Since I came to Penn State, I’ve definitely been around more cigarettes as I walk around campus. Usually happened when I leave the library, someone is smoking outside the revolving door, and I end up breathing in the smoke. Naturally, I cough after I breathe in the smoke, but soon enough I was coughing as soon as I saw a lit cigarette in front of me. I would walk out the revolving door and see someone smoking and cough right away, and at first I thought something was wrong with me. Why was I coughing, even when I hadn’t inhaled any smoke yet? I had always wondered how to explain this, but it was finally cleared up when we learned about classical conditioning in class.
Classical conditioning is a type of learning where we connect the association of two (or more) uncontrolled stimuli. In my mind, I was connecting the sight of a lit cigarette with the smoke that causes me to cough. For this to work, you have to have something (an unconditioned stimulus – US) that naturally causes a response (unconditioned response – UR) and something (conditioned stimulus- CS) that has no impact on it’s own (conditioned response – CR). If the CS is interacted with right before the US enough times, then you eventually make the connection that the CS should lead to the US, and the US makes you naturally respond with the UR. If this happens enough, you start having the UR when you see the CS, and that reaction is the CR.
Basically, when I saw the lit cigarette (the CS), it would be followed by me breathing in the smoke right after (the US). Breathing in the smoke made me cough (the UR). This happened so frequently that I eventually associated the lit cigarette with coughing, so I started coughing as soon as a saw the lit cigarette (this is the CR). Even though seeing a lit cigarette shouldn’t make me cough, through classical conditioning I associate that stimulus with coughing.