Cognition in classical conditioning
Many theorists now believe that classical conditioning frequently involves the formation of associations between internal mental representations of stimuli rather than between two stimuli. Furthermore, the conditioned stimulus may allow an organism to predict (in a decidedly mental manner) the arrival of the unconditioned stimulus. As you can see, behaviourists are finally beginning to discuss the thought processes they had studiously avoided. Classical conditioning is only sometimes accompanied by cognition. To be more specific, it only sometimes involves conscious awareness.
Changing Unwanted Conditioned Reactions
Because they are involuntary, conditioned responses are frequently challenging to eliminate. However, some classically conditioned responses (for example, irrational fears) can severely impair daily functioning. Extinction and counterconditioning are two strategies for reducing counterproductive conditioned responses.
Extinguishing Unwanted Reactions
Extinction is one obvious method for eliminating a conditioned response. The conditioned response should disappear if the conditioned stimulus is frequently presented without the unconditioned stimulus. This is what occurs frequently. On the other hand, extinction is notoriously unreliable as a method of eliminating conditioned responses: it simply does not always work. There could be several reasons for this:
The rate of extinction is unpredictably fast. Suppose the conditioned stimulus was presented with the unconditioned stimulus at times but not at others during the conditioning process (i.e., the stimulus pairings were inconsistent). In that case, extinction is likely to be especially slow (Humphreys, 1939).
People (and many other species) tend to avoid a stimulus they have learned to fear, lowering their chances of encountering the conditioned stimulus when the unconditioned stimulus is absent.
Through second-order conditioning, a wide range of stimuli may have become associated with the original conditioned stimulus, eliciting inadequate responses (e.g., extreme fear or anxiety). Extinguishing these second-order conditioned responses can sometimes be tricky—a problem reported in people with post-traumatic stress disorder (Wessa & Flor, 2007).
Even after a response has died, it may reappear due to spontaneous recovery. We always know when a response will spontaneously recover. Spontaneous recovery is more likely if extinction has occurred in only one context; the conditioned response is more likely to reappear in contexts where extinction has not occurred (Bouton, 1994).
More Desirable Responses Can Be Counterconditioning
Extinction, at its best, eliminates a conditioned response. However, counterconditioning replaces the response with a new, more productive one and, as a result, is more effective. A good example is Little Peter, the classic work by Mary Cover Jones (1924). Peter was a two-year-old boy who had developed a fear of rabbits. Jones put Peter in a high chair and gave him candy to calm him down. When he was eating, she brought a rabbit into the same room and kept it at a distance. In the usual scenario, Peter would be anxious and bothered when the rabbit was present, but since he was enjoying the candy, it overpowered his anxiety. He was least bothered that the rabbit was present in the same room. Jones repeated this process for a few months, placing Peter in a high chair and giving him candy. Moreover, each time he brings the rabbit, he brings it closer to Peter, and eventually, his fear vanishes. Recently, researchers used a similar procedure to help an 8-year-old boy overcome his aversion to electronically animated toys and holiday decorations.
Counterconditioning entails the following steps in general:
A new response that is incompatible with the existing conditioned response is chosen. When two responses cannot be performed simultaneously, they are incompatible. Because classically conditioned responses are frequently emotional, an incompatible response is frequently an opposite emotional reaction. In the case of Little Peter, for example, happiness was used as an incompatible response to fear. Because fear and anxiety involve bodily tension, any response involving relaxation would be an alternative.
A stimulus must be identified that elicits the incompatible response. Take the example of Peter, and the candy is a happy response for him. To assist someone in developing a happy response to a stimulus that previously elicited displeasure, we must first identify the stimuli that make the person happy, which can be the presence of a friend, a toy, food, or anything matter. If we want someone to relax, we can ask them to imagine themselves lying in a calm, serene ambience surrounded by trees, birds singing, or a beach.
The individual is presented with the stimulus that elicits the new response and the conditioned stimulus that elicits the undesirable conditioned response. It is gradually introduced into the situation. Jones began treating Peter's fear of rabbits by giving him candy; she then presented the rabbit at a distance from Peter, gradually bringing it closer and closer in subsequent sessions. The principle behind counterconditioning is to ensure that the stimulus that elicits the desirable behavior has a more substantial impact than the stimuls with the undesirable response; otherwise, the latter response may win.
Many conditioned anxiety responses can be reduced or eliminated using counterconditioning. Overly anxious people, for example, may benefit from systematic desensitization. They are asked to relax in the presence of certain stimuli while imagining themselves in more worried and stressful situations involving those stimuli. This activity will help them to replace their anxiety with a relaxation response. Alternatively, using goggles and computer-generated images, people could virtually "experience" a series of stressful situations while making a concerted effort to relax. Systematic desensitization has been widely used to treat test anxiety and public speaking phobia (Head & Gross, 2009; Hopf, 2010).
In the next part, we can discuss educational implications of behaviourist assumptions and classical conditioning.