Pavlovian Conditioning: How Can You Use It?

We all know the story of Pavlov’s Dog: Pavlov would ring a bell whenever he fed the dog, causing the dog to subconsciously connect the bell with the thought of food – one was an indication of the other. The dog would later begin salivating at just the sound of the bell, even if no food was present, purely because of the associative conditioning.

That is very powerful – the association was so strong that the dog had begun to almost instinctively salivate at the sound. Understanding this can lead us to insights into our personal lives: in what situations do we succumb to the same forces? What Pavlovian situations have we created in our own lives?

Personally, I got into a habit of getting breakfast every morning with a co-worker. It got to a point where I wouldn’t notice my hunger until he came by to ask if I wanted to go downstairs for food. This is the power of a Pavlovian conditioning. However, one key differentiation is that it is not a habit. A habit is something you have trained yourself to do over and over, independent of outside stimuli. If you wake up and brush your teeth, that is a habit (and a good one). Doing your homework after watching a favourite TV show episode is much more Pavlovian – you depend on the stimuli of the show ending to trigger your action towards the homework. If you didn’t watch the show, you would never do your homework.

This is where we can start to use Pavlovian training to our advantage – this goes back to my previous post on time discipline/procrastination. Pavlovian conditioning is a way to ‘shape the path’, to remove obstacles that might prevent you from getting done what you desire to get done. For me, an example of that would be blogging (what I am doing right now). Whenever I blog, there is one song that I listen to, on repeat. It is around 20 minutes long, and has no lyrics (yes, I obey my own rules – it’s good for getting into ‘flow’). This song lets my brain know that it’s time to blog – it may seem animalistic, but it really does help.

You might already be doing this in your own life – many people have a certain playlist on their iPod that they use for the gym – this is the same training. Your body starts to associate that playlist with the gym, getting you ready for the workout ahead.

The other side of the coin is to watch for negative Pavlovian conditioning. Perhaps once you start to watch TV, you feel the desire for food. You have conditioned your body to associate the two. Or every time you go to the movie you need a large popcorn – you have been conditioned to associate the two. You don’t need to change everything, just be aware of it.

My summary is this: think about how you can use Pavlovian training in your own life. Learn to use outside stimuli to direct your actions, and make it easier to get done what you want to get done. I can’t say I always want to blog, but putting on that particular song gets me ready to blog – it puts me in the right state of mind. Use it for going to the gym, running, doing homework, studying or anything else. You will be amazed at how similarly our bodies and minds can be trained to our canine friends.



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