Classical conditioning gone wrong: Racism

Behavioral, Classical Conditioning, Comparative, Experimental, Historical, Mind

Tuesday, July 26th, 2016

Warning: this is a rather lengthy article. If you know what you’re looking for, go ahead and jump straight to it:

  1. How it Started
    1. The Results
  2. Expanding The Concept of Classical Conditioning
  3. Classical Conditioning – From Dogs to Humans
    1. From Covert to Overt Understanding
  4. Your Racist Subconscious
  5. How to Break Your Habits
    1. Taking Conditioning Even Further
    2. Changing Our Antiquated Ways
    3. It’s All in Your Effort
  6. Wrapping Things up
  7. References

In a series of lectures given in 1924, Ivan Pavlov introduced the concept of classical conditioning as a form of learning to the world. Classical conditioning happens when repeated pairings of an unconditioned stimulus (US) and a conditioned stimulus (CS) induce a conditioned response (CR) to the US similar to the response of the CS [1]. Think of the way your mouth starts to water every time you drive by your favorite restaurant. You’ve conditioned your body to start salivating without any effort as you picture your favorite food entering your mouth and giving you those feels.

How it Started

The concept of conditioning had actually been published a year before Pavlov’s publication when Edwin Twitmyer had noticed a similar effect in humans when a bell elicited a response to a reflex knee test once the two had been recently paired. For the sake of history (and Gen Psych books around the world) though, we’ll say Pavlov was the first to notice this reflex when the dogs in his current experiment would salivate as the technician who normally fed them entered the room.

The dogs would salivate before the food was ever presented to them, so I like to think he thought something like “Well Dmitri, why don’t we test this model of conditioning and see where it takes us?” He repeatedly rang a bell at his dogs and then gave them some dog food shortly after. The dogs started salivating to the sound of the bell before the food was ever even in front of their snouts after a few trials.

The Results

The timing between the presentation of the bell and the presentation of food showed to make an impact on the association and the CR. He ended up figuring out that the shorter the time was between the CS and the US, the quicker and stronger the dog learned the CR. So you want to teach a dog that the word treat means they’ll shortly be getting a tasty nugget of processed meat to their gullet?

Just say it a couple times before you go to the bag to pull one out and you’ll have successfully conditioned their brains to know what’s coming every time they hear it (unless you have a pug, then things can take a little longer). Pretty soon you’ll be spelling out T-R-E-A-T in front of them until death do you part. Now, are you wanting to condition your friend to bark like a dog at the sight of food? It may be a little harder, but odds are – it’s really not so different, or difficult.

Expanding The Concept of Classical Conditioning

Classical conditioning slowly became the hot topic in the experiment world. It was quickly expanded on when Leon Kamin showed classical conditioning occurring only when a stimulus is both useful and a predictor of the future [2]. This became known as blocking, or the Kamin effect. Blocking was first shown when rats were conditioned with a light predicting a shock and then trained on a light and tone combination to predict the shock, except the rats learned very little about the tone because it didn’t add any actual significance to predict the shock.

If you want to go deeper down the psychology rabbit hole, the Rescorla-Wagner Model inflated Kamin’s blocking effect and showed that the level of association between a CS and a US depends on a prediction error, or the difference between whether we expect a US and whether a US actually occurs [3]. This model gave a firm mathematical foundation to the newly popularized principles of how we learn.

The introduction of the mere-exposure effect changed the views of classical conditioning even further as it showed that exposure to a stimulus alone produces an enhanced idea of it [4]. When participants in a trial were exposed to a stimulus, they would reliably rate it more positively than other similar stimuli that hadn’t been present. This showed there to be an unconscious task playing into the amount of effect it had on the person. With the combination of classical conditioning and the mere-exposure effect, we finally had a better understanding of how the amount of exposure someone’s had to a stimulus plays into their liking of it. When something is foreign/scary, we can’t relate to it and therefore can’t make strong neurological connections like we can with something familiar.

Classical Conditioning – From Dogs to Humans

As much as we hate to admit it, classical conditioning is apparent in man and beast alike. As it turns out, this concept may have even been the impetus that sparked the behaviorists’ approach to learning. The overall effect is easily applied to operant conditioning, and frankly leaves little speculation to the validity of the theory. If gravity works, so does conditioning. The simple way Pavlov’s dogs acted almost a hundred years ago translates directly to the more complex cognitive processes in people today. The extent to which conditioning affects our learning is built on a myriad of variables that interact in not only a conscious, but subconscious level (usually to an extent most people wouldn’t assume).

From Covert to Overt Understanding

So what does all this psychological jargon have to do with racism? When Pavlov introduced the idea of conditioning, our knowledge of the way we operate was shifted from covert to overt. Once the theory became repeated and expanded on, we gained an even better understanding of our innate tendencies. What classical conditioning laid out though, set a far larger foundation than what you may first assume.

By putting our implicit characteristics on display, we began to start seeing how we made decisions. And…like so many things in psychology, our processes into making decisions turn out to be mostly subconscious, unconscious, or below our awareness. But since we’re humans, we also have a relentless intuition to vehemently hold onto ideas that our decisions are made only when we’re completely aware of the situation at hand and have exercised all possible options correctly. We almost always assume we’re doing it right.

Your Racist Subconscious

In reality though, that’s rarely the case. Don’t believe me? Go take an IAT and let me know how it turns out. Most of the thoughts and characteristics we attribute to people happen from a young age as our brains develop and hold onto each of our past interactions. We take each experience and store them away in a sense, using them to make better predictions the next time we run into someone or something that looks vaguely familiar.

