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Behavioral Conditioning

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Just think of it like... behavioral Easter eggs.

Behavioral Conditioning is when a character is trained over time, either knowingly or unknowingly, to do one or more of the following:

  • react reflexively to a previously neutral stimulus
  • react positively to a previously negative stimulus, or the reverse
  • respond to a cue automatically, regardless of circumstance
  • perform an action in response to a seemingly unrelated cue
  • suppress a previously ingrained behavior

At its most mundane, "behavioral conditioning" is just a fancy way to say "habit." If you eat lunch at the same time every day, you will start to feel hungry around that time; if you normally wear glasses, you'll go to push them up your nose even when you're not wearing them; etc. In such cases, you're the one conditioning yourself.

Behavioral conditioning is also commonly used by parents and teachers to mold children into functioning members of society: kids get put on time-out when they misbehave, get given shiny stickers when they do their chores, and are prompted at appropriate intervals until "please" and "thank you" become instinctive. And, of course, we use it to train our pets.

But behavioral conditioning can be so, so much more than that. Represented in the popular consciousness by Dr. Ivan Pavlov and his bell-loving dogs, the behavioral approach to psychology produced a mountain of clinical research on the many strange quirks of the brain that govern learned behavior.

Behaviorists divide conditioning into two main categories:

  • Classical Conditioning, also known as Pavlovian conditioning, is when a subject comes to so strongly associate a neutral stimulus (say, a bell ringing) with a potent stimulus (say, the presence of food) that they begin to react to the neutral stimulus as though it were the potent stimulus (say, by salivating at the ring of a bell.) No attempt is made to alter or suppress the behavior itself, only to shift what can trigger it. Despite this narrow definition, people will commonly refer to any kind of learned response as "Pavlovian."

    • Aversion Therapy is a technique developed based on the principles of classical conditioning that involves exposing someone to a specific stimulus while simultaneously subjecting them to some form of discomfort (as opposed to punishing them after the fact for performing a behavior.) If the exposure to the stimulus is involuntary and inescapable because the subject has been strapped to a chair with their eyes forced open, that's The Ludovico Technique. Another form of this is the Radish Cure, where a person is given too much of some thing that they want to make them not want it anymore.

  • Operant Conditioning, by contrast, involves the use of a complex suite of positive and negative punishments and reinforcements in order to strengthen, weaken, or re-shape a particular behavior. note 

Intentionally using the principles of behavioral conditioning on an unsuspecting victim is one of the Dirty Social Tricks sometimes employed by people with a solid grasp of Social Engineering.

When Played for Laughs, the joke will either rely on conditioning a character to do something inherently ridiculous, conditioning a character to do something hilariously out of character, or mocking how easy it was to condition a character to do something, anything, without their realizing it.

When Played for Horror, the horror comes from the trauma of the initial conditioning — usually some combination of Cold-Blooded Torture and Brainwashing — compounded by the resulting inability to trust your own mind. The brainwashed character may go about their life as normal, only to spring into action at the sound of a specific Trigger Phrase.

When Played for Drama, the conditioning is usually an inadvertent result of patterns established in long-term situations or relationships. The character's conditioned response brings up questions or memories about days gone by, and it's the reference to happier times or the hint of a Dark and Troubled Past that elicits an emotional response from the audience. For example, a character might break down crying at the scent of the perfume worn by The Lost Lenore, or visibly brace for a punch when raised voices remind them of their Abusive Parents. Or perhaps the drama will come when the brainwashed Manchurian Agent has his programming broken by The Power of Love. Goes with Conditioned to Be Weak, where a powerful character is only docile and submissive because they are conditioned to follow orders and/or fear their leader.

A Bavarian Fire Drill is possible because people are usually conditioned to listen when someone official demands something, so when someone who looks official demands something, they may follow without question.

Not to be confused with physical conditioning. For that, see Training from Hell.


