Pavlovian Conditioning and the Environmental Influences that Shape Us

I have a good hunch that Pavlovian conditioning can provide great insights on domestic violence, sexual deviance, irrational fears, abuse, and post-traumatic disorder. I wish not to be too detail-oriented about each of these things, as they each can be extensively discussed in later posts. Here, I just want to begin the groundwork.

Everything that either attracts or repels you can all boil down to conditioning, through which automatic physiological, psychosocial and psychological activity and sensations are experienced. Your brain and body work together to make associations that give you insight on whether to move toward or away from an object.

Pulling your hand away after touching a hot stove or jumping at the loud sound of a sudden crash are virtually irresistible and unconditioned responses. No one ever needed to tell you to recoil after touching a hot stove or hearing a loud sound. Telling you to produce a particular response would involve learning and learning is defined as behavioral change resulting from experience. You therefore learned to like a song that you heard while driving with your boyfriend/girlfriend in the car. You learned to dislike blue and red colors flashing together because they remind you of the many times you saw police car lights in your rearview mirror before getting pulled over and receiving a hefty fine or arrest.

This is pertinent to classical (Pavlovian) conditioning, which involves a learned response that results from establishing an association between two different stimuli or organ/tissue-evoking events. An unconditioned stimulus provokes a natural reflex or unlearned response, while a neutral stimulus produces no effect, yet, until the neutral stimulus is repeatedly paired with the unconditioned stimulus. Then, after the association is made, a conditioned response is felt, and this will occur upon experiencing the previously neutral stimulus, without the unconditioned stimulus. Of course, the conditioned response can be undone, which is technically called extinction, and that usually happens when the conditioned stimulus and unconditioned stimulus become unpaired. However, again, there can be a spontaneous recovery, which is the reemergence of a conditioned response following a cessation period. [1]

You may have already heard of the Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov (1849-1936) with whom the concept originated, following his experiments with dogs and studying how and when they would salivate after hearing a bell and before being given their food. [2]

We do not know exactly what kind of apparatus Pavlov used for studying the dogs, but Stephen L. Franzoi’s 2015 college textbook, titled Psychology: A Discovery Experience, reports that Pavlov probably used a screen for observing the dog, a tube in which to collect saliva, some meat powder, a revolving drum for recording responses, and a device to count saliva drops. Pavlov was able to prompt a conditioned response (salivation) from the dog by having the dog continually hear a ticking sound, followed by receiving food, and then associating the two together. [2]

The story of behaviorism’s founder, John Watson, and his colleague, Rosalie Rayner, helpfully illustrates learned behaviors and conditioning, though it raised inglorious ethical issues. John and Rosalie used a nine-month-old boy as their test subject, named “Little Albert B.” [2]

The infant was presented with a white rat, a rabbit, a monkey, a dog, masks with or without hair, and white cotton wool. The two researchers observed a positive response, at first. Two months later, the infant was given the white rat and Watson pounded a hammer on a four-foot steel bar, observing poor Albert’s discomposure. This continued seven more times with one-week intervals. Pairing the rat with the noise begot the same effect each time until Watson decided to observe the infant with only the rat and no noise. What was the result? The infant reacted with irrepressible fear, learned through classical conditioning. [2]

Albert’s response of fear was also observed when being given a furry white rabbit, a dog, a white fur coat, Watson’s own head of gray hair, and even a Santa Claus mask. This is an example of stimulus generalization, a phenomenon identified by Pavlov. It is the inclination to respond to a stimulus that is similar in touch, sound, taste, smell, or appearance to another stimulus. This perhaps could explain why you are quick to respond warmly to someone who looks or acts like a good friend of yours or why you hesitate to approach someone who looks and acts like someone who has treated you contumeliously. [2]

The opposite is stimulus discrimination, which personal experience affords us. We learn to disassociate certain properties from stimuli to which those properties do not inherently belong. Little Albert could have unprogrammed his fear for rats and anything white if he were enticed to discover that loud noises were not present when the other objects were given to him. This is our mechanism for helping us realize that we can feel insouciant upon seeing a person who looks or acts like the one who did us wrong. We can thereby move on with our lives. [2]

But that mechanism and healing process is not always optimal or easy for victims of domestic violence, sexual deviance, irrational fears, physical and emotional abuse, drug abuse and post-traumatic disorder.

Classical Conditioning and Sexual Deviance

Sexual behaviors that are bizarre, maladaptive, injurious, and compulsive such as paraphilias, fetishes, and sadomasochism have an etiology that is difficult to understand. That difficulty stems from the fact that the potentially relevant empirical research on nonhuman animals, used to obtain important implications about human sexual arousal and deviations, has not been satisfactorily synthesized with clinical literature.

