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What Is a Conditioned Response? Definition and Examples

A conditioned response is the result of classical conditioning. It happens after a neutral stimulus has been paired with an unconditioned stimulus. 

In other words, a conditioned response is a learned reaction to a specific stimulus. It’s a behavior that occurs automatically when the organism encounters or anticipates the stimulus, as a result of previous conditioning.

This concept is a fundamental aspect of classical conditioning, a type of associative learning famously studied by Ivan Pavlov. In classical conditioning, an initially neutral stimulus (known as the conditioned stimulus) is paired with a biologically significant stimulus (known as the unconditioned stimulus).

Over time, the neutral stimulus comes to evoke a response (the conditioned response) similar to that evoked by the unconditioned stimulus. This learned response is conditioned because it’s acquired through the process of association with a particular stimulus.

The Conditioned Response in Classical Conditioning

In classical conditioning, the condition response is a learned reaction to a previously neutral stimulus. Here’s how it works:

Unconditioned Stimulus (UCS)

This is a stimulus that naturally triggers a response without any prior learning. For example, in Pavlov’s famous experiment, food was the unconditioned stimulus.

Unconditioned Response (UCR)

This is the natural response to the unconditioned stimulus. In Pavlov’s experiment, the dogs’ salivation to the food was the unconditioned response.

Neutral Stimulus (NS)

Initially, this stimulus doesn’t elicit any specific response. In Pavlov’s experiment, the bell ringing was the neutral stimulus.

Conditioned Stimulus (CS)

Through repeated pairing with the unconditioned stimulus, the neutral stimulus becomes a conditioned stimulus. In Pavlov’s experiment, the bell became the conditioned stimulus.

Conditioned Response (CR)

After conditioning, the conditioned stimulus elicits a response similar to the unconditioned response. In Pavlov’s experiment, the dogs’ salivation to the bell alone became the conditioned response.

The conditioned response is a learned reaction to a previously neutral stimulus due to its association with an unconditioned stimulus. This association forms the basis of classical conditioning, as demonstrated by Pavlov’s experiments with dogs.

Examples of the Conditioned Response

In order to better understand how the conditioned response works, it can be helpful to explore a few real-world examples.

Salivation to a Bell

This was demonstrated in Pavlov’s classic experiments. In the experiments,  dogs learned to salivate at the sound of a bell after it was repeatedly paired with the presentation of food.

Fear Response to a Certain Sound

For instance, if a person hears a specific tone followed by a loud noise repeatedly, they may startle or feel fearful when hearing the tone alone. The behaviorist John Watson conditioned such fear in his “Little Albert” experiment, where a small child developed a conditioned fear of a white rat.

Excitement at the Sound of an Ice Cream Truck

Children might become excited and start running to an ice cream truck when they hear its distinct music, associating it with the pleasure of getting ice cream.

Nervousness at the Dentist’s Office

People might feel anxious or nervous upon entering a dentist’s office due to past experiences with the environment and procedures.

These examples illustrate how various stimuli can become associated with specific responses through classical conditioning.

Conditioned Response vs. Unconditioned Response

The unconditioned response is natural and automatic, while the conditioned response is learned through association with a stimulus. The unconditioned response doesn’t require training, while the conditioned response does.

Treating Conditioned Responses

Conditioned responses can play a role in maintaining mental health conditions such as anxiety, depression, phobias, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Conditioned responses can be overcome in therapy through various techniques, including:

Exposure Therapy

This involves gradually exposing individuals to the feared stimulus in a controlled and safe environment. Through repeated exposure, the conditioned response weakens over time as the person learns that the stimulus no longer predicts harm or discomfort.

Systematic Desensitization

In this method, individuals are taught relaxation techniques while gradually facing their feared stimulus. As they become more relaxed in the presence of the stimulus, the conditioned fear response diminishes.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

CBT helps individuals identify and challenge negative thought patterns associated with the conditioned response. By changing their interpretations of the stimulus and developing coping strategies, they can reduce the intensity of the conditioned response.


This technique involves pairing the conditioned stimulus with a new, positive response. For example, associating the feared stimulus with relaxation or pleasant experiences helps to replace the conditioned response with a more adaptive one.


Flooding involves exposing individuals to the feared stimulus in an intense and prolonged manner until the conditioned response diminishes due to exhaustion or habituation.

Therapists often tailor these techniques to individual needs and specific conditioned responses to help clients overcome their fears and anxieties.

Extinction of the Conditioned Response

Extinction is when a conditioned response fades away because the conditioned stimulus is presented without the unconditioned stimulus. Initially, the conditioned response may still happen, but as the conditioned stimulus keeps appearing without the unconditioned stimulus, the response weakens and eventually disappears.

Through this process, individuals learn that the conditioned stimulus no longer predicts the unconditioned stimulus, leading to the reduction or elimination of the conditioned response.

After extinction, the conditioned response might briefly return when the conditioned stimulus is reintroduced, a phenomenon known as spontaneous recovery.  However, it’s usually weaker and doesn’t last long.

Extinction teaches individuals that the connection between the conditioned and unconditioned stimuli no longer holds true. As a result, the conditioned response gradually diminishes until it’s no longer present, providing a way to overcome unwanted learned behaviors or fears.

Key Points to Remember

  • The conditioned response (CR) is a learned reaction to a previously neutral stimulus.
  • It develops through repeated pairing of the conditioned stimulus (CS) with the unconditioned stimulus (UCS).
  • The CR is specific to the conditioned stimulus and may not occur without it.
  • Extinction, where the CS is presented without the UCS, can weaken or eliminate the CR over time.


Christoforou, C. (2021). Conditioned stimulus. In: Shackelford, T.K., Weekes-Shackelford, V.A. (eds) Encyclopedia of Evolutionary Psychological Science. Springer, Cham.

Eelen P. (2018). Classical conditioning: Classical yet modernPsychologica Belgica58(1), 196–211.

Radley, K.C., McCargo, M. (2017). Conditioned response. In: Zeigler-Hill, V., Shackelford, T. (eds) Encyclopedia of Personality and Individual Differences. Springer, Cham.