What is classic conditioning in criminal justice

Classic conditioning is a behavioristic learning theory founded by the Russian physiologist Ivan Petrowitsch Pawlow, which states that a natural, mostly innate, so-called unconditionalReflex by learning a new, conditional Reflex can be added.

The assumptions and techniques of classical conditioning can also be used to treat anxiety, compulsions, or anxiety-like symptoms. Such techniques are known as counter conditioning, aversion therapy, systematic desensitization, extinction and "flooding".

A distinction must be made between instrumental and operant conditioning, which affect spontaneous behavior, from classical conditioning, which affects triggered behavior.


Let there be an unconditional (also: “unconditional”) stimulus, which is followed as a reflex by an unconditional (also: “unconditional”) reaction. If a previously neutral stimulus is presented several times in connection with the unconditional stimulus (coupling), this previously neutral stimulus becomes a conditioned stimulus. This conditioned stimulus now also triggers a reflex reaction (the conditioned response), which is usually very similar to the unconditional response.

The neutral (later: conditional) stimulus must not initially produce a specific reaction, but it must be perceived as a discrete stimulus, e.g. B. trigger an orientation reaction.

German English Abbreviation Explanation
Unconditional attraction unconditioned stimulus US (UCS) Stimulus that triggers a reaction without prior learning
Absolute response unconditioned response UR (UCR) innate response triggered by the US
Neutral stimulus neutral stimulus NS Stimulus that leads to a non-specific reaction
Conditional stimulus conditioned stimulus CS originally neutral stimulus,
due to multiple coupling with a US
causes a learned or conditioned response
Conditional response conditioned response CR learned reaction that is triggered by the CS

Classical conditioning in a nutshell:

before training neutral stimulus → no specific reaction
unconditional stimulus → unconditional response
training neutral stimulus + unconditional stimulus → unconditional reaction
Result conditioned stimulus → conditioned response


The Pavlovian Dog

The best-known example is the Pavlovian dog, in which the giving of food was always associated with a bell sound. After several repetitions, the dog was salivating just at the sound of the bell.

Control phase (before training):

  • Bell tone (neutral stimulus) makes ears prick up (no specific reaction)
  • Food (unconditioned stimulus / stimulus) leads to salivation (unconditioned reaction)

Learning phase:

  • Repeated pairing of bell tone (neutral stimulus / stimulus) + food (unconditioned stimulus / stimulus) + unconditioned reaction

Learning outcome

  • Bell tone (now conditioned stimulus / stimulus) leads to saliva secretion (conditioned reaction)

Air raid alarm

Another example is intended to illustrate the process of classical conditioning in human behavior:

The falling of the bombs in World War II created fear in the people. Usually, however, before the first bombs fell, sirens (air raid alarms) sounded with a specific increasing and decreasing howling sound. For many people the howling sound caused fear after the second repetition of the air raid alarm. “Even in peacetime, the siren triggers fear in many people, even if it is just a test alarm.” (Edelmann, 1996, p. 63) In unconditioned people, the howling sound alone would not trigger a significant reaction. The reaction (fear) is only conditioned by the combination of the howling sound and the falling of bombs. If these two stimuli had not been in a direct chronological sequence, the howling would not have been associated with the falling of the bombs and the unconditional reaction (feeling fear at the sound of the howling) would never have become a conditioned reaction. The classical conditioning model was expanded after it was found that the very idea of ​​sounding an air raid alarm led to anxiety.

Excitatory and inhibitory conditioning

Excitatory classic conditioning is the coupling of a previously neutral stimulus to a stimulus that triggers innate behavior, so to speak, the "classic" classic conditioning.

Example: child is afraid when thunder rolls; the (silent) lightning announces the thunder, so it already triggers fear. Thunder = UCS (= unconditioned stimulus); Lightning = CS (= conditioned stimulus); Anxiety = UCR (= unconditioned reaction), becomes CR (= conditioned reaction).

However, an organism can also learn that the conditioned stimulus is related to the Failing an (excitatory) unconditional stimulus is coupled. Then one speaks of inhibitory classical conditioning. Example: The child is afraid of thunder (UCS), but not when the mother (CS) is there.