Psychology’s early years on studying human sexuality produced some cockamamie ideas. In 1886 Krafft-Ebing believed that Pavlovian conditioning was perniciously involved in the case of a child developing masochism from his penis rubbing against a parent’s lap during a spanking. French psychologist, Alfred Binet (1888), came up with the idea that children could develop deviant practices from experiencing inadvertent but apparently gratifying deviant acts. Jaspers (1963) and Rachman (1961) pitched the idea that an unintentional coupling of an abnormal stimulus with sexual arousal or ejaculation could put aberrant practices into effect. [3]

Perhaps those men depended too heavily on the premise that most aspects of our sexuality are learned, as do many other theories. Stunningly, few empirical studies have demonstrated that learning plays a huge role in human sexual arousal. Most of the conducted studies have used male rats and birds and some other female species. And so, clarity has been lacking as to how the learning occurs. However, it was still settled “that classical and operant conditioning can produce temporary and lasting changes in appetitive, precopulatory, and consummatory sexual behavior, which suggests that sexual learning can expand upon instinctual responses, allowing for diversity in sexual repertoire.” [4]

Methodological problems impaired evidence for classical conditioning in human sexual arousal for males in reports dating back to the 1960s and 1970s. But results from a 1998 study found genital excitation after using paired images of incompletely naked females with tantalizing recordings of heterosexual contact. Two researchers, Plaud and Martini (1999), found increase in penile circumference after using a penny jar as the neutral stimulus and pairing it with partly or fully naked females. [4]

A 1997 study, the only one to scrutinize the influence of conditioning in women’s sexual excitations, failed to demonstrate conditioned genital or subjective responses to the pairing of a light and an erotic film. It is said that Letourneau and O’Donohue’s methodological flaw was a poor unconditioned stimulus and probably “ineffective conditioning parameters.” [4]

Despite the lack of proper testing, it has been proposed that female sexual arousal involves less learning than male arousal. If conditioned arousal experiments have tended to use visual sexual stimuli, it is expectable that men would report more arousal, and that we would be led to conclude that men are more biologically inclined than women to respond to visual stimuli. Additionally, we are led to conclude that men diversify their sexual practices more than women and male paraphiliacs outnumber female paraphiliacs, despite Baumeister’s argument from 2000 that women, instead of men, are the more “erotically plastic” gender. [4]

Classical Conditioning and Addiction

Based on the basic premise that a specific stimulus causes a specific response, it is obvious as to how classical conditioning and paired associations have relationship with the powerful physiological excitations and cravings of cocaine and opioid addiction. Seeing drug paraphernalia is one important relapse cue. Depression can be another important relapse cue. These relapse cues can be quite potent even after tenaciously holding onto sobriety for so long. The same applies to alcoholism. [5] The key is to stay away from bars, especially during depression episodes, if the alcoholic wants to remain abstinent.

In aversion therapy, a drug is administered for inducing nausea and vomiting upon alcohol ingestion to make a paired association between drinking and unpleasantness. The ideal is to even have unpleasantness follow from just having a thought about alcohol. [6]

Drug-resistance therapy has involved training patients to not respond to cues, using exposure to drug and alcohol related things to abate the connection between cues and urges. The expectation for charming effects fades and a chemical high is no longer predictable as the person is increasingly exposed to sights and smells of a substance without indulging. This allows an individual to gain resilience and say no in the face of jeopardy and temptation. Exposure therapy or drug-resistance therapy has afforded auspicious results in cognitive-behavioral treatment. [7] 1993 and 1999 reports demonstrate this:

“For example, Monti and colleagues (1993) compared two groups of alcohol abusers in an inpatient setting. Both groups engaged in typical inpatient treatment activities; participants in one group also were exposed to the sights and smells of alcohol, and rehearsed coping strategies while imagining themselves in high-risk settings. When outcomes were compared, the patients who received exposure therapy had more days of abstinence and consumed less alcohol on days when they drank. The difference was significant despite evidence that cue-related cravings may affect patients with alcohol abuse disorders relatively less than patients with other substance abuse disorders (Carter and Tiffany, 1999).” [7]

Classical Conditioning and Its Influence on Victim-Sensitivity and Trusting Others

All people have various sensitivity levels to victimization. This makes it quite hard to ascertain the precise causes and cures for each person’s trauma-related anxieties, distrustfulness, and uncooperativeness. However, victim-sensitivity can help predict how someone will act in situations. The nature of exploitation violates the need to trust, which is a very fundamental need; and this is a very defensible premise on which we can build our understanding. [8]

The need to trust is one of the “five core social motives.” It is the emotional investment in the abilities, probity, and generosity of others. It is integral to retaining relationships and contributing to social groups. If trust is the engine for democracies, the center of social capital, a pillar of economic organization, the main determinant of the quality of social interactions, whether bargaining or loving, and helps us become adept in precarious or novel situations, we should not be surprised that victim-sensitivity has the tendency to ossify or become almost permanent in one’s life. When you remove the core of anything, you should expect collapse. That metaphor is quite hard to ignore. [8]

The victim-sensitive individual’s awareness for needing to trust others is always present, but that awareness is eclipsed by the awareness that others are not as trustworthy and reliable as the individual once hoped. This provides a basis for recurring anxieties about emotional or even physical abuse, betrayal, and social rejection. More concretely, it seems plausible to hypothesize that if pivotal life events are generated and shaped by victimization and if improper coping skills are employed to deal with them, victim sensitivity is likely to increase and ossify. All victimization experiences can have many different faces, and this makes the cause and cure less determinable than we would like. [8]