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    Fan Fiction 
  • Forge in My Copy always had a fear of public speaking and used sex both before and after to calm himself down. This eventually caused him (and later his Opposite-Sex Clone) to develop a fetish for being embarrassed due to associating it with sex.
  • Maria Campbell of the Astral Clocktower:
    • Katarina Claes gets hungry when she sees Maria Campbell, as she associates her with sweets.
    • The Student Council associates the sound of knocking on wood with more paperwork, something Maria instilled and later exploits.
    • Maria use sweets as a reward-based system to get Katarina to act slightly more appropriately, such as how to interact with commoners. She also uses it as an incentive to keep her in the Student Council Room; after all, everyone on the Council apart from Maria and Sirius always follows Katarina around, so having Katarina in the room is the only way to get them to do their paperwork.
    • When Katarina is finally learning about proper dining etiquette, Maria takes a different approach to the sweets-reward system. Instead of Katarina, it is her tutor Shana, a young child, that will be affected; for every behavior that Katarina gets wrong, Shana will receive one less bonus dessert after dinner, which she also shares with the rest of the children. Being the Friend to All Children that she is, Katarina immediately resolves to take her etiquette lessons more seriously.
  • In My Master Ed, one of the first things Edward does after buying Hohenheim is bait him into an argument as a means to start getting him out of the mentality of a slave he’d been raised with. As time goes on, Hohenheim gets better at not blindly obeying everything he's told, culminating in him refusing to leave Edward alone when he's distraught. Hohenheim also doesn't like human contact, associating it with beatings.
  • In the Miraculous Ladybug fic Paw-lov's Theory, Ladybug tries to condition Chat Noir out of his puns... by kissing him because she thinks her kisses are terrible enough to silence him. As Tikki and Alya directly point out, and as Chat privately notes when she admits to why she's kissing him so often, Marinette very much misunderstands how classical conditional works, in part because kissing is not a punishment but a reward, while the puns are the neutral stimulus. By the time she realizes her mistake, she's already firmly trained herself to kiss him on command and struggles not to do so.
  • In Pokemon: Shadow of Time, Clemont decides to try and 'subject' Bonnie to this by attaching Goomy to a harness on her back, Goomy hitting Bonnie with a Dragonbreath every time she tries to 'propose' to another girl on Clemont's behalf until she learns to stop, which he calls 'the Pavolian Goominator'.
  • In This Bites!, Perona does this to get the animals of Strong World to obey her with her powers. Specifically, she uses Negative Hollows to take away their joy when they misbehave and Positive Hollows to take away their sadness when they listen to her.

    Film — Animated 
  • How to Train Your Dragon (2010): The Vikings are conditioned to look around in a panic whenever "Night Fury!" is called out, even at the end when all the dragons are peaceful, albeit it now means to get out of the way of the overly-affectionate dragon.
  • In Pound Puppies and the Legend of Big Paw, Reflex is conditioned to hug everyone and and tell them "I love you" whenever he hears a bell ring. This ends up serving as a Chekhov's Gun when saying "I love you" to someone is revealed to be the way to undo the effects of McNasty's Mean Machine, with Cooler, after freeing him from the mind control, having him use this to save the rest of their brainwashed dog pals.

    Film — Live-Action 
  • Manchurian Agent Jason Bourne from The Bourne Identity suffers from this, retaining much of his secret agent training despite not being consciously aware of it. Lampshaded when he wonders to his associate why he memorized the license plates of the cars in a parking lot, and why he analyzed the combat capacity of diner patrons.
  • In the Stephen King movie Cat's Eye, there's a sequence involving doing a Pavlovian experiment involving a cat and an electrified floor. But instead of a bell being the trigger song, it's a 60s soft rock number.
  • Hook: Captain Hook has defeated the monster crocodile prior to the events of the film, but he still has a strong averse reaction to clocks because of the distinctive ticking noise that always emanated from the clock in the crocodile's stomach. It's later revealed his reaction is actually due to his fear of growing old and dying.
  • In Latter Days, a young Mormon is subjected to an ice bath as part of undergoing now-discredited "conversion therapy" for his homosexuality.
  • Mon oncle d'Amérique: Pretty much the whole message of the movie, which presents three fictional characters as illustrations of Real Life scientist Henri Laborit's theories of how the unconscious brain and learned responses to stimuli condition us to make what we incorrectly believe are conscious choices.
  • Perfect Assassins: Psycho Psychologist Dr. Samuel Greely uses operant conditioning to create assassins who kill without hesitation, first others and then themselves upon completing their missions.

