s Learning Expertly course teaches you how to learn from experience, reflect on your past actions and acquire new insights.

And then, these new insights can then be applied to new ventures. With frameworks like Gibbs’ Reflective Cycle and Kolb’s Learning Cycle, you’ll learn some of the most robust ways to become an agile learner. Embrace flexibility to adapt to personal and professional behaviors for workplace success. Conditioning can help you follow a strategic path to success. If you can be resilient in your endeavors, you’ll willingly take on challenges and prepare for them.

Push yourself to achieve your goals and ambitions. Enroll today and unlock expert advice from our faculty who bring lived wisdom and anecdotes to enrich our courses.

Explore Harappa Diaries to learn more about topics such as Operant Conditioning Theory Of Learning, Experiential Learning, Blended Learning and Effective Cooperative Learning Strategies to upgrade your knowledge and skills.

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