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Psychophysics: Conditioning and Attentional Process Essay

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Updated: May 12th, 2022

Psychophysics and the contribution of Fechner and Zimbardo

Psychophysics involves the examination of relations between observed responses and stimuli and the probable reasons for these relations. The assumption behind these is that human experiences, judgments as well as responses can be analyzed systematically. Problems in memory, attitude measurement, social psychology, and learning can therefore be addressed by techniques developed in psychophysics. Psychophysics is therefore concerned with describing the processes of the sensory system (Gescheider 69).

Gustav Theodor Fechner is a pioneer in experimental psychology also the founder of psychophysics. Being the founder of psychophysics, he inspired philosophers and scientists in the 20th century Fechner also proved the existence of a scientific connection between the mind and the body. He had a large influence on psychophysics and this contribution was that psychology had the potential to become a qualified science since he demonstrated clearly that the mind was susceptible to mathematical treatment and measurement. The fact that psychology could become a qualified science paved the way for more discoveries because the science of psychology was impossible according to Immanuel Kant Fechner therefore successfully introduced quantitative methods in psychology.

Philip G. Zimbardo is an American psychologist and he is globally recognized for his Stanford prison experiment and also the author of psychology textbooks. Zimbardo studied the psychology of imprisonment. He discovered that individual behavior is mainly controlled by the fact that ordinary college students behaved indifferently while in prison. This means that, given proper environmental circumstances, individuals can develop social forces that come to shape their behavior.

Psychophysics, therefore, involves data processing. In this sense data processing is a process by which stimuli from the environment are absorbed, interpreted, categorized, stored, or encoded, and reconstructed in memory. Memory is merely a reconstruction of attitude and changes according to circumstances and is influenced by the environment. This implies that in the analysis of the reasons behind the relations between stimuli and response, the focus is on the events displayed in the environment.

Attentional Processes

Stimulus in the environment may differ in terms of color, shape, size, and spatial position. However, only one or two properties may apply to the problem to be solved by an organism. The organism’s ability to respond to the required property is the product of attention. When the animal isolates the relevant property and responds to it adequately, then the attention dimension is said to have been attended to by the animal or organism (Greene 75).

The attentional process involves discrimination learning. This means when an organism is presented with two or more stimuli, it should be able to respond in different ways to the different stimuli. The fundamental aspects of attention are the selection of task–relevant information. Studies have pointed out that people specify task-relevant information by examining their ability to switch between a set of tasks involving responses and visual dimensions. There are two components of attention; decision making and maintaining attention over a given period.

When one concentrates on one aspect of the environment and ignores the other things attentional process takes place. Stimuli discrimination is therefore a basis for attentional processes. Attentional processes may also be displayed when a person responds discretely to specific visual or auditory stimuli.

Classical Conditioning

Ivan Pavlov first demonstrated classical conditioning which is a form of associative learning. Classical conditioning is a stimulus- Response conditioning. A stimulus must exist that will automatically cause a specific response to having classical conditioning. This stimulus is therefore referred to as unconditioned stimulus since no learning is involved in connecting the stimulus and response. A neutral stimulus is a stimulus that causes an orienting response. The neutral stimulus first presented followed by the unconditioned stimulus during conditioning. After several trials, the learner will learn to make a connection between the two stimuli. This is referred to as the development of an association between the two stimuli (Kimble 45).

The initially neutral stimulus will cause the response previously only elicited by the unconditioned stimulus after conditioning. This is now a conditioned stimulus because it will now cause a different response as a result of learning. Consequently, the response is now referred to as a conditioned response since it is elicited by a stimulus as a result of conditioning. It is important to note that although the two responses, unconditioned and conditioned appear similar; they are elicited by different stimuli thus given different labels.

Classical conditioning is illustrated by the observation that children do not cry when they see a doctor with a needle when they visit the hospital for the first time. However, they will immediately cry in the future when they see either a doctor or a needle. Classical conditioning may be used by trainers or instructors for conditioning for autonomic responses without using the stimuli that would naturally create such a response and to create a link between a stimulus that would involuntarily not have any effect on the animal and a stimulus that would have.

Operant Conditioning

Operant conditioning deals with the modification of any form of behavior through the use of consequences. The main tools of operant conditioning are punishment and reinforcement. Reinforcement and punishment are either delivered following a response or withdrawn following a response. It is important to note that it is the response that is punished, reinforced, or extinguished and not the animal (Cartwright 58).

There are four types of Operant conditioning: Positive Reinforcement, Negative reinforcement, Punishment, and Extinction. Extinction and punishment weaken the behavior while positive and negative reinforcement strengthens the behavior. The four contexts of Operant conditioning are:

  1. Positive reinforcement.
  2. Negative reinforcement.
  3. Punishment.
  4. Extinction.

Experimental analysis of operant behavior has led to technology often referred to as behavior modification. However, people have been controlled through negative reinforcement that is, punished. For instance, students who are punished when they do not study may stay away from school, may study, attack teachers, or stubbornly do nothing. In operant conditioning, therefore, the basic understanding is that behavior is affected by its consequences.


Cartwright, Jo-Anne. Determinants of Animal behavior. London: Routledge, 2002.

Gescheider, George A. Psychophysics: The Fundamentals. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1997.

Greene, John O, and Burleson, Brant R. (eds). Handbook of communication and social interaction skills. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2003.

Kimble, George A, (ed). Foundations of Conditioning and learning. New York: Appleton Century Crafts, 1967.

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