Pavlovian Response (Classical Conditioning)

Back in 2013, I landed my first job after college at Northern Trust as a Financial Analyst. It was during this time that my interest in progressive rock peaked where I would fill any free time I had listening to bands like Pink Floyd, Opeth and Dream Theatre etc.

During one of those times when I was lost in a David Gilmour solo from the song “Coming back to life”, I saw Jane (name changed) take the seat next to me. Right that moment, my thoughts came to a stand still and there were only 2 things that had my attention - the song “Coming back to life” and Jane. Over the next few weeks Jane and I would text each other while the song played on my headphones and soon enough, I developed a crush on Jane. 

Almost all things fizzled out between us over the next few years except for one. Anytime I would listen to the song “Coming back to life”, I would be immediately reminded of Jane and how I felt when I first saw her. It has been over 6 years and my response to the song is still the same, even though I haven’t seen or spoken to Jane in a long time. 

So why am I sharing a story about the association of a song with a crush of mine and what does this have to do with thinking patterns? Well, a lot actually.

This anecdote is a loose variation of a famous experiment by Ivan Petrovich Pavlov - the experiment that more or less changed the way products are incentivised, marketing strategies are planned and branding decisions are made. 

What did Pavlov do?

In his experiment, Pavlov demonstrated how the presence of a stimulus (bowl of dog food) triggered an unconditioned response (salivation). Things got interesting when he observed that the dogs started salivating upon the arrival of his lab assistants who usually brought them their food (unplanned stimulus) even if this time they didn’t bring anything.

To take things further, Pavlov even tried this with a neutral stimulus like ringing a bell while feeding the dogs. With repetition, the dogs soon started associating the bell ringing with their food and this in-turn would make them profusely salivate whenever they heard it. This happened even when there was no food involved. 

In essence, Pavlov took the unconditioned response (salivating) to the unconditioned stimulus (dog food) and paired it with a neutral stimulus (ringing the bell).  He repeated it, thereby achieving the unconditioned response (salivating) from the subject (dog) through a neutral stimulus (ringing the bell) which has now become the conditioned stimulus.

There were 3 steps involved in this process and we will explore this a little more detail in the implementation section at the end, but for now let’s just look at the process:

  1. Before acquisition: Identifying the unconditioned response to an unconditioned stimulus. 

  2. Acquisition: Pairing a neutral stimulus with the unconditioned stimulus to form an association

  3. After Acquisition: Neutral stimulus becomes the conditioned stimulus and triggers the same response as the unconditioned stimulus.

This theory is now a critical part of classical conditioning used across diverse domains.



Indian Coca-Cola Ads (Thanda Matlab Coca Cola)

In India, Coca-Cola ran advertisements across all mediums where the core message communicated was - Coca-Cola is the sensation of quenching your thirst with a cool drink on a hot summer day (Thanda Matlab Coca-Cola). These ads roped in some big names from pop culture & sports and soon Coca-Cola became the default symbol associated with the phrase “Cool thirst quencher”.

By appealing to the unconditioned response of thirst during a hot summer day, Coke combined it with the conditioned stimulus of their advertising message/branding thereby telling people that “Coke can quench your thirst”. 

It worked. When people saw the posters with Coke’s message, it quickly reinforced the idea that Coke went with thirst or more precisely the quenching of it.

This theory has been explored and exploited by various organisations and brands ranging from AXE deodorant to Apple Computers. It is so powerful and effective that it is even applied in psychiatric and behavioural therapies while treating phobias, anxieties etc.

The question now is, can YOU use it in your business or life? And how?

Implementing Pavlovian Theory

While this seems right out of a playbook reserved exclusively for multinational companies, the process is fairly straightforward. 

To keep things simple, let’s do this for a dry product like a sales CRM.

  1. Identify the unconditioned response and unconditioned stimulus you want to focus on. 

    A user/sales person in this case might feel happy (unconditioned response) when he makes a sale or when a client moves from one stage to the next (unconditioned stimulus) in the funnel. 

  2. Identify a neutral or artificial stimulus that you have control over.

    A good stimulus here would be to award redeemable points every time a sale (unconditioned stimulus) occurs and the sales person starts feeling happy (unconditioned response).

  3. Pair the artificial stimulus with the unconditioned stimulus

    When a client is moved from one stage to the next in the CRM, give the sales person the message that they have earned some redeemable points right before you give them the templated message of “Successfully moved from X to Y”.

  4. Repeat this process often and vary rewards if possible

    Varied rewards are much more addictive than consistent ones, so give your users a random amount of additional points when they reach certain milestones. Ensure that they get the message about the points right before the usual “Success” message - there should be little to no delay.

  5. Start strategically adding artificial stimulus without the unconditioned stimulus

    Give redeemable points during important moments like paydays or right before the weekend break etc, even when no sale has happened. Do not overdo this since you run the risk of disassociation. 

  6. Start using it to achieve objectives

    Use the artificial stimulus to boost your business objectives during critical times like a week before renewal, reduced usage of the product, before announcing up-sells or new features etc. 

So there you have it, the simple yet powerful Pavlovian theory put into practice. I urge you to read up a bit more and explore the scope of this theory and start thinking about how you can start employing this in more creative ways in both your personal and/or professional life.



If you found this post useful, tweet at me. I’m at twitter.com/shv_prbhkrn.

The feedback really helps and I take EVERY one of them into consideration while planning future content. 

One final ask, I confirm that you are in fact getting my emails. So if you are reading this, please reply to this email with a “yes”. I promise there won't be a followup email to your reply. 

Keep it rational.