The Implications of Classical Conditioning for Consumer Behavior

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Updated: Jun 29, 2022
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When I think about learning, I picture students in a classroom or lecture hall, with books open on their desks and them listening intently to a teacher or professor in the front of the room. But in psychology, learning means something else. To psychologists, learning is a long-term change in behavior that is based on experience. Two of the main types of learning are called classical conditioning and operant conditioning. Classical conditioning is defined as, a learning process that occurs when two stimuli are paired together repeatedly.

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First, the stimulus evokes a natural response by the subject while the second does not, but after enough pairings together the second becomes conditioned and causes the response to happen.

In the early 1900’s there was a Russian scientist named Ivan Pavlov, and he discovered classical conditioning by accident while conducting experiments on digestion. He surgically installed devices in dogs’ mouths so that he could measure their saliva, but experiment after experiment he had noticed that before the food was even presented, the dogs began to salivate. They salivated to the sound of their researchers footsteps or even just to the bowl itself. Pavlov noticed the dogs are associating the researchers footsteps or the bowl with the food. Footsteps and the bowl have classically conditioned the dogs to evoke the drooling response. Dogs naturally salivate to food. Food is an unconditioned stimulus (US), the dog drooling is the unconditioned response (US), and the sound of the bell is a neutral stimulus, because dogs do not naturally salivate to the sound of a bell. Pavlov presented the sound of the bell and food together over and over and over again. After a number of experiments, he just rang the bell and the dogs salivated to the sound of the bell.

A real-life example would be when I was young, I got very sick, and I had pneumonia. I had trouble taking the large doses of medicine, so I took the medicine with a spoon full of strawberry flavored syrup, which at the time was my favorite. After repeatedly eating the sweet syrup I started associating the illness with the syrup, and to this day I have not eaten the syrup again. My brain associates the smell and the taste with the illness and my body tries to protect me by sending signals that say don’t eat this, it will make you sick. This is called conditioned taste aversion and it happens when an animal or person associates the taste of a certain food with symptoms caused by a toxic, spoiled, or poisonous substance. Generally, taste aversion is developed after ingestion of food that causes nausea, sickness, or vomiting.

Consider the implications of classical conditioning for consumer behavior. Nord and Peter (1980) pointed out that many advertisements are already structured for classical conditioning to occur. An example they used is when an advertisement uses a famous sportscaster whose voice has been paired with exciting sports events. For example, Jim Nantz, who has commentated for the Superbowl, March Madness and the Masters. When he speaks in a Papa John’s Pizza commercial, people will have an excited unconditioned response (CR) to his voice. His voice is then paired with the product, causing a positive response, and a conditioned stimulus (CS). Some other examples include a fast food chain associating their name with a sizzling hamburger, or soft drinks associating with a jingle. Another example would be stores that play music, do so to alter their customer’s behavior through classical conditioning.

Physiologists used to believe that only responses controlled by the autonomic nervous system could be classically conditioned (e.g.. Skinner 1938). Autonomic responses are involuntary, for example blinking and salivating. Voluntary responses are controlled by the skeletal nervous system, for example walking or talking. Psychologist believed that voluntary responses could not be classically conditioned because we have control over those responses.

Experiments have found that voluntary responses can be changed through classical conditioning procedures. For example “Brown and Jenkins exposed hungry pigeons to a light (the CS) which appeared periodically on a plexiglass panel. When the light went out, the pigeons were given brief access to food (the US), which evoked pecking (the UR). After several exposures to this procedure, all subjects pecked the panel that was lit (the CR).” (1968)

The Brown and Jenkins experiment shocked psychologist in 1968 because until that point they had believed skeletal responses could not be classically conditioned. Psychologists believed that behaviors could be controlled by operant conditioning; in operant conditioning a response is followed by a reinforcer then the response increases in frequency. A reinforcer is anything that will increase the likelihood a specific behavior or a response will occur. For example a college professor tells their class they need to do research on a topic and write about it for class. He says it will not be graded and it is voluntary, most students will not do the assignment because it just means more homework but if the professor says, “For each time you complete the optional assignments you will not have to take a quiz,” that would be the reinforcer. The likelihood for the students to do the work will increase because they could skip a quiz. A reinforcer can also be used as a reward. You can give you dog a treat if he behaves well, and that will increase the chance that he will always behave well.

