Emotions, Learning

About trains, emotions and other things


“Look! There is the train coming! Every time I see the train it makes me feel so good,” said my Mum with a big smile on her face and I could see the pure happiness in her eyes. This happens every time when we watch trains pass my hometown from a hilltop nearby where I usually go for walks with my Mum in the countryside – but how come that my mother feels so good about seeing something as subtle as a train approaching my hometown?

In short, the story is the following: I grew up in the countryside and when I started studying, I moved away from home. On the weekends, when I went to see my parents, I took the train and in pleasant anticipation of seeing me soon, my Mum was waiting at the station for the train to bring me back home. This way she started to connect the happy event of seeing me again with the rather subtle event of the train arriving in the station, and soon with trains in general. Now, whenever she goes for a walk and sees a train approaching the town, she is ‘emotionally reminded’ of the happiness when she picked me up on a Friday evening at the station so that she still feels the same happiness.

This process, through which we seemingly learn to connect a neutral events (or a stimulus in general) with an event that usually triggers a particular reaction, so that we react to the neutral event similarly as to the event that triggers a reaction falls into the category of Classical Conditioning (e.g. Pavlov, 1927). In the example above, the neutral event is the event of seeing a train passing and the response-event is seeing a beloved person, which triggers happiness. Now, would my Mum have learned to feel happy when seeing trains, if she hadn’t picked me up at the station, but waited for me at home? Most likely not. Instead she might have felt happy hearing me unlocking the door or ringing the bell and connected these sounds with my arrival and happiness. As we can see from this, it is also important that the two events occur at the same time.

In general, classical conditioning is not limited to events only, but it can occur with any pair of stimuli that consist of a neutral stimulus and a potential (biological) reaction-stimulus that both occur at the same time. Even though classical conditioning is more characterized through the display of reactions that rather resemble the display of reflexes than conscious behaviour, it has been studied in many different types of context, such as attitudes (Staats & Staats, 1958), advertisements (Gorn, 1982), brain systems (Clarke & SSquire, 1998), and especially for anxiety and phobias (Öhman & Mineka, 2001, Schneider et al., 1999; Wolpe & Rowan, 1988; Davey 1992; Clark, 1986). However, would it not be good, if we could also make use of this type of learning? In clinical settings, a form of classical conditioning is used to treat phobias and anxieties by gradually exposing a client to stressful situation whilst creating a safe environment through relaxation techniques so they learn to lower their level of anxiety (e.g. Foa & Kozak, 1986; Watson, 1924).

Yet there is a problem with classical conditioning and this type of learning: Events take place (or stimuli are presented) and we display a reflexive reaction. Thus, these reflexes are a result of an event, which we might not even be able to influence or exploit in any useful way. There is not much use of the happiness my Mum experiences when she sees a train, is there? However, instead of pairing two events or stimuli, it might be more useful if we would pair a particular behaviour with a stimulus that triggers a particular reaction in the person displaying that behaviour. By doing so, we can bring about changes in behaviour. For instance, we could increase the likelihood of good behaviour by providing a pleasant stimulus or taking away an unpleasant stimulus, whereby we would be creating a reward. Conversely, it is possible to decrease the likelihood of bad behaviour by presenting an unpleasant stimulus or by removing a positive one. In scientific terms the adding or removing of stimuli that have a positive effect is called positive or negative reinforcement. This type of conditioning, which is called Operant Conditioning (e.g. Thorndike, 1901; Skinner, 1938), is probably the most popular type of learning and it is especially prominent with animal training, even though it can also be used with humans as this short excerpt from Big Bang Theory demonstrates (cf. Schultz, 2015; Swartdal, 1992; Bouton, 2007; Schwartz, 1989).

How does all this help us in our daily life? You might ask.

Consider the introductory example of my Mum picking me up from the station. Even though her happiness when seeing a train is a result of classical conditioning as we have seen above, why did she keep picking me up at the station every time I decided to come home? When we met, I greeted her with a big hug and words ‘Thanks for picking me up’ which showed her my gratitude and appreciation of making the effort and coming to the station. Of course I am pretty sure that these were not the only incentives to keep her picking me up on a weekly base and the anticipation of seeing me back as well as her love for me played an undeniable role in this reinforcement process, but even these little signs of appreciation can make a big difference and they are the most frequently used types of reinforcement. Imagine a spouse taking a pass on a beloved hobby to stay at home and prepare dinner for their partner who has been grumpy and feeling sick all day long. What about a teammate who offers you a lift home after training, or a colleague who brought some sweets to the office? What would increase the chances of these people repeating their actions if not at least a kind word or a gesture of appreciation? Praise is another form of reinforcement that is often used in learning situations, where behaviour that is in line with a goal is gradually reinforced through praising until the student achieves the goal. Even presents and surprises can function as a reinforcement when linked to a particular action, though they usually have a delayed effect. For instance, surprise tickets for a cinema visit might be a nice thank you for a boyfriend for helping out with preparations when the (future) parents-in-law come over, but they might also reinforce a boyfriend to help out more often in the kitchen, not only at special occasions.

Even though these examples appear to be very basic gestures in our daily life, they can have a powerful effect. Why not try them out and give signs of appreciation more often to see what happens?


BOOK RECOMMENDATION: Pryor, K. (2002). Don’t shoot the dog. The new art of teaching and training. UK: Ringpress.



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Wolpe, J., & Rowan, V. C. (1988). Panic disorder: A product of classical conditioning. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 26(6), 441-450.


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