Pavlovian Conditioning or classical conditioning is a behavioural trait which was first discovered by a Russian scientist named Ian Pavlov. In Seeking Wisdom, Peter Bevelin describes Pavlov’s experiment:
The Russian scientist Ivan Pavlov studied the digestive system of dogs when he observed that a stimulus unrelated to food made the dogs salivate. In one experiment he rang a bell just before giving food to the dog. He repeated this several times until the dog salivated at the sound of the bell alone. No sight or smell of food was present. The sound of the bell produced the same response as the food. The dog learned to associate the bell with food.
The conditioning also works to trigger negative emotions like fear. Bevelin adds:
Experiments have shown that we can learn to fear a harmless stimulus if it is paired with an unpleasant one. If for example rats consistently receive mild electrical shock after hearing a tone, the rats learn to develop a fear of the tone alone.
Pavlovian Conditioning can be used as a manipulation tool. In Influence – Psychology of Persuasion, Robert Cialdini talks about his friend who was having trouble selling a certain kind of turquoise jewelry. In spite of trying all sales tricks and marketing gimmicks she couldn’t move the sales. One fine day her staff, by mistake, changed the price tags for those turquoise pieces to double the original price. To their surprise, because of this increased price, the stock was sold out in a day. The customers, with little knowledge of turquoise, were conditioned to associate high
price with high value. These were the people who had been brought up on the rule “You get what you pay for”. Their conditioning led them to mistake the high price (bell) for quality (food) and they swooped down(salivated).
Similarly, casino operators use almost every kind of behavioural trick to keep the gamblers longer inside the casino because they know that the longer the game continues, the larger the bets. Large rooms, noisy and flashy machines, sounds of spilling coins, hubbubs of crowds, and entertaining music, along with the smells of free food, drinks and perfume, provide the essential Pavlovian vibes to encourage gamblers to stay with their games for as long as possible.
The slot machines in the casinos exploit yet another behavioural bias called Variable Reinforcement, which is another form of conditioning, also known as Operant Conditioning(OC). In Pavlovian conditioning the response(salivation) is involuntary whereas in OC it’s a conscious decision on the part of subject. Like a rat falsely associating a lever press with supply of food and keeps pressing the lever endlessly.
In 1996 Charlie Munger delivered a talk titled Practical Thought on Practical Thought. In this talk he used the example of Coca-Cola’s business model and explained how Pavlovian association lies at the heart of coke’s strategy. Charlie explains:
The neural system of Pavlov’s dog causes it to salivate at the bell it can’t eat. And the brain of man yearns for the type of beverage held by the pretty woman he can’t have.
…we must use every sort of decent, honorable Pavlovian conditioning we can think of. For as long as we are in business, our beverage and its promotion must be associated in consumer minds with all other things consumers like or admire.
Awareness about classical conditioning can be very useful for creating good habits or breaking bad habits. Once you can identify the cue which triggers the associated conditioned response you can easily break the routine and replace the bad habit with a good one.