Decision-Making Cases Choose only one of the decision-making cases below to answer questions in the “Ethical Decision-Making” assignment. The questions at the end of each case are intended for you….
Even before beginning this course, you might have heard about Pavlov’s dogs. The work
of the Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov is well known. Still, it is easy to take its true
significance for granted. Importantly, Pavlov demonstrated that neutral aspects of the
environment can attain the capacity to evoke responses through pairing with other stimuli
and that bodily processes can be influenced by environmental cues.
In the early 1900s, Pavlov was interested in the way the body digests food. In his
experiments, he routinely placed meat powder in a dog’s mouth, causing the dog to
salivate. By accident, Pavlov noticed that the meat powder was not the only stimulus that
caused the dog to drool. The dog salivated in response to a number of stimuli associated
with the food, such as the sight of the food dish, the sight of the individual who brought
the food into the room, and the sound of the door closing when the food arrived. Pavlov
recognized that the dog’s association of these sights and sounds with the food was an
important type of learning, which came to be called classical conditioning.
Pavlov wanted to know why the dog salivated in reaction to various sights and
sounds before eating the meat powder. He observed that the dog’s behavior included
both unlearned and learned components. The unlearned part of classical conditioning
is based on the fact that some stimuli automatically produce certain responses apart
from any prior learning; in other words, they are inborn (innate). Reflexes are such
automatic stimulus–response connections. They include salivation in response to food,
nausea in response to spoiled food, shivering in response to low temperature, coughing
in response to throat congestion, pupil constriction in response to light, and withdrawal
in response to pain.
An unconditioned stimulus (US) is a stimulus that produces a response without prior
learning; food was the US in Pavlov’s experiments. An unconditioned response (UR)
is an unlearned reaction that is automatically elicited by the US. Unconditioned responses
are involuntary; they happen in response to a stimulus without conscious effort. In
Pavlov’s experiment, drooling in response to food was the UR. In the case of Bob and
the flushing toilet, Bob’s learning and experience did not cause him to shriek when the
hot water hit his body. His cry of pain was unlearned and occurred automatically. The
hot water was the US, and Bob’s panic was the UR.
In classical conditioning, a conditioned stimulus (CS) is a previously neutral stimulus
that eventually elicits a conditioned response after being paired with the unconditioned
stimulus. The conditioned response (CR) is the learned response to the conditioned
● unconditioned stimulus (US) A stimulus that
produces a response without prior learning.
● unconditioned response (UR) An
unlearned reaction that is automatically
elicited by the unconditioned stimulus.
● conditioned stimulus (CS) A previously
neutral stimulus that eventually elicits a
conditioned response after being paired
with the unconditioned stimulus.
● conditioned response (CR) The learned
response to the conditioned stimulus that
occurs after conditioned stimulus–
unconditioned stimulus pairing.
Pavlov (the white-bearded gentleman in the center) is shown demonstrating the nature of
classical conditioning to students at the Military Medical Academy in Russia.
c Universal Images Group/Getty Images
stimulus that occurs after CS–US pairing (Pavlov, 1927). Sometimes conditioned responses
are quite similar to unconditioned responses, but typically they are not as strong.
In studying a dog’s response to various stimuli associated with meat powder, Pavlov
rang a bell before giving meat powder to the dog. Until then, ringing the bell did not
have a particular effect on the dog, except perhaps to wake the dog from a nap. The bell
was a neutral stimulus, meaning that in the dog’s world, this stimulus did not have any
signal value at all. Prior to being paired with the meat powder, the bell was meaningless.
However, the dog began to associate the sound of the bell with the food and salivated
when it heard the bell. The bell had become a conditioned (learned) stimulus (CS), and
salivation was now a conditioned response (CR). In the case of Bob’s interrupted shower,
the sound of the toilet flushing was the CS, and panicking was the CR after the scalding
water (US) and the flushing sound (CS) were paired. Figure 2 summarizes how classical
Researchers have shown that salivation can be used as a conditioned response not only
in dogs and humans but also in, of all things, cockroaches (Nishino & others, 2015;
Watanabe & Mizunami, 2007). These researchers paired the smell of peppermint (the CS,
which was applied to the cockroaches’ antennae) with sugary water (the US). Cockroaches
naturally salivate (the UR) in response to sugary foods, and after repeated pairings between
peppermint smell and sugary water, the cockroaches salivated in response to the smell of
peppermint (the CR). When they collected and measured the cockroach saliva, the
researchers found that the cockroaches had slobbered over that smell for 2 minutes.
learning that occurs without awareness or effort, based on the presentation of two stimuli
together. For this pairing to work, however, two important factors must be present:
contiguity and contingency.
Contiguity simply means that the CS and US are presented very close together in
time—even a mere fraction of a second (Gottlieb & Begej, 2014). In Pavlov’s work, if
the bell had rung 20 minutes before the presentation of the food, the dog probably would
not have associated the bell with the food. However, pairing the CS and US close together
in time is not all that is needed for conditioning to occur. Imagine that the bell not only
rings just before the food is delivered, but it also rings many times when the food is not
on its way. In such a situation, the dog would not associate the bell with the food, and
no learning would occur. Why? Because the bell does not serve as a signal for the food.
Contingency means that the CS must not only precede the US closely in time, but it
must serve as a reliable indicator that the US is on its way (Rescorla, 1966, 1988, 2009).
