Pavlov meant conditional, not conditoned

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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?

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About the Author
Sue Frantz has taught psychology since 1992. 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. and is co-author with Charles Stangor on Introduction to Psychology, 4.0.