Effective designs

Depending on how the temporal relationship between the conditioned stimulus and the unconditional stimulus is chosen in the learning phase (also: “acquisition”), the conditioning is effective in different ways. In the extensive research, the following inter-stimulus intervals have mainly been used:

  • short delayed conditioning: The conditioned stimulus is presented, and shortly afterwards, but while the conditioned stimulus is still on, the unconditional stimulus;
  • long delayed conditioning: The conditioned stimulus is presented and some time later, but while the conditioned stimulus is still on, the unconditional stimulus. There is no sharp limit to the short delay, but: the shorter the delay, the more effective the learning;
  • simultaneous conditioning: Conditioned stimulus and unconditional stimulus are presented simultaneously, ineffectively;
  • trace conditioning: First the conditioned stimulus is presented, then the unconditional stimulus; requires stimulus coupling on the memory trail;
  • backward conditioning: The conditioned stimulus is presented after the unconditional stimulus; only works with inhibitory conditioning.

Conditioning usually works best when the neutral and the unconditional stimulus follow one another in quick succession (contiguity). In some cases, however, the conditioning also works if there are hours between the two stimuli (e.g. association of a nausea reaction with the taste of blueberries because you accidentally ate blueberries the night before, see taste aversion). The decisive factor for conditioning, however, is the contingency between the conditioned stimulus and the unconditional stimulus: The conditioned reaction is only developed when the conditioned stimulus takes on a signal character, i.e. predicts the unconditional stimulus with a certain probability.

The number of repetitions of the coupling of conditioned and unconditional stimuli also has an impact on the learning process. “As a rule, the acquisition of a conditioned response (CR) is linked to the repeated occurrence of these two stimuli. We want to call this principle reinforcement. "(Edelmann, 2000, p. 37f.)

The novelty and salience of stimuli are also important for the effectiveness of stimuli.

The unconditional and conditional reactions do not have to have the same phenomenology (as in Pavlov's experiment). An example of this is shock conditioning in humans: the unconditional reaction is a startle reaction, combined with an increase in heart rate and blood pressure. If you test the conditioned reaction after training, however, it consists of a lowering of the heart rate.

Biological strength

If the conditioning is successful, the stimulus of an existing stimulus-reaction pair (e.g. humming sound → turning head towards the sound source) is “bent over” to another reaction (e.g. salivation), this is the new stimulus that has been used since Pavlov -Reaction bond got bigger biological strength than the old one. Conversely, a stimulus is not suitable as a NS / CS for a new stimulus-reaction bond if it is already too strongly tied to the triggering of another reaction. The counter-conditioning only succeeds if the new US triggers its (new, desired) reaction more strongly than the old US its (now to be deleted) reaction.

Latent inhibition

In the case of latent inhibition or latent inhibition (also known as CS pre-exposure), a stimulus that reliably does not produce a triggered reaction is then more difficult to learn than CS than an unknown stimulus. A weakened ability for latent inhibition is suspected in schizophrenics and creative geniuses.[1]

Latent escapement is an example of what the Rescorla-Wagner model cannot explain. Lubow and Moore (1959) carried out an experiment with sheep and geese.

Conditional inhibition

When the conditioned stimulus (CS) elicits the same response as the unconditional stimulus (as in the examples), it is called excitatory conditioning. If there is another stimulus that is reliably not followed by US, this previously neutral stimulus becomes an inhibitory / inhibitory conditioned stimulus (CS-), which ensures that the conditioned reaction to the excitatory related stimulus (CS +) is weaker or even weaker does not occur (so-called conditional inhibition or conditional inhibition). If the CS + is an aversive stimulus, the CS- can be interpreted as a safety signal. The simplest and most effective procedure to turn a neutral stimulus into an inhibitor is to present it simultaneously with the CS +, but without following the US.


The same conditioned stimulus is not necessarily required to trigger the conditioned response. Pavlov found in his investigations that the secretion of saliva is also triggered by a stimulus that resembled the ringing signal: stimulus generalization had taken place. The dog now reacted with a secretion of saliva even after the sound of a gong or flute. The generalization or the generalization effect is a process: “(...) in which the organism also reacts to stimuli that are similar to the conditioned stimulus; no additional conditioning is required for each similar stimulus. "[2]


Discrimination describes the process that counteracts stimulus generalization. The organism only learns to react to specific stimuli and to distinguish them from similar ones. For example, Pavlov's dog was able to learn to react only to specific stimuli, such as the tones of a bell, but not to other acoustic stimuli with salivation. This process, which describes learning to discriminate, enables living beings to react differently to similar stimuli and therefore more appropriately.


