The Ethics and Implications of Classical Conditioning

Photo: Courtesy of https://biologydictionary.net/classical-conditioning/, via Google Images.

Behavior modification is a simple concept with complex implications.  Simply put, behavior modification “conditions” the participant to engage or cease a behavior through “learning.”  The premise of changing behavior is easily understood when the participant consents.  However, within the practice of behavior modification exists a principle whose entire premise is conditioning an unsuspecting participant, known as classical conditioning.  Does this involuntary learning infringe on human autonomy?  Further, has this scientific principle fallen into the wrong hands?

The Origins of Classical Conditioning

Classical conditioning is best understood by tracing it back to its origin.  In 1897, Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov published his findings of what would be one of the most recognizable experiments in the field of psychology.  What adds to the legitimacy of Pavlov’s findings is that his initial experiment did not revolve around behavior modification, but rather digestion.  Pavlov and his associates sought to understand gastric secretions better and used dogs to study this concept.  To simplify the work, the researchers measured salivation levels, not gastric secretions.  With special attention focused on the salivation of the dogs, Pavlov began to notice a trend that was separate from the digestion process.  When the dogs heard the researchers approaching with their food, they would begin to salivate.  This was before the food was even placed before the dogs.

Shifting the focus of his studies to this phenomenon, classical conditioning as it is now understood was born.  Pavlov put aside his entire experiment of digestion, and created what is commonly known as the “bell experiment.”  In the experiment, Pavlov would begin by simply presenting the dog with food.  Naturally, the dog would salivate.  Next, alongside presenting the dogs with food, Pavlov would ring a metronome.  This pairing would occur several times. Eventually, the dogs were no longer presented with food, and only the metronome would be rung.  Despite the food being gone, the dogs would still salivate.

But what was happening throughout this process?  In response to the “unconditioned stimulus” of the food, the dog would salivate.  This created an “unconditioned response.” Such a response was natural and required no learning, either because it was already learned or physiologically occurring.  The significance of the metronome is that on its own, it elicited no response from the dog.  The metronome was a neutral stimulus.   However, Pavlov was able to transform the neutral stimulus into a “conditioned stimulus.”  Eventually, the conditioned stimulus—the metronome—would be able to elicit the same salvation response regardless of whether the unconditioned stimulus—the food—was present.

What makes the findings of Pavlov so significant is that this type of learning, known now as classical conditioning, is involuntary.  The dogs were not “taught” to associate the metronome with food, but rather subconsciously paired the unrelated stimuli together.

Anyone Can Be Classically Conditioned

Yet, surely a human mind is more complex.  However, in the context of classical conditioning, the human mind works much like Pavlov’s dogs.  Take for example the sound of an alarm clock: if someone played that tone, the sound would elicit an irritated response.  The reaction occurs because you have paired the alarm clock noise with the condition of waking up, a condition that likely naturally produces an irritated response. In a routine behavior, you have classically conditioned yourself to associate the two stimuli.

Classical conditioning is most commonly seen in treating substance abuse.  A person’s use of substances is usually brought about by “triggers.”  A person might associate his or her couch with drinking, or his or her car with smoking, and these triggers, or conditioned stimuli, are most commonly responsible for users’ relapse.  However, the practice of classical conditioning offers a solution.  If the user can unlearn these conditioned stimuli and instead create a positive chain response, theoretically the user can unlearn the negative behavior.  For example, instead of associating the couch with drinking, the person can always pick up a book or turn on the television.  By replacing a negative behavior with a positive behavior, the user can modify the behavior.

Unlearning to associate the users’ behavior is just one step in the formula because drugs also elicit a chemical response.  The most effective way to break the cycle of use is to pair classical conditioning with prescription medicine. The medicine can help the cravings, while classical conditioning can help stop the pattern of use.

Yet, classical conditioning’s involuntary learning style presents an interesting ethical question: If the participant is truly unaware the learning is happening, how can that participant consent?

Autonomy and Consent

The principle of autonomy is defined as all persons having the power to make their own decisions and the capacity to determine their destiny.  Self-determination was the founding principle of the United States of America.  Further, questions of autonomy are often at the core of landmark Supreme Court cases, such as Obergefell v. Hodges.  In Obergefell, same-sex marriage was codified into law on the principle that a person possesses the autonomy to choose who he or she marries.

The field of psychology also holds autonomy in high regard.  So much so, autonomy is one of the four ethical considerations in providing treatment.  Autonomy in psychological treatment is further protected by informed consent. Before a practitioner may treat a patient, the practitioner must explicitly obtain the consent of her patient.  Informed consent is such a foundational principle in all medical fields, that it has been codified in law.  Judge Cardozo, sitting for the Court of Appeals of New York in 1914, opined “[e]very human being of adult years and sound mind has right to determine what shall be done with his own body[,]” in the context of a surgeon performing an unconsented operation.  Such a sentiment laid the foundation for informed consent that exists today.

But how can one consent to a stimulus in which the stimuli being unknown is the key to the treatment?  Put simply, a person can consent to the practice of classical conditioning, but not know the details.  As seen in placebo research, a patient can be informed that a treatment for a specific behavior or condition will be occurring, but not be informed of the exact nature of the treatment or what behavior is being tested.  This is within ethical boundaries.  Patients are meant to be protected by the concept of “do no harm,” though the principle is malleable.

Yet, informed consent does chip away at the essence of classical conditioning.  What makes classical conditioning so extraordinary is that even if the person is unaware of the conditioning, learning still happens.  However, when classical conditioning is being used for treatment, the true involuntary nature of the learning process must be given up.  Informed consent maintains human autonomy in medical treatment, and classical conditioning still manages to be powerful, even if awareness of learning exists.

