September 27 – Ring A Bell?

Today’s factismal: Pavlov used both children and dogs in his famous experiments.

If there’s one joke that all Introductory Psychology students know, it is “Do you know Pavlov? The name rings a bell!” That’s because Pavlov was one of the founders of modern psychology who helped change it from a purely descriptive and qualitative science into an experimental and quantitative one. But what many of those students don’t realize is that Pavlov did his work on children as well as dogs!

To understand how Pavlov could have used children in an experiment, you first need to remember that he worked in the late 1800s and early 1900s when experimental conditions were much looser and “informed consent” wasn’t even a gleam in a regulator’s eye. (And he was hardly the worst offender; consider Watson’s “Little Albert” experiment or the even more problematic Tuskegee Syphilis experiment.)  Indeed, Pavlov’s work was considered to be a giant step forward because he didn’t kill his animals as part of the work!

Pavlov during his heyday (Image courtesy National Institute of Medicine)

Pavlov during his heyday
(Image courtesy National Institute of Medicine)

And his work produced amazing results. As with so many scientific discoveries, it happened when he noticed something odd while looking for something completely different. Pavlov was researching the chemical makeup of saliva in dogs when he noticed that they would begin to salivate before they got the food. He reasoned that they had begun to associate the sounds of food preparation with the food itself (anyone who has ever opened a can of tuna near a cat will understand this), which then led to the salivation. He tested his idea by presenting the dogs with a variety of stimuli, ranging from the clang of tuning forks to the sight of a picture; in every case, the dogs soon began to associate the stimulus with the food and would salivate on cue.

Pavlov then took his work to the next level by running the same tests on children. Sure enough, they would associate the stimulus with the promise of food and begin to salivate before the food actually arrived (anyone who has heard kids complain about being hungry after they’ve seen the “Golden Arches” on a road trip can understand this). In essence, Pavlov proved that some things that had been thought of as involuntary reflexes in people could actually be created or destroyed by the appropriate training.

What is interesting is that language is one of those things that can train a person. (If you doubt this, consider what happens when you hear your mother call you by your entire name.) And there is a group of scientists trying to describe the verbs in speech so that they can do a better job of training computers; they do it by getting citizen scientists like you to play games with words. If that sounds like fun, then head over to VerbCorner and give it a go!

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