Wise people have always understood conditioning as part of human functioning. Ivan Pavlov made explicit the elements and workings of conditioning, which is a true physiological process. Later behavioralists wished to extend the idea of conditioning into goal oriented manipulation, and this they termed 'operant conditioning.' and so physiological conditioning got termed 'classical conditioning' to avoid confusion. Most of this page is about classical conditioning, with a discussion of operant conditioning at the end.
Classical conditioning is the association of sensory information with vegetative activity, usually autonomic or endocrine. That is, basic regulatory activity of the animal body can come to 'have a jump start' when certain originally neutral stimuli become 'conditioned' as signals of physiologically important events, such as food, sex, or danger. .
The popular 'trope' of conditioning involves salivation and food. For instance food in the mouth produces salivation and the flow of gastric juices. This is not conditioning but a hardwired physiological reflex. Because it is not conditioned, the food is considered an unconditioned stimulus and the flow of secretions is considered the unconditioned reflex. If a sensory stimulus like a 'bell sound' is presented consistently before the food is given, salivation and gastric secretion starts to initiate at the sound. Thus the sound becomes the conditioned stimulus. The salivation and secretion is the same reflex but because it has become linked to a special condition, it is now termed the conditioned reflex.
Conditioning requires constant renewal to be active. If the unconditioned stimulus is not continued, the conditioned stimulus stops working. However, the conditioning is dormant and can be re-established very quickly. This is probably why if there is a relapse in addictive behavior, the process seems to take off right where it 'left off,' even after a lengthy remission.
The head start provided for the vegetative systems by conditioning is valuable because these systems are not instant. Where the association is to pleasure, expansion begins, where the association is to pain, contraction starts. Motor activity can be conditioned, but only movements that reach out to receive pleasure or brace for pain.
Classical conditioning is often confused with training. Training is one organism getting another organism to perform complex behavior on command. Training often uses classical conditioning but bridges individual conditioned responses with the activity of the trainer. Conditioning cannot be built upon endlessly to create long chains of performance. Human motivation is complex. Animals can be trained to perform instrumental acts using elements of conditioning but this is not really the same as 'classic' conditioning Training humans involuntarily to perform specific tasks is largely a myth. Brainwashing, if it exists, is largely an amalgam of influence techniques in which snippets of conditioning may play a part.
Conditioning has nothing to do with cognition. Conditioning is always unconscious and vegetative. Conscious associations are separate entities which may be of interest in human affairs, but they do not constitute conditioning. An astute person may be aware of a conditioned response but that awareness is not itself the conditioning. Conditioning can affect beliefs as people try to develop explanations for what is happening to their bodies.
Wise people have always used conditioning to enhance pleasure and ease. Conditioning can be used to set a mood or emotional tone. Conditioning is a major element in ritual.
Random events can conspire to produce some suffering through 'inadvertent' conditioned responses. What is sometimes problematical is that certain situations, people or places become associated with pleasure or pain incorrectly. Where the association is to danger, this is the trauma response.
Classical conditioning is oriented around cues, or what happens before. Operant conditioning as a construct is concerned with consequences, or what happens after. There are three main elements:
- Relief This is the condition where something painful is happening, and if an action is taken, the painful condition will cease. This is called negative reinforcement
- Reward This is the condition where if an action is taken something is given that is supposed to produce pleasure. This is also called positive re-enforcement.
- Punishment. This is the condition in which if an unwanted action is taken and response is provided that is meant to produce pain.
There is no question that the three elements above affect motivation, in humans and other animals. There is a natural reach toward pleasure and withdrawal from pain, However, the above three elements do not synergistically or even in an additive way work with other motivators like pride, creativity, love, etc ...Reward and punishment are not the same as pleasure and pain because humans one may be sated, or two, will accept pain or reject pleasure to maintain a sense of integrity. Although there is an idea of natural consequences acting as 're-inforcers' there is no clear distinction between these and contrived elements. The Reich and Lowen tradition makes operant conditioning irrelevant.