  • Jules Verne's Phineas Fogg from Around the World in Eighty Days is so punctilious that the waitstaff at Fogg's social club prepare his table and set out his lunch before Fogg even walks in the door, certain that he will arrive at the exact minute. Many Londoners remark, "You can set your pocketwatch by Phineas Fogg."
  • Brave New World conditions its citizens from childhood to be content with their respective class factions.
    • Through judicious teaching of Marxism, meritocracy, and their various alternatives, the children in each group are conditioned to be happy that they aren't in any of the other groups.
    • Punishment early in life conditions children to reflexively respond negatively towards certain triggers going into adulthood. For example, a group of Deltas is given electric shocks to make them afraid of books and nature so that they'll "choose" to work rather than use their free time.
    • Words like 'mother' elicit such a negative reaction from the characters that it's clear they were conditioned to respond negatively to other triggers as well.
  • The protagonist of A Clockwork Orange and the film of the same name is a fan of "ultraviolence", the act of engaging in gratuitous and extreme acts of sexual and physical violence for fun. When he is caught and sent to prison, he voluntarily undergoes The Ludovico Technique as a method of securing his early release. The Technique involves forcing him to watch videos of violence while being injected with drugs that induce nausea. As a result, the thought of violence makes him sick to his stomach. The story explores the moral ramifications of this kind of conditioning, even when accepted voluntarily.
  • Dune is sprinkled with examples across its factions:
    • Suk school conditioning that produces doctors incapable of doing harm.
    • In the novel Dune Messiah, the ghola Hayt (a clone of Duncan Idaho) is conditioned by his Tleilaxu creators so he can be controlled by the Tleilaxu dwarf Bijaz.
  • In Peter Pan the crocodile that ate Hook's hand has also swallowed a ticking clock, leading everyone in Neverland to associate ticking with the presence of the crocodile. Peter uses this to his advantage by faking a ticking noise in order to spook Hook. And when the clock runs down...
  • Prudence Penderhaus: Cassius's parents used this to prevent him from trying to escape life as a Madman in the Attic. They kept his dead brother's body in the Creepy Basement where they locked Cassius as a punishment and regularly covered it with roses so Cassius would associate the flower with death and darkness, then filled the sitting room with rose-covered knickknacks so Cassius wouldn't want to walk through it. It works until Cassius starts climbing out the window.
  • The Wheel of Time:
    • The Seanchan use Slave Collars to condition female magic-users into practically mindless slaves by meting out pain and pleasure through the collars' leashes. Disturbingly, the series treats this process as irresistible, such that anyone captured long enough will become conditioned, no matter how strong-willed or intelligent—with the exception of one minor character.
    • When Perrin is suffering unwilling seduction attempts from Berelain, he notices that she keeps laying a gentle hand on him, and realizes what she's doing when he considers training a colt: you get it used to being touched so that it doesn't shy away. Then you put on the blanket and get it used to that. Then the saddle. Then the bridle. Then you get on. After he realizes this is going on, Perrin resorts to shouting at her whenever she comes into view, which causes more problems.
    • When Mat, with some of his troops, is escorting Elayne (slightly against her will), he notices early on that she's making a point of finding opportunities to either verbally anticipate orders he was about to give to his people or ask them to do things they were about to do without any orders, and then smiling and thanking them. It's obvious to him this is to get them used to taking orders from her, but it isn't really something he can tell her to stop doing without seeming petty. (From Elyane's perspective annoying Mat is just a bonus; she'd be doing this as a matter of course.)
  • In Dolphin Island, researchers implant electrodes in Snowy the orca's brain that cause pain when she rushes at dolphins and Electric Instant Gratification when she doesn't. Once they've conditioned her to be unable to attack dolphins, they release her into the ocean. The conditioning works so well that months later, when Snowy's mate tries to eat a dolphin, she headbutts him until he swims away.

