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Unconditioned stimulus: what it is and how it is applied

Unconditioned stimulus: what it is and how it is applied

September 26, 2022

Let's imagine that we have not eaten for a long time and we are hungry. Imagine also that in this situation we put our favorite dish before us. Surely we will begin to notice more intensely the hunger we have, and we will notice how we began to secrete saliva. In a less perceptible way our digestive system, spurred by the vision and smell of food, will begin to prepare for the act of eating. Imagine now that they give us a shock, or a puncture. We will move away immediately from its source, as a reflex.

All these examples have one thing in common: the source of the cramp or the puncture or the presence of food are stimuli that have generated an immediate response, by themselves. It's about unconditioned stimuli , a concept that we are going to deal with throughout this article.


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What is an unconditioned stimulus?

It receives the name of unconditioned stimulus all that stimulus or element that has the ability to generate an autonomous response and on a regular basis to a person or way of life , said stimulus being something biologically relevant for this.

This unconditioned stimulus can be both appetitive and aversive, being able to suppose both a benefit and a harm for the subject to be experiencing it. The response generated in the organism or living being, for example the activation of some bodily systems or reflex movement, are also called unconditioned. It is important to keep in mind that these responses are given at the innate level, not being the product of subjective reflection or evaluation of whether something is pleasant or unpleasant.


While there are many stimuli that can be considered unconditioned, the truth is that usually they are linked with basic processes for our survival : the pain or the fight / flight response to an attack, the presence of food or the presence of sexually attractive stimuli. However, it must be taken into account that the specific stimulus can vary enormously depending on the species or even the brain configuration.

Your role in classical conditioning

The unconditioned stimulus, which generates an unconditional and natural response, is not only important by itself but is also the basis (according to the behavioral perspective) that allows the creation of associations, which are in turn the basis of the appearance of learning and behavior according to classical behaviorism .

And in the middle there are a lot of stimuli that do not generate a direct reaction, which in principle are neutral. But if they are associated repeatedly and consistently with an unconditioned stimulus they can associate with it and cause them to generate an identical or similar response to that generated by the unconditioned stimulus itself.


Thus, the association between unconditioned and neutral stimuli, which become conditioned, are a basis for the ability to learn and acquire simple behaviors. This process is what is called conditioning (since one, the unconditioned, conditions the other) with regard to the simple association between stimuli and responses is called classical conditioning .

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Unconditioned but not unchangeable

The unconditioned stimulus has the capacity to generate a response by itself, but this does not mean that it will always generate an unconditioned response. It is possible that an unconditioned stimulus devalues ​​and loses its properties.

An example of this is satiation, a process in which the fact of subjecting oneself abundantly to exposure to a stimulus that generates a reflex response ends up causing the response to it to decrease. For example, if we eat a lot and we expose ourselves to food (unconditioned stimulus) it will not generate an answer given that we are already satisfied.

As well there may be a habituation to the stimulus : the repetition of the exposure to the stimulus over time makes the response generated less intense. For example, if exposure to sexual stimuli is habitual, the stimulus in question may lose (although it may also increase, there being sensitization instead of habituation) part of its appetitive power.

By last a counterconditioning may occur , in which an unconditioned stimulus is paired with another stimulus that generates an opposite response. We could say that the unconditioned stimulus becomes a conditioned stimulus, generating a response where before there was another.


Classical conditioning: Neutral, conditioned, and unconditioned stimuli and responses | Khan Academy (September 2022).


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