To get a sense of the importance of contingency, imagine that the dog in Pavlov’s experiment
is exposed to a ringing bell at random times all day long. Whenever the dog receives
food, the delivery of the food always immediately follows a bell ring. However, in this
situation, the dog will not associate the bell with the food, because the bell is not a reliable
signal that food is coming: It rings a lot when no food is on the way. Whereas contiguity
refers to the fact that the CS and US occur close together in time, contingency refers to
the information value of the CS relative to the US. When contingency is present, the CS
provides a systematic signal that the US is on its way (Kringelbach & Berridge, 2015).
Recall from early in the chapter that classical conditioning and operant conditioning are
forms of associative learning, which involves learning that two events are connected. In
classical conditioning, organisms learn the association between two stimuli (US and CS).
Classical conditioning is a form of respondent behavior, behavior that occurs in automatic
response to a stimulus such as a nausea-producing drug and later to a conditioned
stimulus such as sweet water that was paired with the drug. Calling a behavior “respondent”
means that it happens on auto pilot.
Classical conditioning explains how neutral stimuli become associated with unlearned,
involuntary responses. Classical conditioning is not as effective, however, in explaining
voluntary behaviors such as a student’s studying hard for a test, a gambler’s playing slot
machines in Las Vegas, or a service dog fetching his owner’s cell phone on command.
Operant conditioning is usually much better than classical conditioning at explaining such
voluntary behaviors. Whereas classical conditioning focuses on the association between
stimuli, operant conditioning focuses on the association between behaviors and the stimuli
that follow them.
Defining Operant Conditioning
Operant conditioning or instrumental conditioning is a form of associative learning
in which the consequences of a behavior change the probability of the behavior’s occurrence.
The American psychologist B. F. Skinner (1938) chose the term operant to
describe the behavior of the organism. An operant behavior occurs spontaneously.
According to Skinner, the consequences that follow such spontaneous behaviors determine
whether the behavior will be repeated.
Imagine, for example, that you spontaneously decide to take a different route while driving
to campus one day. You are more likely to repeat that route on another day if you have
a pleasant experience—for instance, arriving at school faster or finding a new coffee place
to try—than if you have a lousy experience such as getting stuck in traffic. In either case,
the consequences of your spontaneous act influence whether that behavior happens again.
Recall that contingency is an important aspect of classical conditioning in which the
occurrence of one stimulus can be predicted from the presence of another one. Contingency
also plays a key role in operant conditioning. For example, when a rat pushes a
lever (behavior) that delivers food, the delivery of food (consequence) is contingent on
that behavior. This principle of contingency helps explain why passersby should never
praise, pet, or feed a service dog while he is working (at least without asking first).
Providing rewards during such times might interfere with the dog’s training.
Thorndike’s Law of Effect
Although Skinner emerged as the primary figure in operant conditioning, the experiments
of E. L. Thorndike (1898) established the power of consequences in determining voluntary
behavior. At about the same time that Pavlov was conducting classical conditioning
experiments with salivating dogs, Thorndike, another American psychologist, was studying
cats in puzzle boxes. Thorndike put a hungry cat inside a box and placed a piece of
fish outside. To escape from the box and obtain the food, the cat had to learn to open
the latch inside the box. At first the cat made a number of ineffective responses. It clawed
or bit at the bars and thrust its paw through the openings. Eventually the cat accidentally
stepped on the lever that released the door bolt. When the cat returned to the box, it
went through the same random activity until it stepped on the lever once more. On subsequent
trials, the cat made fewer and fewer random movements until finally it immediately
stepped on the lever to open the door (Figure 4). Thorndike’s resulting law of effect
states that behaviors followed by pleasant outcomes are strengthened and that behaviors
followed by unpleasant outcomes are weakened.
The law of effect is profoundly important because it presents the basic idea that the
consequences of a behavior influence the likelihood of that behavior’s recurrence. Quite
simply, a behavior can be followed by something good or something bad, and the probability
of a behavior’s being repeated depends on these outcomes. As we now explore,
Skinner’s operant conditioning model expands on this basic idea.
Skinner’s Approach to Operant Conditioning
Skinner believed that the mechanisms of learning are the same for all species. This
conviction led him to study animals in the hope that he could discover the components
● operant conditioning or instrumental
conditioning A form of associative learning
in which the consequences of a behavior
change the probability of the behavior’s
● law of effect Thorndike’s law stating that
behaviors followed by positive outcomes are
strengthened and that behaviors followed by
negative outcomes are weakened
of learning with organisms simpler than humans, including pigeons. During World War
II, Skinner trained pigeons to pilot missiles. Naval officials just could not accept pigeons
guiding their missiles in a war, but Skinner congratulated himself on the degree of control
he was able to exercise over the pigeons (Figure 5).
Skinner and other behaviorists made every effort to study organisms under precisely
controlled conditions so that they could examine the connection between the operant
behavior and the specific consequences in minute detail. In the 1930s, Skinner created
an operant conditioning chamber, also called a Skinner box, to control experimental
conditions (Figure 6).
A device in the box delivered food pellets into a tray at random. After
a rat became accustomed to the box, Skinner installed a lever and observed
the rat’s behavior. As the hungry rat explored the box, it occasionally
pressed the lever, and a food pellet was dispensed. Soon the rat learned
that the consequences of pressing the lever were positive: It would be fed.
Skinner achieved further control by soundproofing the box to ensure that
the experimenter was the only influence on the organism. In many of the
experiments, the responses were mechanically recorded, and the food (the
consequence) was dispensed automatically. These precautions were aimed
at preventing human error.