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Counterconditioning (also called stimulus substitution) is functional analytic principle that is part of behavior analysis, and involves the conditioning of an unwanted behavior or response to a stimulus into a wanted behavior or response by the association of positive actions with the stimulus. [1] For example, when training a dog, a person would create a positive response by petting or calming the dog when the dog reacts anxiously or nervously to a stimulus. Therefore, this will associate the positive response with the stimulus. [2]



Mary Cover Jones was the first to show the effectiveness of the counter conditioning process in her rabbit experiments. She was able to eliminate the fear of rabbits from a young boy. The rabbit was first kept away from the boy and then moved closer and closer, while the boy was able to eat his favorite foods. The boy was allowed to touch the rabbit and then was able to eat his food to reduce the nervousness touching the rabbit induced. Eventually the boy was able to pet the rabbit without any sign of fear because of the unpleasant and feared stimulus of the rabbit was now replaced by the pleasant stimulus of the food. But Jones was not the only one working on this process of conditioning, J.B. Watson and R. Rayner suggested a process similar to that of Jones and also shortly after the rabbit experiments were published Ivan Pavlov used a similar procedure for a dog that was agitated by his experiments. [3]

Versus extinction

Counterconditioning is very similar to extinction seen in classical conditioning. It is the process of getting rid of an unwanted response. But in counterconditioning, the unwanted response does not just disappear, it is replaced by a new, wanted response. "The conditioned stimulus is presented with the unconditioned stimulus". [3] This also can be thought of as stimulus substitution. The weaker stimulus will be replaced by the stronger stimulus. When counterconditioning is successful, the process can not just be explained by simply substitution of a stimulus. It usually is explained by things such as conditioned inhibition, habituation, or extinction. [3]

Common treatment uses

It is a common treatment for aggression, fears, and phobias. The use of counter conditioning is widely used for treatment in humans as well as animals. The most common goal is to decrease or increase the want or desire to the stimulus. One of the most widely used types of counter conditioning is systematic desensitization. This technique uses muscle relaxation instead of food as the positive counter stimulus. The main goal in this treatment is to reduce fear to a certain feared stimulus. [3]

Annotated bibliography

  1. Richard J. Gerrig and Philip G. Zimbardo start to the explain the process of counter conditioning it their article. Explaining the process with people along with animals such as dogs.
  2. Aaron E. Blaisdell, James C. Denniston, Hernan I. Savastano, and Ralph R. Miller were the authors of this article. This article explains the biological effects of conditioning and counter conditioning. They also show and explain the results of their experiments using the techniques of conditioning.
  3. Edward W. Craighead and Charles B. Nemeroff go into much detail about counter conditioning. They explain the differences between classical conditioning and counter conditioning and also explain how counter conditioning works. Along with the explanation of the process they tell how the process came about and who did the experiments leading to counter conditioning's discovery.

Related Research Articles

B. F. Skinner American psychologist and social philosopher (1904-1990)

Burrhus Frederic Skinner was an American psychologist, behaviorist, author, inventor, and social philosopher. He was a professor of psychology at Harvard University from 1958 until his retirement in 1974.

Operant conditioning is a type of associative learning process through which the strength of a behavior is modified by reinforcement or punishment. It is also a procedure that is used to bring about such learning.

Classical conditioning refers to a learning procedure in which a biologically potent stimulus is paired with a previously neutral stimulus. It also refers to the learning process that results from this pairing, through which the neutral stimulus comes to elicit a response that is usually similar to the one elicited by the potent stimulus. It was first studied by Ivan Pavlov in 1897.


In behavioral psychology, reinforcement is a consequence applied that will strengthen an organism's future behavior whenever that behavior is preceded by a specific antecedent stimulus. This strengthening effect may be measured as a higher frequency of behavior, longer duration, greater magnitude, or shorter latency. There are two types of reinforcement, known as positive reinforcement and negative reinforcement; positive is where by a reward is offered on expression of the wanted behaviour and negative is taking away an undesirable element in the persons environment whenever the desired behaviour is achieved. Rewarding stimuli, which are associated with "wanting" and "liking" and appetitive behavior, function as positive reinforcers; the converse statement is also true: positive reinforcers provide a desirable stimulus. Reinforcement does not require an individual to consciously perceive an effect elicited by the stimulus. Thus, reinforcement occurs only if there is an observable strengthening in behavior. However, there is also negative reinforcement, which is characterized by taking away an undesirable stimulus. Changing someone's job might serve as a negative reinforcer to someone who suffers from back problems, i.e. Changing from a labourers job to an office position for instance.

