Say we haven’t eaten for a long time and are hungry. Let’s also imagine that in this situation, they put us in front of our favorite dish. We will surely start to notice our appetite more intensely, and we will notice how we started to secrete saliva. Less noticeably, our digestive system, stimulated by the sight and smell of food, will begin to prepare for the act of eating. Now imagine that they give us a cramp or a puncture. We will immediately move away from its source, like a reflection.
All of these examples have one thing in common: the source of the ramp or the sting or the presence of food are stimuli that generated an immediate response for us, by themselves. They are unconditioned stimuli, A concept that we will talk about throughout this article.
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 and regular response to a person or lifestyle, Being that stimulus something biologically relevant to it.
This unconditional stimulus can be both appetizing and aversive, and can be both beneficial and detrimental to the subject experiencing it. The response they generate in the body or living being, such as the activation of certain bodily systems or reflex movement, is also called unconditioned. It is important to note that these answers are given at the innate level and are not the product of subjective reflection or an assessment of whether something pleases or dislikes us.
While there are many stimuli that can be considered unconditioned, the truth is that in general they are linked to basic processes for our survival: Pain or fight / flight response to an attack, presence of food or presence of sexually attractive stimuli. However, it should be noted that the specific stimulus can vary widely depending on the species or even the brain configuration.
Its role in classical conditioning
The unconditioned stimulus, which generates an unconditional and natural response, is not only important in itself but is also the basis (from the behaviorist perspective) which allows the creation of associations, which in turn are the basis of the emergence of learning and behavior according to classical behaviorism.
And it is that in the environment there are many stimuli which do not generate a direct reaction, which in principle are neutral for us. But that if they are repeatedly and consistently associated 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, is a basis for the ability to learn and acquire simple behaviors. This process is called conditioning (since one, the unconditioned, conditions the other) which as for the simple association between stimuli and responses, it is called classical conditioning.
Unconditional but not unalterable
The unconditioned stimulus has the capacity to generate a response on its own, but that does not mean that it must always generate an unconditional response. An unconditioned stimulus can devalue and lose its properties.
An example of this is satiety, a process in which being heavily exposed to a stimulus that generates a reflex response ends up causing a decrease in the response. For example, if we eat a lot and are exposed to food (unconditional stimulus) this will not generate a response since we are already tipping.
too much habituation to the stimulus may occur: The repetition of exposure to the stimulus over time makes the response it generates less intense. For example, if exposure to sexual stimuli is common, the stimulus in question may lose (but also increase, with consciousness instead of habituation) some of its appetite power.
To finish counter-conditioning may occur, Wherein an unconditioned stimulus is combined with another stimulus which generates an opposite response. You could say that the unconditioned stimulus becomes a conditioned stimulus, generating a response where before there was another.