Pavlovian conditioning

Ivan Pavlov in the early 1900’s discovered the concept of classical conditioning, also known as Pavlovian conditioning.  Pavlov was a noted Russian Physiologist who studied digestive processes.  It was whilst he was studying digestion in dogs that Pavlov noticed an interesting event.  Whenever an assistant entered the room, the dogs would start to salivate.

In the research, Ivan Pavlov and his assistants would feed the dogs with either edible or non-edible food and note how much salivation was produced.  When the dogs (and other animals) salivated, Pavlov noticed it was a reflex action and was not under the control of the conscious mind.  Even without food being introduced as soon as Pavlov or an assistant appeared they would start salivating.  The dogs had effectively associated the assistants’ entry with food and sub-consciously started salivating.  Every time one of the assistants appeared, the dogs would start to salivate. 

To further this research, Pavlov set up an experiment and used an associative stimulus.  He linked a sound, in this case, a bell, so that the dogs would associate the sound of the bell with feeding.  Every time the dogs were due to be fed, the bell would be sounded.  Even without actual feeding, every time the bell was sounded the dogs would begin to salivate.  What had happened is that the dogs had been ‘conditioned’ to salivate upon hearing the bell rather than smelling or seeing any food.  Through repetition and exposure to the sound, the dogs learnt to connect the bell with food.  Pavlov called this the ‘Conditioned Reflex’. 

Furthermore, an interesting example of Conditioning was used in a practical way to provide a taste aversion to prevent Coyotes from attacking and eating domestic livestock.  Coyotes would frequently invade sheep flocks for an easy meal, causing the loss of sheep and ultimately security for the shepherds.  This example was carried out by Gustafson during the mid-1970’s.  A conditioned taste aversion was created by injecting mutton with a drug that produced severe nausea and in turn leaving some of the poisoned mutton out for the Coyotes.  After eating the poisoned meat the coyotes then associated, or became conditioned (in this case, after just one sample of mutton) and then avoided sheep herds rather than attack them.   Some conditioning, such as this, can occur after just one experience, but more commonly, as with Pavlov’s dog salivation example, occur over a period of time.  A learned response.  This happens to humans also, as I can testify!  I once had the opportunity to canoe on the River Trent near Nottingham and during the course of the day, consumed a few mouthfuls of Trent Water!  That evening, after eating a roast dinner which included broccoli, I suffered possibly the worst nausea and vomiting that
I had ever experienced.  I blamed this on some under-cooked broccoli, which I know to be vastly wrong in my analysis (the fact that at the time, anyone who ‘sampled’ some River Trent Water felt the same, did nothing to dissuade my mental block or ‘anchor’).  For a long time after this, just the sight of broccoli on someone’s dinner plate brought the feeling of nausea back to me.  Coincidence? I’d think not, it was just ‘negative’ conditioning.

In NLP terms, we tend to refer to this conditioning as ‘Anchoring’, meaning that should we have certain experiences that evoke good times or good memories, then that particular ‘anchor’ acts as the stimulus to the thought process.  The anchor itself could be anything and will very much be a personal thing, perhaps hearing a piece of music, seeing a specific sight, even a smell or maybe a taste.  Professional and amateur sportspeople often will have unbeknown anchors, frequently referring to them as superstitions, which could be putting the right boot on first, or being third out onto the pitch.  Effectively, they will have had a good experience the last time they did that, so by doing it again, they want to repeat that experience.  It must be noted, however, that anchors, as well as being good can also be bad or negative!  The sight or sound of a certain item or piece of music can provide us with an unpleasant memory which can have a detrimental effect on our well-being.

Anchoring and/or conditioning can affect a person’s belief system in a huge way.  An anchor that gives you a positive thought process will very often provide the stimulus to achieve your goal and this can then embed the anchor even more strongly.  As an example, Chris Moon, who survived a land mine explosion but sadly lost an arm and a leg, was convalescing after the incident and as he looked out of a window saw a large pig tethered by a small twig and some twine.  Now it was apparent that the pig certainly had enough strength to pull the twig from the ground, yet it would spend all day just tethered, never even trying to escape.  Chris asked someone he knew, why the pig didn’t just pull the twig from the ground and break free.  He was told that when the pig was very small, a young piglet, the piglet would be tethered in much the same way and try as he might, he could not escape.  Of course, at that size the piglet did not have the strength to pull out the twig.  When the pig was now, every day, attached to the twine and twig, it had resigned itself to the fact that no matter how hard he pulled against the twig, it would not move, Even though the pig was now fully grown and easily had the strength to break free it had the belief that it was impossible to escape.  The pigs own beliefs, through conditioning had kept it tied to the twig rather than the twig and twine itself. 

I recall many years back when I first started to deliver training courses, always wearing a black shirt and black trousers on the first day of a training course.   This was a very simple anchor for me, it made me feel smart, and look good (or so I thought, after all, ‘black’ is meant to be slimming!) and gave me confidence.  When my black shirt eventually had seen better days and I was no longer able to use it, I shopped around for another, but just could not get the ‘right’ shirt, it just didn’t feel the same!  In time, I adapted the ‘anchor’ but the original conditioning was incredibly strong, that I would not feel as confident as I did previously.  Even now, my own conditioning ensures that I want to get into the training room early, to set up in a methodical way, to have flip charts, samples, etc. all placed in a certain manner and when this is all in place, as it should be (in my own mind) then I know I will have a really good day.


Books:  Dawes M, 2008 Understanding Quantum Thinking, Derwent Press, Derbyshire, England

                O’Connor J & Seymour J, 1994 Training with NLP, Thorsons, California, USA


DVD:      What the Bleep Do We Know? 2004, Revolver Entertainment