classical conditioning

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Applications Paper:

The paper presented is aimed at demonstrating the primary principals behind classical conditioning. By using a real life example the textbook theory can be applied to a hypothetical patient suffering from a sleep disorder possibly somewhat brought on by a ‘learnt’ experience.

My female friend expresses the symptoms of alertness and insomnia commonly prior to one specific action; brushing her teeth. The scenario given dictates that the only other time my friend brushes her teeth is prior to leaving for work in the morning and furthermore the text also highlights that her working life has relatively recently become more stressful.

Atkinson (1980) brings in to play the fact that stress is quite likely to be the cause of the insomnia and alertness. By focusing specifically on Bond and McConkey’s (2001) theory: “…Classical conditioning can be defined as the pairing of some fixed temporal relationship of a neutral stimulus and a stimulus capable of regularly and reliably eliciting a response…” we can potentially see that the night time stressfulness could be as a result of her becoming classically conditioned.

To understand exactly how my friend has learned to display characteristics of stress in the evenings, prior to sleep, we must familiarize ourselves with the basic principals of classical conditioning.

There are four definitions, which must first be made clear; Wayne Written (2001) explains:

1)     The Unconditioned Stimulus (UCS) – A stimulus that evokes an unconditioned response without prior conditioning. In this scenario specifically the UCS would be my friend leaving for work in the mornings.
2)     The Unconditioned Response (UCR) – Is an unlearned reaction to an unconditioned stimulus that occurs without previous conditioning. In this case the response is quite obviously the stressful feeling my friend endures.

Adopting Wayne Written’s (2001) description of our like – like scenario, so far Fig 1.1 below shows the relationship we have created. Without any learning-taking place the UCS of going to work has been associated with a conditioned response of feeling stressed.

Fig 1.1

Wayne Written (2001) continues:

3)     The Controlled Stimulus (CS) – Is a previously neutral stimulus that has, through conditioning acquired the capability a conditioned response. Again relating the CS to this example, we would be assuming that the brushing of her teeth would have been previously a neutral stimulus and hence forming the controlled stimulus for this argument.
4)     The Controlled Response (CR) – Is a leant reaction to a conditioned stimulus that occurs because of prior conditioning.

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"classical conditioning." 24 Jun 2018
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My friend has learned to react with feeling of stress whenever prompted with a CS.

Using the principals mentioned by Wayne Written’s (2001), Fig 1.2 below highlights the relationship between the stimulus’ and responses. If classical conditioning was the reason behind the night time stress, we would assume that over time the act of brushing her teeth has been conditioned to acquire a response of stressfulness, this pairing is known as the acquisition stage. Further explained an association has been made between her going to work and brushing her teeth and hence resulting in a similar outcome, the feeling of stress.

Fig 1.2

It is important to keep in mind my friend is experiencing a common problem, insomnia. Insomnia is known to have a number of causes and has a number of solutions both medical and imperial. Given the stress she feels and the fact she experiences the increased stress levels immediately after brushing her teeth it is likely she has been conditioned to a response.

If the stress and insomnia is however as a result of classical conditioning, we can use this theory to hinder the CR by a process known as extinction. Bond and McConkey (2001) signifies that “we can eliminate a conditioned response by presenting the conditioned stimulus repeatedly in the absence of the unconditioned stimulus to elicit the conditioned response.” I would recommend that my friend brush her teeth at different time intervals to try and disassociate the current CS to the CR, over a period of time my friend should be able to notice a weakened CR as unlearning is taking place. It may be initially difficult to break the connection and it is likely that she may at times, where she thinks the stress has gone, experience on occasion a minor resurfacing of the problem. Wayne Written (2001) this phenomenon as spontaneous recovery and explain it as “the reappearance of an extinguished response after a period of non-exposure to the conditioned stimulus.” Once the extinction is evident she would be able to brush her teeth normally without the stress facto appearing.

Given the vague nature of the scenario the solution I have adopted may not be the correct one. There are a number of external factors, which may be responsible for the increased stress levels during sleep. To reduce stress it is important to reduce the source of the stress and using principals of classical conditioning this would be one method I would recommend exploring.


Wayne Written, “Psychological Themes and Variations” 6th Ed. California, Wadsworth, Thompson Learning 2001.

Bond and McConkey, “Psychological Science: An Introduction” NSW, Australia, McGraw Hill 2001.

Richard C Atkinson, “Psychology in Progress” California, USA, University of British Columbia 1980.

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