Today I received an email from a dog owner who has been working with a trainer who uses shock collars. The dog used to be okay around other dogs, but, since she began shocking him when he, say, pulled her towards another dog on the street, he now barks and growls whenever another dog passes him on the street. This is an example of classical conditioning: The pairing of an unconditioned stimulus (the sight of another dog) with something meaningful (in this case, an electric shock), until the association is so strong that the subject (the dog) associates something pleasant or unpleasant with the stimulus that once had no meaning. Now, the sight of another dog equals pain, so he perceives other dogs as bad and must growl and bark to make them go away.
In our puppy socialization classes, we use classical conditioning on puppies all the time. This is a lot of what socialization is about. For example, if you play the sound of a truck backfiring or a clap of thunder, and then give a treat, eventually the loud noise won’t be so scary to a dog. Indeed, it’ll be the predictor of something good. We also have people put on weird hats and walk with crutches, and then give the dog a treat. We’re just creating good associations, and that’s what classical conditioning is all about.
Of course, this can be done on humans. It’s at the heart of most kinds of advertising. A woman in a bikini top is holding a beer by her boobs. Some ad exec is betting that someone, somewhere, will start associating beer with tits. You can play this game with just about any ad you see in a day.
One of the great minds in creating the world of advertising that we know today was John Watson. Before he moved to Madison Avenue to work at J. Walter Thompson –he is credited with coming up with the idea of the “coffee break” as a way to get people to drink more Maxwell House — he was the chair of the psychology department at Johns Hopkins University. There, he founded the branch of psychology called “behaviorism.” His most famous experiment was a controversial one: In the 1920s, he classically conditioned an 11-month-old baby known as “Little Albert” to be scared of a rabbit and a rat. He did this by making disturbing noises when the baby was shown either of these animals. In the above video, some college kids explain his undertaking in a way that made me laugh, and might make me forever have happy feelings about grown men in diapers.