We train our dogs to sit, fetch, catch Frisbees and do other tricks. Any pet dog we raise understands our voice and hand gestures. When we head to the fridge or our dog’s food bin at a certain time of day, our dog is conditioned to anticipate being fed. His behavior changes at the anticipation. He may be more alert, dance around with excitement and run back and forth from his feeding bowl to the fridge as you prepare his food. The interesting part of this behavior is that even if you do not actually prepare his food, he will still engage in all these behaviors. This is conditioning. It is a phenomenon observed by Ivan Pavlov, a Russian physiologist, who did scientific work on dogs’ conditioned responses. Two events taking place close in time to one another become associated for your dog – going to the food bin or fridge and then your dog receiving food. This is a conditioned behavior.
Does such conditioning take place for people in an emotional way? Do we learn as children to associate our emotions with closely occurring events in our lives? One child will associate glee and happy emotions with first learning to walk or run. This will occur when he receives feedback (conditioning) from adults around him that they are happy with his learning new skills and with his explorations of his body’s abilities.
Another child may associate the same new accomplishment with angry or scared emotions if his parents respond angrily or fearfully. A parent may physically hit him as he learns to walk. This parent may be angry at his child’s increased mobility and need to be looked after. This child will grow up to be emotionally conditioned to fear anger from others if he explores new activities or interests.
Yet other parents may be scared their child will fall and harm himself when he learns to walk or run. They will not want him to attempt walking or running. Such a child will be emotionally conditioned to be fearful at attempting new activities in life and may resist doing so.
Over time one child becomes conditioned to be happy with himself when he tries new adventures in life. And, the other child becomes conditioned to be fearful, angry or timid when new life experiences arise that he might try.
Have such conditioned emotions taken place in you during your early childhood? Do you experience certain emotions with specific events that you learned early, even when these emotions make no sense in your adult life? How easy it is for you to rid yourself of these emotionally-conditioned ways of navigating your life? Do you sometimes wish you could change your emotional responses? Do you see similarities with your conditioned dog?