Stanford prison experiment

The Stanford prison experiment (SPE) was a social psychology experiment that attempted to investigate the psychological effects of perceived power, focusing on the struggle between prisoners and prison officers. It was conducted at Stanford University on the days of August 14–20, 1971, by a research group led by psychology professor Philip Zimbardo using college students. In the study, volunteers were assigned to be either "guards" or "prisoners" by the flip of a coin, in a mock prison, with Zimbardo himself serving as the superintendent. Several "prisoners" left mid-experiment, and the whole experiment was abandoned after six days. Early reports on experimental results claimed that students quickly embraced their assigned roles, with some guards enforcing authoritarian measures and ultimately subjecting some prisoners to psychological torture, while many prisoners passively accepted psychological abuse and, by the officers' request, actively harassed other prisoners who tried to stop it. The experiment has been described in many introductory social psychology textbooks, although some have chosen to exclude it because its methodology is sometimes questioned.

The experimental analysis of behavior is school of thought in psychology founded on B. F. Skinner's philosophy of radical behaviorism and defines the basic principles used in applied behavior analysis. A central principle was the inductive reasoning data-driven examination of functional relations, as opposed to the kinds of hypothetico-deductive learning theory that had grown up in the comparative psychology of the 1920–1950 period. Skinner's approach was characterized by observation of measurable behavior which could be predicted and controlled. It owed its early success to the effectiveness of Skinner's procedures of operant conditioning, both in the laboratory and in behavior therapy.

Little Albert experiment Experiment providing information on classical conditioning of human infantile subject

The Little Albert experiment was a controlled experiment showing empirical evidence of classical conditioning in humans. The study also provides an example of stimulus generalization. It was carried out by John B. Watson and his graduate student, Rosalie Rayner, at Johns Hopkins University. The results were first published in the February 1920 issue of the Journal of Experimental Psychology.

Behaviorism is a systematic approach to understanding the behavior of humans and other animals. It assumes that behavior is either a reflex evoked by the pairing of certain antecedent stimuli in the environment, or a consequence of that individual's history, including especially reinforcement and punishment contingencies, together with the individual's current motivational state and controlling stimuli. Although behaviorists generally accept the important role of heredity in determining behavior, they focus primarily on environmental events.

Dog training is the application of behavior analysis which uses the environmental events of antecedents and consequences to modify the dog behavior, either for it to assist in specific activities or undertake particular tasks, or for it to participate effectively in contemporary domestic life. While training dogs for specific roles dates back to Roman times at least, the training of dogs to be compatible household pets developed with suburbanization in the 1950s.

Deindividuation is a concept in social psychology that is generally thought of as the loss of self-awareness in groups, although this is a matter of contention (resistance). Sociologists also study the phenomenon of deindividuation, but the level of analysis is somewhat different. For the social psychologist, the level of analysis is the individual in the context of a social situation. As such, social psychologists emphasize the role of internal psychological processes. Other social sciences, such as sociology, are more concerned with broad social, economic, political, and historical factors that influence events in a given society.

Animal training

Animal training is the act of teaching animals specific responses to specific conditions or stimuli. Training may be for purposes such as companionship, detection, protection, and entertainment. The type of training an animal receives will vary depending on the training method used, and the purpose for training the animal. For example, a seeing eye dog will be trained to achieve a different goal than a wild animal in a circus.

Systematic desensitization, also known as graduated exposure therapy, is a type of behavior therapy developed by South African psychiatrist, Joseph Wolpe. It is used in the field of clinical psychology to help many people effectively overcome phobias and other anxiety disorders that are based on classical conditioning, and shares the same elements of both cognitive-behavioral therapy and applied behavior analysis. When used by the behavior analysts, it is based on radical behaviorism, as it incorporates counterconditioning principles, such as meditation and breathing. From the cognitive psychology perspective, however, cognitions and feelings trigger motor actions.