Taking each US, we quickly condition them until we are a well-oiled, finely-tuned, and smoothly operating machine. We drive in a vehicle of mind which much like our cars, relies on several working parts that are rarely thought about. We speed around oblivious to each cylinder firing, or each turn of an engine belt below the hood. Our brains are more malleable and require less labor than our car’s engine though. This often times leaves them running automatically behind the curtains of our minds, building up sludge and engine grime until they break or are finally cleaned.

How to Break Your Habits

If you find out you’ve been looking at things a little differently than you’d wanted to, give yourself the evidence as to why you should change. This can be something as small as a quick little note-to-self. It can also be something a little more potent, spiraling you into a daydream about some past time you didn’t make the right judgment. Making this small concerted effort can lead to a big change overall. Sometimes you won’t want to or you’ll just feel a special type of negative. Don’t hold it against yourself if you do. A good chunk of those subtle feelings you’re experiencing also spur from subconscious processes.

Your brain has been working behind the scenes since you were born, beautifully crafting the way you respond to situations, people, and characteristics. These reactions can either urge you away from imminent demise or help you build new friendships. Your body does wonders when your brain runs amuck playing its conditioning game. It can start producing physiological responses that then re-condition your mind to respond a certain way. You see how this ugly pattern keeps going?

Taking Conditioning Even Further

Our thoughts can do more than just hurt someone’s feelings when they aren’t processed through our noggins. When politicians say things labeling or categorizing groups of people, it does more than rile up a dumb crowd in front of them. It lets that same hoard of cheering monsters build on their misguided patterns of thinking by showing them it’s okay. They see that even leaders think this way.

When the people who get paid to think for the masses don’t, disastrous effects can, and often ensue. A Frankenstein of bad theory and anti-intellectual habits gets poured directly into their supporters’ stream of thought. Working alongside the mere-exposure effect, continuous vulnerability to bad conditioning like this keeps the ghouls in a constant state of worry.

Changing Our Antiquated Ways

The big problem here is the deleterious effects this type of unconscious thinking inevitably leads to. When you unwillingly categorize a group of people who have one similar attribute, it may make work in an evolutionary sort of way, but it just doesn’t still make as much sense as it used to. In the plains of the Savannah it was good to condition the sound of rustling to a predator instead of wind, but then again, there was a lot of killing going on at that time; not just between us and animals either.

If you saw another pack of humans you didn’t know and they looked different, you were going to pull out a weapon. If someone landed on your shore it wasn’t a good thing. That’s what makes this such an antiquated way to think and to live. These forms of classical conditioning aren’t always necessary, but our evolutionary leftovers leave us spinning our rat wheels. Today we need enough strategy and forethought to not only rely on our instincts, but to make the best pragmatic choice. We deserve to allow ourselves freedom of introspection enough to get past our primal subconscious ways and evolve to something more. Something better.

It’s All in Your Effort

Not thinking about what you’re thinking can lead to you thinking you think something that isn’t necessarily the best way to think. When you condition something you don’t want to, it takes some hard work and effort to re-program your ways. Keeping track of these mostly overlooked thoughts allows you to get a better big picture perspective.

The next time you have that natural tendency to classify all Muslims as terrorists, Mexicans as people who are stealing your jobs and raping women, black people as thugs, or Christians as white assholes, sit back and think about what you’re doing. Is it really correct? Are all Mexicans that illegally cross into the U.S. rapists? Of course not, and a lot of them are sending much needed American dollars back to their families.

Because someone was born on a different patch of land into a different culture, do we really need to make them build a giant fence to keep theirselves away? If you think illegal immigrants are different, of course they are. If you think they’re taking your jobs, think again. Evolve yourself and build a better life instead of worrying about someone else’s.

Wrapping Things up

If you’ve been in a past situation that’s led you to think this way, I get it. If you’ve been through war, I can’t imagine the conditioning coming back with you. I salute you, whomever you are. It’s just how we operate though, and it happens mostly under the guise of impeccable thinking/decision-making. Fortunately for all of us, we possess an amazing meta-cognitive ability – or the knack to think about thinking. When we use this uniquely-human tool, we’re able to step outside our automatic habits and form a better version of ourselves. You may forget, or just fall victim to this sort of thinking, and it’s okay. Just keep fighting the good fight against yourself, for everyone’s sake.


  1. Pavlov, I. (1927). Conditioned reflexes: An investigation of the physiological activity of the cerebral cortex-Lecture II, Translated by G. V. Anrep (1927).
  2. Kamin, L. J. (1968). ‘‘Attention-like’’ processes in classical conditioning. In M. R. Jones (Ed.), Miami symposium on the prediction of behavior: Aversive stimulation (pp. 9–31).
  3. Rescorla, R. (1968). Probability of shock in the presence and absence of CS in fear conditioning. Journal of Comparative and Physiological Psychology, 66, 1-5.
  4. Zajonc, R. B. (1968). Attitudinal effects of mere exposure. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 9(2), 1–27.

About Eric

I am the founder, designer, coder, writer, and jack-of-all-trades here at PsychMob. Living in beautiful Colorado, I spend most of my spare time hiking, meditating, and altering my consciousness. I'm relentlessly in love with psychology and pull no punches when I write about it. I hope you enjoy the site as much as I do! Thanks for coming.

Categories:  Behavioral / Classical Conditioning / Comparative / Experimental / Historical / Mind

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