Let’s imagine we haven’t eaten in a long time and we’re hungry. Let’s also imagine that in this situation they put our favorite dish in front of us. We will probably start to notice more intensely the hunger we have, and we will notice how we start to secrete saliva. In a less perceptible way our digestive system, spurred on by the sight and smell of food, will begin to prepare itself for the act of eating. Let’s imagine now that we get a pang, or a jab. We will immediately move away 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 in themselves. These are unconditioned stimuli , a concept we will deal with throughout this article.

What is unconditional encouragement?

The term unconditioned stimulus refers to any stimulus or element that has the capacity to generate an autonomous and regular response to a person or form of life , which is biologically relevant to it.

Such unconditioned stimulus can be both appetizing and aversive, and can be both beneficial and detrimental to the subject if experienced. The response they generate in the organism or living being, for example the activation of some body systems or the reflex movement, are also called unconditioned. It is important to keep in mind that these responses are given at an innate level, not being the product of subjective reflection or assessment of whether something is pleasant or unpleasant to us.

Although there are many stimuli that can be considered unconditioned, the truth is that they are generally linked to basic processes for our survival : pain or the fight/run response to an attack, the presence of food or the presence of sexually attractive stimuli. However, it should be noted that the specific stimulus can vary greatly depending on the species or even the brain configuration.

Their role in classical conditioning

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

The fact is that in the middle there is a great amount of stimuli that do not generate a direct reaction, which in principle are not neutral. But if they are repeatedly and consistently associated with an unconditioned stimulus, they can associate with it and make it 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 called conditioning (since one, the unconditioned, conditions the other) which in terms of the simple association between stimuli and responses is called classical conditioning .

Unconditioned but not unalterable

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 for an unconditioned stimulus to be devalued and lose its properties.

An example of this is satiation, a process in which being exposed to a stimulus that generates a reflex response ends up making the response to it diminish. For example, if we eat a lot and expose ourselves to food (unconditioned stimulus) it will not generate a response since we are already satiated.

Also an habituation to the stimulus can occur : the repetition of the exposure to the stimulus over time makes the response it generates less intense. For example, if exposure to sexual stimuli is habitual, the stimulus in question may lose (but also increase, there being sensitivity instead of habituation) part of its appetitive power.

Finally there may be a counterconditioning , 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.