Neutral stimulus: what it is, how it works and examples

The term “stimulus” is often used in the field of psychology to refer to any event in the physical world that has the potential to excite any of the body’s receptor apparatus such that such a stimulus would be the source of a specific response. .

In this article we will see what the neutral stimulus is and what is its role in behavioral psychologyseeing also how a neutral stimulus can be converted into a conditioned stimulus.

    What is a neutral stimulus?

    The use of the word stimulus in psychology is closely related to that of physiology, and more precisely with the experiment carried out by the Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov to be able to prove the existence of conditioned reflexes, so that a stimulus is classically used to designate all the events likely to trigger a reflex, and is this with a A neutral or natural stimulus may cause a certain involuntary response or reaction. The theory developed by Pavlov is known as classical or Pavlovian conditioning.

    On the other hand, the neutral stimulus is one that does not have the ability or property by itself to elicit a definite unconditional reaction, nor fit to become a conditioned stimulus by conditioned association. In other words, a neutral stimulus is a type of stimulus that does not initially produce a concrete response in the body beyond focusing attention.

      How does a neutral stimulus become a conditioned stimulus?

      As we said, a neutral stimulus does not initially produce a concrete response other than focus; however, in classical or Pavlovian conditioning, when a neutral stimulus is used in conjunction with an unconditioned stimulus, that neutral stimulus becomes a conditioned stimulus.

      When repeated presentations of both the neutral and unconditioned stimulus occur repeatedly, that neutral stimulus will also be able to generate a response, this being commonly referred to as a conditioned response.

      This theory of classical conditioning was developed as a result of Pavlov’s many experiments when he studied digestion in dogs with which he also used the neutral, conditioned and unconditioned stimulus. In these experiments, the neutral stimulus was the sound of a shaking bell.this sound was introduced into dogs along with their food which was like an unconditioned stimulus.

      What Pavlov discovered with these experiments, which became one of the foundations of behavioral science, was that after feeding the dog, it began to secrete saliva through certain glands, becoming this phenomenon known by the researcher as a “salivation reflex”.

      After repeated attempts, Pavlov was able to observe that when present with the dog, he made the dog salivate without food, and this was because he learned that he would receive food when Pavlov appeared before him.

      In a third phase of research, Pavlov began using a neutral stimulus repeatedly and varying the source of the stimulus (visual or auditory), although in all cases she is neutral, just in time before serving the dog food. As a result, he was able to detect that after several tries, the dog associated the neutral stimulus with food, which then transformed the neutral stimulus into a conditioned stimulus. Pavlov then referred to the salivation that occurred in the face of the previously neutral stimulus (which had become conditioned) as a “conditioned reflex”.

        Examples explaining how the neutral stimulus works

        In order to be able to explain in more detail what the neutral stimulus consists of, we consider it appropriate to present some examples that can be found in everyday life, as well as some laboratory experiments carried out on it, where this type of stimulus plays an important role.

        1. Case of little Albert

        An experiment that caused a stir was the one conducted by John Watson and Rosalie Rayner with an 11-month-old baby (Albert) when they intended to investigate whether the presence of an animal could be conditioned when associated with a loud noise that could elicit a fear response.

        In this experiment, they were able to observe that by associating the sound of a hammer blow on a metal board (unconditioned stimulus) with the presence of a white rat (which was previously a neutral stimulus and after the association the sound aversive has become a conditioned stimulus sound), came to provoke in the baby a fear reaction (conditioned response) on subsequent occasions before the mere presence of the mouse, they were therefore able to observe that fear could be learned through classical conditioning. This type of mechanism is one of the most common in the acquisition of different phobias in humans.

        It should be noted that this experiment was conducted more than 100 years ago, because nowadays, of course, it would be illegal and beyond the limits of scientific ethics.

          2. Anxiety attacks

          According to some theories of behavioral psychology, the symptoms of anxiety present in phobias, obsessions or panic attacks, among others, are a clear example of abnormal behavioral reactionsas they are viewed from this perspective as learned responses in the early stages of people’s childhood and adolescence through Pavlovian or classical conditioning processes.

          In these cases we can see some of the examples of neutral stimulus in the field of psychology, and is the reaction that appears in combination with a neutral stimulus (for example, having an anxiety attack on public transport ), may have given rise to a conditioning phenomenon in which this type of reaction will tend to be repeated when faced with a series of stimuli similar to this neutral stimulus, thus on future occasions the subject will try to avoid such a neutral stimulus by a conditioning mechanism which is useful to him.

            3. Advertising

            In the field of marketing or neuromarketing and advertising, experts know that classical conditioning can be a powerful tool when trying to influence the emotions of potential consumers with your advertisements. This can be done, for example, by creating a partnership between a product they want to sell (neutral stimulus) and an event that can evoke a number of pleasant emotions in potential consumers.

            In this sense, the Pavlovian or classical conditioning theory has managed to have remarkable effects in the field of advertising (for example, certain famous sportsmen announcing a product, which would be a neutral stimulus before being announced, and representing a scene where they demonstrate their athletic virtues represent a conditioned stimulus, while positive emotions or positive attitude towards the message one intends to convey in that ad would be the unconditional response).

            In these cases, the main thing would be to merge the mark which is intended to advertise with the use of this mark (which would be a previously neutral stimulus then conditioned), with the content of the advertisement (unconditional stimulus) so that the unconditional response becomes a positive conditioned response to that brand.

            If the ad fulfills its purpose, the brand’s advertisers will merge the brand and its usage so that they evoke the same positive emotions that were intended when the ad was designed and also convey the same attitude.

              4. Fear of injections

              The fear of bites is a type of specific phobia quite common in the population, having been seen an increase in the number of epidemiological cases of this phobia following mass vaccination against COVID-19.

              In this case, a confirmation was found in many cases of the classical conditioning theory, because a neutral stimulus (for example, the white dress of medical personnel) was associated with another that caused a reaction. specific.

              Then, if the medical staff, who usually wear white coats, are the ones who are tasked with giving an injection that caused “pain” or a series of momentary side effects in some cases (e.g., mild fever the next day), then the sight of a white robe might evoke undesirable stimuli in the patient even if he is not going to receive another injection.

              Bibliographic references

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