If the conditioned stimulus (CS) is repeatedly presented without a subsequent unconditional stimulus (US), the reaction (CR) becomes weaker and weaker and ultimately fails to exist: The CS has lost its signal character for the US, this process is called extinction (extinction ). However, if the process with the conditioned stimulus (CS) is repeated at a later point in time, the conditioned reaction often occurs again (so-called "spontaneous recovery"), albeit with a lower intensity than before the extinction.

Strictly speaking, it follows from Pavlov's theory that once a reflex has been learned, it can never be completely erased. The absence of the US only makes it weaker. This inhibition is initially not permanent, which leads to the phenomenon of spontaneous recovery of the reflex. Pavlov himself never used the term extinction; he always wrote of inhibition and Weakening. In the English translation it became extinction. Since Pavlov's works were then translated from English into German (instead of directly from Russian), the translation error also established itself as a technical term in German (Absorbance or deletion).

“Emotional-motivational reactions are often very resistant to deletion” (Edelmann, 2000, p. 38). Edelmann deals with this special case in an example: "Children and adults also sometimes feel fear of relatively small dogs, although unpleasant experiences with such animals can no longer be remembered." (Edelmann, 2000, p. 38)

Counter conditioning

Has a conditional stimulus (CS) been learned so that it can reliably produce a conditional response (CR1) triggers, this association should be resolved again in the counter-conditioning. To do this, the CS is now paired with a new, unconditional stimulus, the one for the CR1 opposite reaction CR2 triggers. So was the CR1 aversive, is the CR2 appetizing and vice versa. Has z. B. a rat a tone (CS) as a predictor for electrical stimuli (US1) learned so that the sound alone already causes a fear reaction (CR1) triggers, in the counter-conditioning the sound is provided with an appetizing stimulus (US2, e.g. B. feeding) paired until the sound no longer triggers the fear response. For information on the use of counter-conditioning in psychotherapy, see Counter-conditioning.

Higher order conditioning

If a neutral stimulus is paired with an unconditional stimulus, one speaks of conditioning first order. If you pair a neutral stimulus with a conditioned stimulus, so that the previously neutral stimulus also triggers the conditioned reaction, this is conditioning second order. It only works if the second CS is biologically weaker than the first CS. Pavlov initially conditioned the ticking of a metronome as CS for food (first-order conditioning). Then he paired the metronome with the sight of a black square (second order conditioning). After this learning phase, the black square caused saliva to flow even though it had never been paired with the food.


If the US produces a general, unspecific increase in willingness to react, so that the reaction to the CS is based on this excitation and not on learning, one speaks of “pseudo-conditioning”. To ensure that the learning effects observed in the experimental group are not based on pseudo-conditioning, a control group is presented with the same amount and the same distribution of CS and US, but without a temporal connection. Two common control procedures are 1. random and 2. explicitly unpaired presentation of CS and US.

Blocking effect

If stimulus A is conditioned as a conditioned stimulus in a first learning phase and then an attempt is made to condition the combination of stimulus A and another stimulus B in a second learning phase as a conditioned stimulus, then stimulus B alone cannot trigger the conditioned reaction (chimney, 1968). The association between stimulus A and unconditional response acquired in learning phase 1 "blocks" the formation of an association between stimulus B and the unconditional stimulus in learning phase 2. The fact that the conditioned reaction is triggered by the stimulus combination A + B after phase 2 is apparently due to stimulus A alone. The blocking effect refutes the assumption that contiguity is the decisive criterion for the formation of an association between two stimuli, because the contiguity between stimulus B and the unconditional stimulus was given perfectly in learning phase 2. This discovery led to the development of the Rescorla-Wagner model, which states that the novelty and salience of the conditioned stimulus determine how much it influences behavior.

Individual evidence

  1. ^ Lubow & Gewirtz (1995). Latent inhibition in humans: data, theory, and implications for schizophrenia. Psychological Bulletin, pp. 87-103
  2. ↑ Gerd Mietzel: Educational psychology of learning and teaching. 8th, revised and expanded edition. S. 144. Hogrefe Verlag GmbH + Co. 2007.)


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