In psychology, desensitization is a treatment or process that diminishes emotional responsiveness to a negative, aversive or positive stimulus after repeated exposure to it. Desensitization also occurs when an emotional response is repeatedly evoked in situations in which the action tendency that is associated with the emotion proves irrelevant or unnecessary. The process of desensitization was developed by psychologist Mary Cover Jones, and is primarily used to assist individuals in unlearning phobias and anxieties. Joseph Wolpe (1958) developed a method of a hierarchal list of anxiety evoking stimuli in order of intensity, which allows individuals to undergo adaption. Although medication is available for individuals suffering from anxiety, fear or phobias, empirical evidence supports desensitization with high rates of cure, particularly in clients suffering from depression or schizophrenia.

Blocking effect

In Kamin's blocking effect the conditioning of an association between two stimuli, a conditioned stimulus (CS) and an unconditioned stimulus (US) is impaired if, during the conditioning process, the CS is presented together with a second CS that has already been associated with the unconditioned stimulus.

Errorless learning was an instructional design introduced by psychologist Charles Ferster in the 1950s as part of his studies on what would make the most effective learning environment. B. F. Skinner was also influential in developing the technique, noting that,

...errors are not necessary for learning to occur. Errors are not a function of learning or vice versa nor are they blamed on the learner. Errors are a function of poor analysis of behavior, a poorly designed shaping program, moving too fast from step to step in the program, and the lack of the prerequisite behavior necessary for success in the program.

In behavioral psychology, stimulus control is a phenomenon in operant conditioning that occurs when an organism behaves in one way in the presence of a given stimulus and another way in its absence. A stimulus that modifies behavior in this manner is either a discriminative stimulus (Sd) or stimulus delta (S-delta). Stimulus-based control of behavior occurs when the presence or absence of an Sd or S-delta controls the performance of a particular behavior. For example, the presence of a stop sign (S-delta) at a traffic intersection alerts the driver to stop driving and increases the probability that "braking" behavior will occur. Such behavior is said to be emitted because it does not force the behavior to occur since stimulus control is a direct result of historical reinforcement contingencies, as opposed to reflexive behavior that is said to be elicited through respondent conditioning.

In psychology, a stimulus is any object or event that elicits a sensory or behavioral response in an organism.

The term conditioned emotional response (CER) can refer to a specific learned behavior or a procedure commonly used in classical or Pavlovian conditioning research. It may also be called "conditioned suppression" or "conditioned fear response (CFR)." It is an "emotional response" that results from classical conditioning, usually from the association of a relatively neutral stimulus with a painful or fear-inducing unconditional stimulus. As a result, the formerly neutral stimulus elicits fear. For example, if seeing a dog is paired with the pain of being bitten by the dog, seeing a dog may become a conditioned stimulus that elicits fear.

Generalization is the concept that humans and other animals use past learning in present situations of learning if the conditions in the situations are regarded as similar. The learner uses generalized patterns, principles, and other similarities between past experiences and novel experiences to more efficiently navigate the world. For example, if a person has learned in the past that every time they eat an apple, their throat becomes itchy and swollen, they might assume they are allergic to all fruit. When this person is offered a banana to eat, they reject it upon assuming they are also allergic to it through generalizing that all fruits cause the same reaction. Although this generalization about being allergic to all fruit based on experiences with one fruit could be correct in some cases, it may not be correct in all. Both positive and negative effects have been shown in education through learned generalization and its contrasting notion of discrimination learning.

Association in psychology refers to a mental connection between concepts, events, or mental states that usually stems from specific experiences. Associations are seen throughout several schools of thought in psychology including behaviorism, associationism, psychoanalysis, social psychology, and structuralism. The idea stems from Plato and Aristotle, especially with regard to the succession of memories, and it was carried on by philosophers such as John Locke, David Hume, David Hartley, and James Mill. It finds its place in modern psychology in such areas as memory, learning, and the study of neural pathways.


  1. Gerrig, Richard J. & Philip G. Zimbardo (2002). Psychology And Life. Pearson Education.
  2. Blaisdell, Aaron E.; James C. Denniston; Hernan I. Savastano; Ralph R. Miller (2000). "Counterconditioning of an Overshadowed Cue Attenuates Overshadowing" (PDF). Journal of Experimental Psychology: Animal Behavior Processes. The American Psychological Association, Inc. 26 (1): 74–86. doi:10.1037/0097-7403.26.1.74. PMID   10650545. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2012-04-25.
  3. 1 2 3 4 Craighead, W. Edward; Charles B. Nemeroff (2004). The Concise Corsini Encyclopedia of Psychology and Behavioral Science. John Wiley & Sons, Inc. p. 232.