Saturday, 15 September 2018

The One Thing You Know About Pavlov and His Dogs Is Wrong

If anything rings a bell about the name Ivan Pavlov, it's got to be drooling dogs and bells. Well, we hate to break it to you, but the single fact you've retained from Psychology 101 about the iconic scientist isn't even accurate. Oh, and putting a lesson about Pavlov's dogs in a psychology class? That's not entirely right either.

Ding Ding Ding!
In case you missed it in school, Ivan Pavlov was a Russian physiologist best known for his work with the conditioned reflex — specifically, one particular experiment he conducted to study it. The experiment is so well known that it's become a common metaphor: Pavlov's dogs were trained to salivate at the sound of a bell because they knew that meant food was coming. Or were they?
According to "Ivan Pavlov: A Russian Life in Science," a biography by Daniel P. Todes, a professor of the history of medicine at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, Pavlov never used a bell with his dogs. It would've been a bad experimental practice to do that. The scientist never actually "trained a dog to salivate to the sound of a bell," writes Todes. "Indeed, the iconic bell would have proven totally useless to his real goal, which required precise control over the quality and duration of stimuli (he most frequently employed a metronomea harmonium, a buzzer, and electric shock)." It's likely English speakers associate Pavlov's experiments with a bell due to a mistranslation of the Russian word for "buzzer." Add to that the fact that the West was more familiar with the image of behaviorists toting bells (like JB Watson, for example).

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