Press "Enter" to skip to content

Pavlov meant conditional, not conditoned

In the Society for the Teaching of Psychology (STP) Facebook group, Bridgette Martin Hard wondered why conditioning (as in classical and operant conditioning) is called conditioning (members of the STP Facebook group can read the discussion). While I had heard that this was due to a mistranslation of Pavlov’s work, it was Olga Lazareva who provided the details.

Lazareva explains that Pavlov wrote условный in his papers. When you pop that into your favorite Russian translation website, you’ll see that the most common English translations are “conditional” and “contingent.” Lazareva goes on to say, “Pavlov called the whole thing условный рефлекс, or conditional reflex, to be distinguished from безусловный рефлекс, or unconditional reflex, because he viewed CR as automatic as UR, once acquisition was completed. We now know that’s not entirely correct, and the word ‘reflex’ never stuck in English, but is still used in Russian literature instead of ‘conditioning’.”

Conditional, frankly, does make a whole lot more sense than conditioned. As Ruth Frickle noted in that same Facebook thread, “Now I can stop being vaguely annoyed when my students say conditional.” Instead, we can say, “You know, you’re closer to being right than you know.”

In a 2012 Scientific American article, science journalist Jason G. Goldman took a crack at reversing 100 years of bad translation usage and explained classical conditioning using the terms conditional and unconditional. He footnoted why he used conditional and not conditioned.

Note that most English-language textbooks use the terms “unconditioned stimulus,” “unconditioned response,” and so on. This is due to a translation error from Pavlov’s Russian to English. The better translation would be “conditional.”

You go, Jason!

In all seriousness, Jason is onto something. We can all decide—right here, right now—to dump our use of conditioned and use conditional instead. Let’s talk about the unconditional stimulus, the unconditional response, the conditional stimulus, and the conditional response. We can footnote just as well as Jason can. We don’t need to continue to perpetuate a bad translation. Let’s honor Pavlov’s legacy by using his (properly translated) terminology.

Who’s in?

Source: macmillan psych community