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Classical Conditioning

Classical Conditioning and the Development of Fears and Phobias


Updated March 24, 2009

Ivan Pavlov is known for his theory of classical conditioning. This can be thought of as a reaction that is learned through the pairing of stimuli (motivations). Pavlov's experiments with dogs illustrate how the process of classical conditioning occurs. To understand the process, it is important to understand Pavlov’s explanations of an unconditioned response, an unconditioned stimulus, a conditioned stimulus and a conditioned response.

Unconditioned Stimulus and Unconditioned Response

A UCR can be thought of as an instinctual reaction to certain unconditioned stimuli. During his study of dogs, Pavlov notes that when dog food is presented, the dogs begin to salivate. The dog food is a UCS, and the salivation is the UCR. This pairing seems expected, and the salivation is an innate reaction of the dogs to feeding.

Conditioned Stimulus and Conditioned Response

Pavlov then began to pair the dog food (UCS) with the ringing of a bell (neutral stimulus). Through these repeated pairings, the dogs are conditioned to salivate at the sound of the bell even when no food is presented. The previously neutral bell has become a conditioned stimulus that produces salivation. The salivation at the sound of the bell is now a conditioned response.

The Creation of the Conditioned Panic Response

A panic attack is a sudden and intense feeling of terror, fear or apprehension, without the presence of actual danger. If there were actual danger, the feelings associated with the panic attack would probably be expected. But if you have panic disorder, you are probably experiencing panic attacks that just don’t fit the situation.

For example, driving a car is a pretty neutral event that should not elicit an intense fear response. But, if you experience a panic attack while driving, you may begin to associate driving with causing your panic response. But the driving itself is not really the cause of your panic. Rather, the driving has become a conditioned stimulus (CS) that now produce a conditioned panic response (CR).

Systematic Desensitization

Joseph Wolpe, a pioneer of behavioral therapy developed a technique called systematic desensitization for the treatment of anxiety-related disorders and phobic responses. This technique is based on the principles of classical conditioning, and the premise that what has been learned (conditioned) can be unlearned.


Breaking Free From Anxiety Disorders – Self-Care Handbook. (1998). Deerfield, MA: Channing L. Bete Co.

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