Conditioned to Cough

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.

5 thoughts on “Conditioned to Cough

  1. Kristen Louise Robertson

    This is very interesting! I hate cigarettes as well but I have had a different experience with them. I used to travel to Las Vegas as a kid to visit one of my best friends who lived there. While we were there, her mom would take us to the casinos to show us around and we would have a blast. The casinos always reeked of cigarettes, so now whenever I smell cigarettes it makes me think of Las Vegas! I really don’t mind the smell because I just associate it with the fun times I had with my best friend. It is strange how we can be conditioned in completely different ways.
    Kristen Robertson

  2. meh5662

    I think this is so interesting! I don’t do this myself, but one of my best friends (Dee) smokes and another one of my friends (Kelly) does the same thing when Dee lights a cigarette. At first I noticed it but I figured it was jut because the windows weren’t rolled the whole way down and a bit of smoke had blown to the back of the car. Eventually I noticed any time Kelly would even get in the car she would start coughing. She was conditioned to expect smoke or at least the smell of it any time she was in Dee’s car. I found it interesting that this didn’t happen to any of the other girls (myself included) who spent just as much time in the car as Kelly. We all learned to react to the stimuli differently which is really fascinating to me. Across the board, we see classical conditioning work but we didn’t focus too much on how different people can react differently to the same stimuli.

  3. Cara Marie Barnes

    One of my friends does the same exact thing with cigarette smoke! She hates when people are walking in front of her while smoking, and the second she notices a cigarette in front of her she starts violently coughing. Sometimes we are so far behind people she couldn’t possibly smell the smoke yet, but she is “conditioned” to cough. It used to embarrass me and lead me to believe she was over exaggerating, but it definitely makes sense now!

  4. Taylor Blackford

    I really like this blog post. I also really hate cigarettes and when people smoke in front of me. They always seem to be upwind so I am stuck breathing it. One interesting thing that would be cool to look into, could you condition the smokers into not smoking. Maybe every time you cough they put the cigarette out. Find a way to condition the cough to feeling bad about smoking. This conditioned response could be better for all parties at hand. The problem is the addiction to nicotine and the extremely strong association that would need to be formed with between the cough and putting down the cigarette. All in all great post.

  5. Bethany Brenneman

    That is so interesting that you start coughing at the sight of a lit cigarette now! I completely know what you are talking about when leaving the library– There is always a group of people smoking there, and it’s hard to exit without walking through their cloud of smoke. This is a perfect example of the classical conditioning we described in class, and you did a great job identifying the different the different stimuli and responses in your real-life example. It’s also amazing that you have experienced this situation so many times that you became conditioned to cough at the sight of a lit cigarette.

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