    Live-Action TV 
  • In The Big Bang Theory, Sheldon gives Penny a chocolate every time she does something he asks her to and every time she does something he considers well-mannered. It doesn't take long before her personality has changed almost completely and she's performing the actions without encouragement.
    Leonard:'re using chocolates as positive reinforcement for what you consider correct behavior.
    Sheldon: Very good. Chocolate?
    Leonard: No, I don't want any chocolate! Sheldon, you can't train my girlfriend like a lab rat.
    • Sheldon is on the receiving end when Amy tries to seduce him by creating an association between her and his favorite childhood memories. She serves him his favorite food, spaghetti with cut-up hot dogs and Strawberry Quik, and puts the theme from Super Mario Bros. in the background.
  • Community: In "Documentary Filming: Redux", Britta and Troy become averse to hugging each other after a twelve-hour-long shooting of one scene for a Greendale Community College ad because they now associate hugging each other with the Dean screaming at them.
  • How I Met Your Mother:
  • In the Mystery Science Theater 3000 episode featuring Teenagers from Outer Space, Joel puts Crow and Tom through shock therapy to stop them from saying "It's The NBC Mystery Movie" whenever a flashlight shows up after the bots ran it into the ground during City Limits.
  • The Office (US): One of Jim's pranks on Dwight involves offering him an altoid mint every time Jim reboots his computer for several weeks, until finally Dwight hears the reboot noise and puts out his hand for an altoid before Jim can offer one. Jim acts like he has no idea what Dwight is doing.
    Dwight: My mouth tastes so bad all of a sudden...
  • The Prisoner (1967): In the episode "The Schizoid Man", the Village personnel use aversion therapy involving electric shocks to change Number 6's handedness and mental conditioning to change his food and tobacco product preferences, then wipe his memory. After he realizes what has occurred, Number 6 uses an electrical shock to reverse the effect and return himself to normal.
  • One skit on Saturday Night Live involved a talk show about dogs, hosted and run by intelligent dogs. The guest on the show was a dog who'd been living for years among humans, enduring bizarre abuse. When the host commanded the techs to "roll" a film clip, the guest dog rolled on the floor, to the astonishment of the host.
  • Mike from The Red Green Show becomes a spelling prodigy whenever he hears the sound of a chainsaw running, apparently because his old cellmate "Chainsaw" would punch him whenever he misspelled his graffiti.

    Tabletop RPG 
  • Paranoia supplement Acute Paranoia, section "Sanity Tests": Mind Rehabilitation involves electroshock therapy, massive drug injections, and bombardment by subsonic "Love the Computer" messages. After undergoing it, a clone will snap to attention when anyone says the word "computer."

    Urban Legends 
  • The students in a college class conspire together to alter the behavior of their professor without his knowledge by using operant conditioning. They set a series of small progressive behavioral goals, and whenever the professor does a desired behavior, they reward him by looking as if they are paying rapt attention to him, while when he is not doing the desired behavior, they act bored and like they are not paying attention. Over the course of several weeks, they manage to condition the professor to give his lectures while standing on top of the overturned trashcan.

    Video Games 
  • In The Witcher saga, Ciri is conditioned by the Witchers to fight reflexively, meaning that she will try to kill anyone who attacks her even if she doesn't want to fight.

  • Girl Genius: A Running Gag involves the protagonists unthinkingly completing the grandiose self-introduction routine of Othar Tryggvassen, Gentleman Adventurer on his behalf. Happens here in the "Revenge of the Weasel Queen" story.
    Villager: You know we sent for the great Othar Tryggvassen?
    Krosp: ...gentleman adven—(horrified) WHAT AM I DOING?!
  • Mac Hall: In "DDR", Matt's boss's intermittent reinforcement leaves Matt somewhat crazed. This Shout-Out to Star Trek: The Next Generation suggests that he's broken under torture:
    Matt: There are five lights!
  • xkcd:
    • Strip 242, "The Difference," suggests that positive punishment doesn't always work very quickly on curious minds.
    • While parents using conditioning techniques on their children is considered standard practice, the parent in strip 573, "Parental Trolling," did some decidedly non-standard conditioning.
  • After going through the Insanity workout program, Maliki and Becky cannot hear the word "SQUAT!" without instantly crouching. and they use it to play pranks on each other.
  • This tropes is why the Adventurer grew up to be an Agent Scully - he literally had the belief in magic beaten out of him by an abusive guardian. Magic, coincidentally, in this world is real, just very rare. And he has a serious talent...

