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Classical conditioning courtesy of Charlie Brown and Lucy

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Many cartoonists are excellent observers of the human condition. One of the best is Charles Schulz of Peanuts fame. With 50 years of comic strips, that’s 17,897 individual strips—drawn by him and him alone—Schulz’s characters can be a rich source of psychology examples.

In this strip that ran most recently on May 5, 2019, Schulz gifts us with a beautiful example of classical conditioning. Students don’t need to be familiar with the characters to see the classical conditioning. If they are familiar with Charlie Brown and Lucy and the relationship these characters have with each other, they’ll better appreciate the humor.

The characters are playing baseball. From the outfield, Lucy yells, “Hey, manager!” Charlie Brown, standing on the pitcher’s mound, looks at us with a queasy expression. He explains that hearing her say “Hey, manager!” is enough to give him a stomachache because every time she yells that, she follows it up with a stupid/dumb/sarcastic remark. In this particular case, she surprises him (and long-time Peanuts readers) by saying something else. In the last panel, though, Lucy reveals that she knows exactly what’s going on.

I ask my students these questions about the strip:

  1. In this example, identify the unconditioned stimulus, unconditioned response, conditioned stimulus, and conditioned response. 
  2. Use this example to explain generalization and discrimination.
  3. What would need to happen in order to bring about extinction? What would spontaneous recovery look like?

While I do this as part of a larger homework assignment, it also works as an in-class discussion topic or as a lecture example.

Through this example, I have learned that many of my students are not familiar with the Peanuts comic strip. I know who is and who is not familiar based on what they call Charlie Brown. Students who know it call him Charlie Brown. Students who don’t know it simply call him Charlie—which is jarring to my 52-year-old, US-born ears.

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About the Author
Sue Frantz has taught psychology in community colleges since 1992, and has been at Highline College in the Seattle area since 2001. She has served on several APA boards and committees, and was proud to serve the members of the Society for the Teaching of Psychology as their 2018 president. In 2013, she was the inaugural recipient of the APA award for Excellence in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning at a Two-Year College or Campus. She received in 2016 the highest award for the teaching of psychology--the Charles L. Brewer Distinguished Teaching of Psychology Award . She presents nationally and internationally on the topics of educational technology and the pedagogy of psychology. She is co-author with Doug Bernstein and Steve Chew of Teaching Psychology: A Step-by-Step Guide, 3rd ed.