Applications of Classical Conditioning
While people do not behave exactly like Pavlov's dogs, classical conditioning has affected your life, whether you realize it or not. Many of your emotional responses to sights, sounds, objects, or people can be tied to classical conditioning. For instance, let's say a former love interest always wore a particular brand of cologne. Should you smell that particular scent even years later, you may experience a sense of sadness as though you were reliving the loss of that person in your life, because you associated that scent with that person. Perhaps your family bakes a particular dessert on holidays. You may feel a surge of excitement when you catch a whiff of that scent because you associate it with past feelings of excitement.
Emotions can be a very powerful force. They can cause you to think or act in ways you would never dream of otherwise, sometimes even superseding your rational thought process. Advertisers try to make use of your emotional responses, thus classical conditioning, to get you to buy their products. For instance, think back to all the commercials you saw sporting the American flag following the September 11 attacks. Associating patriotic feelings with a particular product is good business!
Classical conditioning can produce both positive and negative responses, depending on the association made. Take, for instance, a thunderstorm. If a child were to hear the rumbling of thunder and then witness a tree being struck by lightning just a second later, he may fear that rumbling sound during future storms. However, a child who heard that same rumbling of thunder while he was cozily enveloped in his father's arms may later hear the rumbling of thunder and experience pleasant emotions, as the association was one of contentment.
Therapists often use classical conditioning to help people overcome phobias or other anxiety problems. For example, imagine a person has an extreme fear of public speaking. In order to help the individual overcome this terror, a therapist might recommend repeatedly pairing the delivery of a speech with a more pleasant experience. While it may not completely eliminate the public-speaking phobia, the person might feel less anxious when she is confronted with a speech, talk, or presentation.