    Web Video 
  • Dragon Ball Z Abridged: Whereas in the original Dragon Ball Z series Gohan simply panicked when expected to attack Nappa, in the Abridged version he runs away because Piccolo inadvertently conditioned him to duck and run every time Piccolo yelled "dodge."
    Piccolo: "Gohan! Hurry up and blast him with all your strength, before he has time to DODGE!"
    (Gohan has unpleasant flashbacks of being hit every time Piccolo yells "DODGE!", and cowers instead of attacking Nappa)
    Piccolo: "DAMN YOU, PAVLOV!"
  • Incognito Cinema Warriors XP: Rick, Topsy and Johnny were once trapped in a theater surrounded by zombies and were forced into Theater 6 by Mr. Kincaid, who told them they had to continually watch bad movies lest the zombies broke into the theater and consumed them. After Rick returns from a five-year disappearance and learns that Kincaid is dead, and moreover that the presence of zombies after five years is highly unlikely, he still heads straight for the theater upon hearing the Zombie Signal. Topsy and Johnny call his behavior "Pavlonian."

    Western Animation 
  • Chip 'n Dale: Rescue Rangers: Exploited by the villain Professor Nimnul in the episode "Does Pavlov Ring A Bell." Nimnul has conditioned a lab rat, Sparky, to pull wires at the sound of a ringing telephone. When Sparky does this inside a bank, it trips an alarm, which triggers a guinea pig, Buzz, into guiding a Giant Mecha through the sewer system into the bank vault. Neither Sparky nor Buzz are aware that they're accessories to robbery; according to Sparky, it's "action without thinking."
  • Garfield and Friends: The U.S. Acres short "Dr. Jekyll And Mr. Wade" had Wade turn into a monster whenever he heard a bell after Booker, during a discussion of Pavlov's experiments, suggests that very thing to Orson while Wade is asleep.
  • The Garfield Show: In "Jon's Night Out", Jon has insomnia, so he, Garfield, and Odie go to an anesthesiologist for a way to help Jon fall asleep. The doctor gives a special remote to Jon, telling him that if he presses the button, he will fall asleep. However, Odie barks right when doctor pushes the button, making Odie's bark into a trigger that can send Jon to sleep and wake him up again. Hilarity Ensues.
  • Gravity Falls: In "Northwest Mansion Mystery", it turns out that Pacifica Northwest's parents have conditioned her by ringing a bell when she steps out of line with their expectations. In the climax, she manages to ignore the bell in order to save the day.
  • In a Kaeloo episode where Stumpy and Quack Quack get addicted to carrots which have the same effect as tobacco, Mr. Cat tries doing this to them by whacking them on the heads with a frying pan each time they took one bite out of a carrot so their brains' pain centers will be activated. It fails since they're so addicted, they continue to eat the carrots anyway.
  • In Mike Tyson Mysteries, Mike, being a former boxer, associates the sound of any bell with the bell that signals the start of a match. When Yung Hee presses a reception bell, he instinctively punches Marquess to the ground.
  • In an episode of Rugrats Angelica is in bed and (ab)uses a bell to demand assistance from Tommy's parents, exasperating them. At one point, Tommy's father has a breakdown upon hearing the door's bell.
  • Pinky and the Brain: The short "Pavlov's Mice" has the mice being conditioned by Pavlov himself to dance to the sounds of a bell and gong respectively. In the end, their plan to Take Over the World is foiled when a clock tower goes off with the sounds of bells and gongs.


Video Example(s):


Godfrey immunizes himself

"Salvadori". Alvin Godfrey is determined to become a friend to Ophelia Salvadori, socially isolated by the Perfume she can't help but produce due her succubus ancestry which inevitably arouse any male in proximity (her only friend to date, Carlos Whitrow, is a non-binary "Castrato" who is magically incapable of being sexually aroused by anything at all). When affected by said Perfume, Godfrey resorts to casting a pain curse on his own family jewels. Repeatedly, every time he meets her. Until finally, two months after they first met, he's finally able to approach Ophelia without being affected, and has won her over with his sheer persistence.

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