Though the practice of classical conditioning in the field of psychology seems to be protected by ethical pillars, as illustrated by the alarm clock, classical conditioning is not confined to medicine.

Classical Conditioning in the Courts

Classical conditioning exists all around us.  Marketing is the clearest example.  An effective marketing campaign can elicit a positive response from a consumer by simply playing a jingle or showing a logo.  Through lifelong conditioning, a company can manage to train consumers’ brains to associate positive emotions with its brand.  Though marketers are trying to sell a product, there is nothing inherently malicious about their actions.  However, classical conditioning can be used for evil.

The actual term “classical conditioning” has been alleged in legal proceedings, but it is few and far between.  One pro se plaintiff filed a complaint while incarnated at Waupun Correctional Institution.  In his complaint, the inmate alleged his civil rights were violated.  The inmate’s action stemmed from two incidents.  In the first, the plaintiff alleged that he was brutalized by correctional officers during a strip search and despite his injuries, was denied medical treatment.  The second incident involved classical conditioning.  The inmate claimed that between September 2013 and January 2014, correctional officers manipulated his meal delivery, subjecting him to “repeated pairing association ‘trials’ with hypodermic syringes.”  The pro se plaintiff alleged the correctional officers were trying to “ ’condition a predictable behavioral response’ in retribution for his litigating this case.”  Regarding the second incident, the court dismissed the inmate’s claim.  The court reasoned “that the plaintiff does not properly plead a claim showing entitlement to relief for any defendant’s use of so-called ‘psychological techniques.’”

In sum, the pro se plaintiff’s claim of classical conditioning was not recognized.  However, the court did not assert that such a claim itself was frivolous, but rather the claim failed to have factual support.  Though the court characterized the psychological techniques as “so-called,” the court did not affirmatively find that classical conditioning is itself a baseless claim.

Though the case does little to recognize the dangers of classical conditioning, it does act as an enlightening illustration.  The practice of classical conditioning is hard to put into words.  While it is possible the inmate truly was being subjected to classical conditioning, the inmate had difficulty articulating his experience.  All he was able to assert was that something was being done to him without his consent.  Further, because classical conditioning has no statutable basis and the inmate did not explain the process of classical conditioning, the court likely failed to appreciate it as a possible cause of action.  Until a court has affirmatively asserted its understanding of classical conditioning, coupled with a claim that was properly pleaded, classical conditioning’s legality will remain in question.

Stockholm Syndrome’s Relation to Classical Conditioning

Though the actual term classical conditioning rarely appears in legal proceedings, the principle can be found.  For example, Stockholm syndrome is the phenomenon of a victim becoming attached to his captor.  Though a variety of behavioral modification principles are at play, classical conditioning can be seen. Through the course of the victim’s capture, the captor will oftentimes condition the victim to associate them with positive emotions.  This is most commonly done through food.  When the captor is associated with a stimulus that naturally produces a positive conditioned response, the victim will involuntarily learn to associate the captor with a positive response.

Interestingly, Stockholm syndrome itself is not illegal, at least not explicitly.  Rather than the captor being guilty of psychological manipulation, the captor is often guilty of kidnapping.  Although the psychological manipulation itself will not be explicitly punished by law, the kidnapper will nonetheless be punished for the kidnapping and the physiological manipulation will impact the sentencing.

But why is Stockholm syndrome associated so heavily with kidnapping?  This too can be explained by the principle of classical conditioning.  To classically condition a person, that person must consistently have the unconditioned stimulus associated with the conditioned stimulus.  Otherwise, the learning that occurred will be subject to extinction, and the conditioned stimulus will return to having no effect.  Though psychology has placed ethical considerations on the act of classical conditioning, the principle itself has built-in protection.  However, when a person is imprisoned and not able to relieve themselves from the process of conditioning, extinction is not able to occur, making those imprisoned most vulnerable to the practice.

Classical Conditioning Remains in the Gray

Classical conditioning specifically relies on the participant not knowing what is occurring.  Yet, true ignorance risks infringing on a person’s autonomy, and informed consent offers shelter.  However, classical conditioning is not exclusive to the medical field where it can be bound by informed consent.  While classical conditioning’s extinction principle offers safeguards to prevent the average person from using classical conditioning for sinister purposes, extreme circumstances do exist that could counter the extinction principle.  Circumstances such as lawful or false imprisonment could create the necessary conditions for classical conditioning.  False imprisonment holds a penalty that can punish classical conditioning, but classical conditioning that may occur in lawful imprisonments has been left unexplored.  While theoretically possible, no incarcerated person has successfully pled a classical conditioning claim.  For this reason, no court has ruled whether classical conditioning that occurs during lawful imprisonment is even unlawful.  The way classical conditioning toys with a person’s free will raises questions of autonomy that seem to be at odds with a court’s stance on individual freedom.  Until this question has been answered, classical conditioning with continue to exist in a gray area of ethical considerations.

Avatar photo
About Ann Miller (2 Articles)
Ann Miller is a second-year student at Campbell University School of Law and is a Staff Writer for the Campbell Law Observer. Originally from Pittsburgh, PA, Ann graduated from West Virginia University with Bachelor’s degrees in Psychology and Criminology. In her free time, Ann enjoys hiking with her partner and spending time with her cats, Russell and Honey. Ann’s areas of interest include the intersection of law and psychology, criminal justice, and personal injury.