Role of a Conditioned Response in the Classical Conditioning Process (2024)

Inclassical conditioning, aconditioned responseis a learned response to a previously neutral stimulus. It's the response that is produced after someone develops an association between a stimulus and another stimulus that naturally triggers a reaction.

For example, the smell of food is an unconditioned stimulus, a feeling of hunger in response to the smell is an unconditioned response, and the sound of a whistle when you smell the food is a conditioned stimulus. The conditioned response would be feeling hungry when you heard the sound of the whistle but didn't smell the food.

The classical conditioning process is all about pairing a previously neutral stimulus with another stimulus that naturally produces a response. After pairing the presentation of these two together enough times, an association is formed.

The previously neutral stimulus will then evoke the response all on its own. At this point, the response becomes known as the conditioned response.

At a Glance

When teaching a new behavior via classical conditioning, a neutral stimulus is paired with a stimulus that naturally and automatically triggers a response. After enough pairings, the neutral stimulus becomes a conditioned stimulus, and the response to that conditioned stimulus becomes known as the conditioned response. Knowing how this process works can be important if you want to use classical conditioning to teach a behavior.

Conditioned Response vs. Unconditioned Response

Distinguishing between an unconditioned response and a conditioned response can sometimes be difficult. Here are a few things to remember as you are trying to identify a conditioned response:

  • A conditioned response must be learned, while an unconditioned response takes place without learning.
  • The conditioned response will only occur after an association between an unconditioned stimulus and a conditioned stimulus has been made.

While studying classical conditioning, you might find it helpful to remember that the conditioned response is thelearned reflexive response. Both the unconditioned and conditioned responses produce the same reaction; the difference is in what they are in response to.

Conditioned Response Examples

Some examples of conditioned responses include:

  • Phobias: If you witness a terrible car accident, you might develop a fear of driving. Many phobias begin after a person has had a negative experience with the fear object.
  • Animal behavior: If your pet is accustomed to being fed after hearing the sound of a can or bag being opened, they might become very excited when hearing that sound.
  • Fear of doctors: If your child receives regular immunizations and cries as a result of these injections, they may come to associate a healthcare provider's white jacket with this painful experience. Eventually, the child might cry whenever they see anyone wearing a white coat.
  • Fear of dogs: If you are bitten by a barking dog, you may experience feelings of fear and anxiety whenever you hear barking.
  • Feelings of hunger: Because you are used to eating at your favorite restaurant, you start to feel hungry whenever you drive past or see their sign.

How a Conditioned Response Is Formed

Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov first discovered the classical conditioning process during his research on the salivary systems of dogs. Pavlov noted that the dogs would salivate to the taste of meat but, after a while, they also began to salivate whenever they saw the white coat of the lab assistant who delivered the meat.

To look closer at this phenomenon, Pavlov introduced the sound of a tone whenever the animals were fed. Eventually, an association was formed, and the animals would salivate whenever they heard the sound, even if no food was present.

In Pavlov's classic experiment, the food represents what is known as theunconditioned stimulus(UCS). This stimulus naturally and automatically triggers anunconditioned response(UCR), which, in this case, was salivation. After pairing the unconditioned stimulus with a previously neutral stimulus, the sound of the tone, an association is formed between the UCS and the neutral stimulus.

Eventually, the previously neutral stimulus begins to evoke the same response, at which point the tone becomes known as theconditioned stimulus. The conditioned response in Pavlov's experiment was salivating in response to the conditioned stimulus.

Overcoming Conditioned Reponses

The same processes used to teach behaviors can also be used to reduce problematic responses. For example, if you have developed a fear of phobia, you can use a process known as systematic desensitization to eliminate your fear slowly.

In this process, you are slowly exposed to what you fear while practicing relaxation strategies. Because the conditioned stimulus that triggers the fear response isn't presented, the conditioned response eventually decreases and disappears.

Extinction of a Conditioned Response

So what happens in cases where the unconditioned stimulus is no longer paired with a conditioned stimulus? In Pavlov's experiment, for example, what would have happened if the food was no longer present after the sound of the tone?

Eventually, the conditioned response will gradually diminish and even disappear, a process known asextinction.

In one of our previous examples, imagine that a person developed a conditioned response to feeling fear whenever they heard a dog bark. Now imagine that the individual has many more experiences with barking dogs, all of which are positive.

While the conditioned response initially developed after one bad experience with a barking dog, that response may begin to diminish in intensity or even eventually disappear if the person has enough good experiences where nothing bad happens when they hear a dog's bark.


If the conditioned stimulus is removed, the conditioned response will gradually fade and become extinct. In situations where you are trying to change a maladaptive behavior, such as an excessive fear response, this can be a good thing. Over time, the behavior will fade and become less of a problem.


The conditioned response is an important part of the classical conditioning process. By forming an association between a previously neutral stimulus and an unconditioned stimulus, learning can take place, eventually leading to a conditioned response.

Conditioned responses can be a good thing, but they can also be problematic. Associations can lead to desirable behaviors, but they can lead to undesirable or maladaptive behaviors such as phobias. Fortunately, the same behavioral learning processes that led to the formation of a conditioned response can also be used to teach new behaviors or change old ones.

How Behavioral Therapy Works

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  1. Christoforou C. Conditioned stimulus. In: Shackelford TK, Weekes-Shackelford VA, eds. Encyclopedia of Evolutionary Psychological Science. Springer International Publishing; 2021:1266-1268. doi:10.1007/978-3-319-19650-3_1040

  2. Radley KC, McCargo M. Conditioned response. In: Zeigler-Hill V, Shackelford TK, eds. Encyclopedia of Personality and Individual Differences. Springer International Publishing; 2017:1-2. doi:10.1007/978-3-319-28099-8_970-1

  3. Shechner T, Hong M, Britton JC, Pine DS, Fox NA. Fear conditioning and extinction across development: Evidence from human studies and animal models.Biol Psychol. 2014;100:1–12. doi:10.1016/j.biopsycho.2014.04.001

  4. Rehman I, Mahabadi N, Rehman CI. Classical conditioning. In: StatPearls [Internet]. StatPearls Publishing.

  5. American Psychological Association. Unconditioned stimulus.

  6. American Psychological Association. Extinction.

Additional Reading

  • Bernstein D. Essentials of Psychology. Wadsworth.

  • Nevid JS. Essentials of Psychology: Concepts and Applications. Cengage Learning.

Role of a Conditioned Response in the Classical Conditioning Process (1)

By Kendra Cherry, MSEd
Kendra Cherry, MS, is a psychosocial rehabilitation specialist, psychology educator, and author of the "Everything Psychology Book."

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