Classical conditioning works well with animals, but how does it work with humans? It actually works in the same exact way. Let’s say that one day you go to the doctor to get a shot. She says, ‘Don’t worry, this won’t hurt a bit,’ and then you receive the most painful shot you have ever had. A few weeks later, you go to the dentist for a check-up. He starts to put a mirror in your mouth to examine your teeth, and he says, ‘Don’t worry, this won’t hurt a bit.’ Even though you know the mirror will not hurt, you jump out of the chair and run screaming from the room. When you went to get a shot, the words, ‘This won’t hurt a bit,’ became a conditioned stimulus when it was paired with the pain of the shot, the unconditioned stimulus, which was followed by your conditioned response of getting the heck out of there.

Operant conditioning explains how consequences lead to changes in voluntary behavior. So how does operant conditioning work? There are two main components in operant conditioning: reinforcement and punishment. Reinforcers make it more likely that you will do something again, while punishments make it less likely. Reinforcement and punishment can be positive or negative, but this does not mean good and bad. Positive means the addition of a stimulus, like getting desert after you finish your vegetables, and negative means the removal of a stimulus, like earning a night with no homework because you did well on an exam. An example of operant conditioning would be, after eating dinner with your family, you clear the table and wash the dishes. When you are done, your mom gives you a big hug and says, ‘Thank you for helping me.’

In this situation, your mom’s response is positive reinforcement if it makes you more likely to repeat the operant response, which is to clear the table and wash the dishes. Operant conditioning is everywhere in our daily lives. There are not many things that we do that have not been influenced at some point by operant conditioning. We even see operant conditioning in some extraordinary situations. One group of scientists showed the power of operant conditioning by teaching pigeons to be art connoisseurs. Using food as a positive reinforcer, scientists have taught pigeons to select paintings by Monet over those by Picasso. When showed works of other artists, pigeons chose the Impressionists over the Cubists. From brushing your teeth to pigeons picking out paintings, operant conditioning can be found everywhere.

Dog training is a great way to look at learning. We can want to use dog training as an example of how to use classical and operant conditioning to improve your everyday life. When you have a puppy and you need to teach it to go to the bathroom outside, do you say to the dog “Hey can you please go to the bathroom outside?” The puppy will look at you in a confused way. Have you ever been in a park with a dog and you see its excitement as it chases birds and sniffs other dogs. Most dog owners struggle with these distractions when training, and it can quickly get frustrating. If you do not make playing in a park a reinforcer in training, it will be a distraction. Most dog owners do not take into account the dog’s point of view when training. You cannot compete with the environment if you have an adolescent dog’s brain.

Training a dog is not complicated if you understand how they think. There are people who think that you train a dog, number one, by making up human rules. So the human says, ‘You’re going to act this way, we are going to force you to act against your will.’ Then, number two, you keep these rules a secret from the dog. And then number three, now we can punish the dog for breaking rules he did not even know existed. The main problem is dog owners abuse their dog and their only crime is that they grew older. When he was a little puppy, he puts his paws on your leg and you say,” Isn’t that nice” and you say, ‘Oh, that’s a good boy.’ You bend down, you pat him, and you reward him for jumping up. His one mistake is that he is a Husky, and a few months later, he weighs fifty pounds. Every time he jumps up, he gets all sorts of abuse.

For dogs we have a Mickey-Mouse interpretation of their very complicated social system. Male dogs are very serious about a hierarchy, because it prevents physical fights. Of course, female dogs, on the other hand, have several amendments to male hierarchical rule. The number one is, ‘I have it, and you don’t.’ And what you will find is a very low-ranking female dog will quite easily keep a bone away from a high-ranking male. Dominance is important to dogs and there is always an alpha dog.

