The Concept of Conditioning


What is conditioning?

The term “conditioning” generally refers to what is popularly known as “classical” or “Pavlovian” conditioning. The historical identification of this phenomenon dates back to the work of Ivan Pavlov (1902), a Russian physiologist whose experiments with dogs salivating in response to a bell objectively defined its meaning. Simply defined, conditioning is learning. Further, it is learning which may occur without awareness that learning is taking place, and learning that can prompt involuntary physical responses, sometimes taking place without conscious awareness.

We know many things we do not pay attention to. We know how to walk and talk; we drive a car and type words; we learned these skills. To be sure, at the point in time when we were learning them, we were paying attention – conscious attention – but now we pay attention to the objective of what we are doing, not to our actions. We simply stand up and walk; we are oblivious to the act itself; walking has become a conditioned response.

It is no surprise that we are conditioned by the experiences we have. We were taught to believe what we believe. We have the skills, values, and limitations we learned in the course of living. Many factors (genetic, spiritual, etc.) impact our lives, but life experience is responsible for the conditioning that results in most presenting psychological problems. In essence, we learn to feel good, anxious, or depressed; or to experience chronic pain or nightmares. We are conditioned creatures. Our beliefs, values, and behaviors are the consequences of earlier conditioning.

We learn many things without being consciously aware we are learning them, and we are conditioned by what we learn. As an example, this type of learning can happen when an intense emotion blocks the individual’s conscious awareness that learning is taking place. A little girl bitten by a dog is aware of being bitten, yet is not aware that she is learning to fear dogs. Instead, her attention is overwhelmed by fear. That fear can instantly become associated with “dogs” and can persist for a lifetime. This is an example of how emotion can play a key role in conditioning.


How does conditioning affect us?

On the positive side, the consequence of conditioning is responsible for much of what is good in life. For example, we have the benefits of good health and physical fitness, efficient immune function, mental alertness, and productively directed energy, not to mention our skills, values and beliefs.

On the other side, negative conditioning can have negative consequences. In the example of the little girl and the dog bite, the child unknowingly became conditioned to fear all dogs from that experience, thus having a negative consequence in the child’s life. The range of such fears can reach beyond dogs; we can be conditioned to be fearful of many things without apparent cause, or to be depressed or to behave in undesired ways. It is also becoming increasingly apparent that problems such as learning disabilities, memory limitations, and even chronic pain may also be caused by negative conditioning.

Socially unacceptable behavior occurs because of conditioning, as does acceptable behavior; it depends on the experiences and the understanding of those experiences at the time they occur. Unfortunately, especially in early life, our understanding may be limited or distorted, leading to regrettable conditioned responses. Compulsions, habits, obsessions, fingernail biting, stuttering, tics, and self-defeating behavior are all examples of this.

We are not immune to the influence of conditioning… even as adults. Over time we have learned defenses and coping skills, and yet we still have periods of vulnerability to unfortunate conditioning. Most often, these periods occur during episodes of intense emotion, periods when defenses are ineffective because of those emotions. Experiences of fear, grief, and rage are essentially universal, even if they are only brief and during those experiences we may integrate some element of the moment without being consciously aware that it is happening. For both children and adults, experiences involving intense emotion are accompanied by elevated suggestibility. Emotion compromises our ability to think clearly. Also, repetition is not required for conditioning to occur if the stimulus is joined with intense emotion. As with the girl being bitten by the dog, when the event is emotionally charged, it only has to occur once to have lasting effect.


Why is the concept of conditioning important in Yagerian Therapy?

Yagerian Therapy recognizes the critical role conditioning plays in our lives – both for positive and negative reasons. The method itself is based upon four important concepts related to conditioning:

  • We are conditioned by the experiences we have in life, whether for good or for ill.
  • We are the products of conditioning from our life experiences.
  • We believe and behave as we were conditioned to believe and behave.
  • We can be reconditioned.

Life experiences condition us in different ways. The consequences of conditioning have significance far beyond what has been commonly recognized; impacting mental, emotional, and physical experience. The upside is that we can accomplish correction by reconditioning, including correcting the influences integrated during early life experiences.

We are conditioned creatures, so we have the ability to be both conditioned and reconditioned. Reconditioning happens in many positive ways. We learn new information, new skills, and new values.

Our conditioning changes as we learn different values, skills, and contexts, so it follows that resolving an undesired consequence of conditioning might best be accomplished by reconditioning.

The essential purpose of Yagerian Therapy is to accomplish change by reconditioning. The Yagerian Method takes the patient through the process of identifying the negative, conditioned influences from past experiences and resolving them by reconditioning. Check out the information on this website to see the remarkable results this method has brought to patients. Yagerian Online Therapy can help you with your unwanted conditioning as well – click here to try it FREE for 2 hours!


Edwin K. Yager, Ph.D. is a Clinical Professor of Psychiatry in the University of California – San Diego (UCSD) School of Medicine and the President and CEO of the Subliminal Therapy Institute, Inc. He also maintains a private practice in San Diego, California.


Dr. Yager has studied, practiced, and taught Yagerian Therapy, Subliminal Therapy, and the clinical use of hypnosis for over fifty years. He has lectured across the globe and trained hundreds of psychologists and other professionals in the Yagerian Method and related techniques. Dr. Yager is certified as a Consultant in Hypnosis with the American Society of Clinical Hypnosis and is a past president and current board member of the San Diego Society of Clinical Hypnosis.

Through the development and evolution of his Yagerian Method of therapy, Dr. Yager has treated thousands of patients presenting a wide variety of psychological and psychogenic physical problems with high success rates. Therapists he has trained in the method worldwide have reported measured success as well, and the method is expanding and highly regarded in multiple countries. The online version of Yagerian Therapy was also developed by Dr. Yager, allowing patients from all locations and all walks of life to access it for treatment from home. A free 2-hour trial may be found on the website. Dr. Yager also provides regular informational blogs to the site.

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