Have you ever noticed how the smell of sunscreen immediately brings back that holiday feeling? Or how you crave popcorn the moment you step into the movie theatre, even though you never eat it at home? That your heart still sinks when a ‘break-up song’ from years ago plays on the radio?
These are classic signs of classical conditioning, a learning process in which two previously unrelated objects or events are paired together to produce a new response.
Knowing how we (unconsciously) build these new habits gives us important insights into why and how we behave the way we do. And it all started with an accidental discovery in 1927 by Ivan Pavlov and his drooling dogs…
The Story of Pavlov’s Drooling Dogs
During his research into the digestive systems of mammals, Ivan Pavlov noticed that his test dogs would start to produce saliva the moment they saw or smelt their food coming. That’s is a natural, built-in response to help swallow that food.
However, Pavlov discovered that the dogs would also start salivating whenever they saw someone in a lab coat – because the person who fed them always wore a lab coat whenever he brought the dogs their food bowls. So the dogs would start drooling in anticipation, even though there was no food in sight.
In a series of experiments, Pavlov found that if he consistently presented a neutral stimulus (for example, ringing a bell) right before the dogs’ meal time, the animals would start to associate that stimulus with the impending food. They would salivate as soon as they heard the bell, even when it wasn’t immediately followed by a meal.
The dogs had learned that the ringing sound was a reliable predictor of food being served, triggering an automatic, involuntary response to an object or event that used to be neutral.
So how does this relate to our lifestyle?
All day long, we do a lot of things on autopilot. We mindlessly brush our teeth when we get up and wash our hands after using the bathroom. We take the same route to work without paying much attention to our surroundings and automatically grab a snack when the afternoon slump rolls around.
Little cues in our environment trigger routine behaviours, good and bad. Like Pavlov’s dogs, our minds have come to associate certain stimuli with learned responses: the sound of your alarm clock in the morning has you longing for a strong cup of coffee, hearing your baby’s lullaby’s music will make you sleepy even in the middle of the day.
Conditioning plays a big role in unhealthy and addictive behaviours. You become thirsty for a beer as soon as you step into a bar, automatically light a cigarette after sex or crave a bag of potato chips on family movie night. What’s more, classical conditioning is often involved in causing anxiety or phobias. For example, a scary or painful incident in the past can make someone fearful of going the dentist, even if it’s just for an innocent check-up.
But Pavlov’s experiment demonstrates that we can also change our behaviour through conditioning. You could train your brain to associate daily routines with new healthy and helpful habits:
- Create relaxing evening routines to help you sleep better: drinking camomile tea, a lukewarm bath or listening to soft music. After a sticking to these habits for a while, taking a warm sip at night will signal to your brain that it’s time to wind down and prepare your body for sleep.
- Place a fruit bowl next to your coffee and tea maker, so you’ll automatically grab an apple on your breaks instead of heading to the vending machine.
- Condition yourself to take your medication first thing in the morning or with your meal (depending on how and when your pills should be administered of course).
- Turn your phone on airplane mode after you’ve put the kids to bed at night to reduce distractions and overstimulation.
- Assign a culinary theme to each day of the week – Meatless Monday, Taco Tuesday – so you’ll effortlessly get a wide range of nutrients in.
- Drink a glass hot lemon water right after you get up.
- Break bad habits like smoking by (temporarily) avoiding environments and triggers that you strongly associate with lighting a cigarette. You could also try replacing a bad habit for a healthier one that gives you the same emotional reward. Instead of opening a bottle of wine or digging into a bowl of ice-cream after a stressful day, seek healthier ways to find some emotional release and/or relaxation, like phoning your best friend, doing yoga or going for a run to clear your mind.
Just pair your desired behaviour with things you do very regularly, like meal times, taking a shower, commuting or watching your favourite weekly TV series.
Now take a close look at your own routines: Which stimuli and responses do you unconsciously associate with each other? Do you mindlessly buy unhealthy snacks at the train station because you suddenly get a hunger pan or to make your commute more enjoyable? Do you feel the urge to light a cigarette or endlessly browse social media after an argument?
How could you use the principles of classical conditioning to transform your lifestyle in a positive way?
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