Dogs, horses and humans are the most abused species in the world. And the reason for this is built into their behavior. The flaw is that, they always come back and apologize. Like, ‘I’m sorry you had to beat me. I’m really sorry, it’s my fault.” The poor puppy jumps up and you punish him for that behavior. This is not a good way to teach the dog because they do not know what they did wrong. He is simply performing a behavior that you have trained him to do.

The first stage in training is teaching a dog English as a second language (ESL). Dogs do not speak English, or Spanish, or French and that is why you use the food lure in the hand when you are beginning to train. The average dog owner does not know how to train a dog without food. You say, ‘Sit, sit,’ and then you give him a treat, and the dog learns this behavior in six to ten trials. You eventually phase out the food as a lure, and now the dog knows that ‘sit’ means sit. At this point you can actually communicate to a dog in a perfectly constructed English sentence. This is how you use operant conditioning by give the dog a reward for good behavior it becomes a positive reinforcer.

The second stage in training is to teach the dog to want to do what we want him to do by using the Premack principle or the relativity theory of reinforcement. It is done through following a low-frequency behavior, one the dog doesn’t want to do, by a high-frequency behavior, commonly known as a behavior problem, or a dog hobby, something the dog does like to do. That will then become a reward for the lower-frequency behavior. You say, ‘sit,’ on the couch; ‘sit,’ tummy-rub; ‘sit,’ throw a tennis ball. Now all of these distractions that worked against training now become rewards that work for training. You need to let the dog think that the dog is training you from their perspective and now the dog is really happy and well behaved.

Phase three is just letting the dog know what rules he cannot break. For example, if someone left the front door open, the dogs has to know he cannot step across this line because it could be life-or-death if he goes into the street. People can get very confused about what a punishment is. They think a punishment is something painful, or scary, or nasty. As I previously mentioned, a punishment can be both positive and negative. Most people view punishments as negative and therefore, they have awful interaction skills, and terrible relationship skills. Not just with their puppy, but with the rest of their family. People think dogs are stupid and you can just yell at a dog and they will just listen to you. If you are in a park and an owner is yelling at a dog, the dog most likely is not going to run over to his owner because the dog recognizes the tone the owner is using and if he runs to him he will most likely be punished.

A way to incorporate these methods in your everyday life is to try to be more patient because you can train you dog or you child by using positive reinforcement instead of negative borderline abusing punishments. Another example is with a couple’s behavior when in a relationship with another. At first you see the honeymoon stage where everything is going smoothly and then a little behavior problem comes up that is no different from the dog barking. The husband will not clean up his clothes, or the wife is always late for meetings. When people are interacting with animals or other people, there is very little feedback. People take the good for granted, and moan and groan about the bad.

The biggest take away from the dog training is when someone does something you like, you just have to give positive feedback and that behavior will continue. This concept can help with everyday life. By understanding how one learns, you can develop suitable methods to teach. Psychology plays a large role in marketing and using these two principles, classical and operant conditioning, you can go beyond just showing ads, and you can teach your customer to like your product.


  1.  Mothersbaugh, D. L., Hawkins, D. I., Mothersbaugh, L. L., & Tom, G. (2016). Consumer behavior building marketing strategy. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill Education. (Text Book)
  2.  McSweeney, F. K., & Bierley, C. (1984). Recent Developments in Classical Conditioning. Journal Of Consumer Research, 11(2), 619-631.
  3.  Chang, C., Chen, S., & Hsieh, S. (2017). Asymmetric Reinforcement Learning and Conditioned Responses During the 2007-2009 Global Financial Crisis: Evidence from Taiwan. Review Of Pacific Basin Financial Markets & Policies, 20(2), -1.
  4.  Bongers, P., & Jansen, A. (2017). Emotional eating and Pavlovian learning:
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The Implications Of Classical Conditioning For Consumer Behavior. (2022, Jun 27). Retrieved from