It seems sensible to affirm that people are generally motivated to trust others, since trust is so vastly functional in both interpersonal and intergroup ways. Considering that, it also makes sense to assume that victim-sensitivity is sourced in a definite cognitive dissonance: the dissonance between the need to invest trust in others and to remember that not all are as steadfast and loyal as one must hope for (Gollwitzer and Rothmund, 2009). This is in accord with the Sensitivity to Mean Intentions (SeMI) model. [8]

Betrayal is irrefragably distasteful to everyone, but everyone varies as to what extent they emotionally unravel after the event and ruminate on the injustice. People who ruminate a lot on injustice, whether they were victimized or witnessed the victimization of others, are said to be chronically hypervigilant to cues associated with untrustworthiness. Antisocial, egoistic, and uncooperative behaviors are expectable from them, as they are meant to preempt against possible exploitation. “Victim-sensitive individuals behave uncooperatively toward others because they expect others to behave uncooperatively toward them.” [8]

Health and happiness are demonstrably reliant on acquiring a general sense of trust in one’s social world. German-American developmental psychologist Erik Erikson’s (1950, 1959) theory on psychological stages assumes that a crucial first task in life is to develop trust in a caregiver. A toddler’s deep-seated misgivings and perturbations about life and people will manifest years later as a result of being deprived of basic needs (such as food, warmth, and closeness). Erikson’s attachment theory focused heavily on the infant-caregiver connection and underscored the development of trust that is consequential from that healthy connection and dictates the quality of subsequent intimate relationships. [8]

Representations of oneself, of others, and of relationships in general are reflected in the health of the child’s mental processes that involve his/her anticipations of the quality of future interactions, the basis for which is molded by the infant-caregiver bond during the rudimentary stages of life. Such representations effectuate attachment patterns or styles, which can be qualitatively defined as “secure” vs. “insecure” (e.g., anxious/ambivalent, anxious/avoidant, and disorganized. Curiously, insecure attachment styles symbolize others as undependable and symbolizing of oneself as inept for winning others’ cooperation. [8]

Stated differently, when the caregiver’s dereliction of the infant is the unconditioned stimulus prompting an unconditioned response of ill-health and unhappiness, it is conceivable to say that a lack of curiosity, poor performance in school, and emotional withdrawal will be the conditioned response plaguing the infant during childhood. On the other hand, when the caregiver’s diligent attention to the infant’s needs is the unconditioned stimulus prompting the unconditioned stimulus of good health and happiness, it is conceivable to say that a conditioned response manifests as the infant maturing into a popular, independent, self-assured child.


[1] Kendra Cherry, What Is Classical Conditioning? A Step-by-Step Guide to How Classical Conditioning Really Works, September 28, 2018

[2] Stephen L. Franzoi, Psychology: A Discovery Experience, Marquette University, South-Western Cengage Learning, 2015,+the+dog+learned+to+associate+them+and+produce+a+conditioned+response&source=bl&ots=w66igj9NUs&sig=ACfU3U17vHKewm7w4piMGGdHKTNSixDZBA&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwjKxNe1r57gAhUvxVkKHceVApMQ6AEwAHoECAsQAQ#v=onepage&q=By%20repeatedly%20pairing%20a%20ticking%20sound%20with%20receiving%20food%2C%20the%20dog%20learned%20to%20associate%20them%20and%20produce%20a%20conditioned%20response&f=false

[3] Chana K. Akins, The Role of Pavlovian Conditioning in Sexual Behavior: A Comparative Analysis of Human and Nonhuman Animals, International Journal of Comparative Psychology, University of Kentucky, U.S.A., 2004

[4] Heather Hoffmann, Ph.D., Erick Janssen, Ph.D., and Stefanie L. Turner, Classical Conditioning of Sexual Arousal in Women and Men: Effects of Varying Awareness and Biological Relevance of the Conditioned Stimulus, Archives of Sexual Behavior, Vol. 33, No. 1, February 2004, pp. 43–53 (2004)

[5] Chapter 4—Brief Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy Brief Interventions and Brief Therapies for Substance Abuse. Treatment Improvement Protocol (TIP) Series, No. 34. Center for Substance Abuse Treatment. Rockville (MD): Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (US); 1999.

[6] A. Tom Horvath, Ph.D., ABPP, Kaushik Misra, Ph.D., Amy K. Epner, Ph.D., and Galen Morgan Cooper, Ph.D., Classical Conditioning and Addiction,, 1995-2018

[7] Michael W. Otto, Ph.D., Conall M. O’Cleirigh, Ph.D., and Mark H. Pollack, M.D., Attending to Emotional Cues for Drug Abuse: Bridging the Gap Between Clinic and Home Behaviors, US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health, 2007

[8] Mario Gollwitzer, Philipp Süssenbach, and Marianne Hannuschke, Victimization experiences and the stabilization of victim sensitivity, US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health, Published online 2015 Apr 14.

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