'He’s Pavlov and we’re the dogs': How Associative Learning Really Works in Human Psychology

Tuesday, November 21, 2017 - 3:15pm

My ears perked up when, in recent weeks, I heard Donald Trump and Ivan Pavlov mentioned twice in connection with each other. After all, I’m an experimental psychologist who journeyed to Russia to conduct conditioning research with Pavlov’s last living student.

First, political provocateur Bill O’Reilly wrote online that

“Donald Trump is kind of like the Russian psychologist Ivan Pavlov. Pavlov rang his bell and dogs salivated; Trump’s voice rings out and leftists everywhere froth at the mouth.”

Then, political commentators Abe Greenwald and Noah Rothman observed in their lively back-and-forth that

“It is such a huge master switch that [Trump] can throw to watch both sides and the media completely respond to what he wants in the way he wants. And, so he is Pavlov and we are all the dogs. Right?”

Each remark contains a profound truth: Extremely strong associations can indeed be formed between events. Remember, Pavlov’s own breakthrough was discovering that dogs could learn to associate the dinner bell with the meal itself and so begin to drool when the bell rang in advance of when the feeding bowl was actually placed within reach.

But, these commentators cast such learned associations in a decidedly negative light. People were reduced to canines and their reactions downgraded to mechanical reflexes. Nothing in these pejorative remarks hints at how associative learning contributes to performing responses that help us survive and thrive.

Read the full article on The Conversation.

Edward A. Wasserman
Stuit Professor of Experimental Psychology
Department of Psychological & Brain Sciences
E222 Seashore Hall
The University of Iowa
Iowa City, IA 52242

Phone:  (319) 335-2445
Fax:  (319) 335-0191
Email: ed-wasserman@uiowa.edu