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what is neutral stimulus in psychology

What is a Neutral Stimulus in Psychology?

what is neutral stimulus in psychology? A cartoon sad man's face

A neutral stimulus is a kind of stimulus that elicits no response except one that is noticed. It’s essentially a stimulus without positive or negative feedback from those that witness it.

Imagine every time you take your child to McDonald’s, Ronald McDonald waves hello. A few minutes later, your child eats a disgusting approximation of what they call a hamburger. At first, every time your child sees Ronald, he doesn’t think much of this adult dressed in strange make-up. This is a neutral stimulus. But after repeated visits, the child starts realizing every time he sees the red-haired adult in drag, he has to eat a disgusting hamburger. The neutral stimulus of Ronald is now a conditioned stimulus, which triggers a conditioned response of your child crying and possibly puking at the thought of eating the so-called hamburger.

What Makes a Stimulus Neutral?

A neutral stimulus is like a wallflower at a party, just hanging out in the corner, not really causing any commotion. It’s there, people notice it, but nobody has any strong feelings about it. It’s like the color beige or elevator music – it exists, but it doesn’t really evoke strong emotions or reactions. In psychology terms, a neutral stimulus is just minding its own business without making any waves.

The Transition from Neutral Stimulus to Conditioned Stimulus

The journey of a neutral stimulus is similar to a character in a comic book discovering their superpowers. At first, they’re just an ordinary person, but after a life-changing event, they transform into something more. For a neutral stimulus, this transformation happens when it becomes associated with another stimulus that causes a reaction. This is called classical conditioning, and it was first described by a Russian scientist named Ivan Pavlov in the late 1800s.

Pavlov’s famous experiment involved dogs, a bell, and some tasty treats. At first, the dogs had no reaction to the sound of the bell – it was a neutral stimulus. But then Pavlov started ringing the bell right before giving the dogs food. After several repetitions, the dogs started salivating just by hearing the bell, even if there was no food in sight. The once neutral stimulus (the bell) had now become a conditioned stimulus, provoking a conditioned response (salivating).

When the Limelight Fades: Extinction of Conditioned Stimulus

Sometimes, a conditioned stimulus can lose its newfound powers and return to being a neutral stimulus. This process is called extinction. Imagine the same Ronald McDonald example, but this time, the burgers start to taste better. Eventually, the child might stop associating Ronald with the yucky food and start thinking of him as just a regular clown again. Extinction happens when the conditioned stimulus is no longer paired with the unconditioned stimulus, weakening the connection between the two.

Neutral Stimulus Examples in Everyday Life

There are countless neutral stimuli in our daily lives that can potentially become conditioned stimuli. Here are some fun examples to help paint a clearer picture:

  1. A New Ringtone: When you first hear a brand-new ringtone on your phone, it’s a neutral stimulus. But after using it for a while, it becomes a conditioned stimulus that makes you reach for your phone every time you hear it, even if it’s someone else’s phone ringing.
  2. The Smell of a New Car: At first, the smell of a new car might not evoke any specific emotions or reactions. But after experiencing the thrill of driving a new vehicle, you might start associating that smell with excitement and happiness.
  3. A Boring Billboard: A billboard on your daily commute might not grab your attention, but if you see it every day and it starts advertising your favorite restaurant or an upcoming concert, it could become a conditioned stimulus that makes you think about those events.

In Conclusion: The Adventure of a Neutral Stimulus

A neutral stimulus is like an undercover superhero, just waiting for the right moment to reveal its true identity. When it becomes associated with another stimulus that provokes a reaction, it transforms into a conditioned stimulus, wielding the power to evoke emotions or reactions. However, if the connection between the two stimuli weakens, the conditioned stimulus can return to its neutral state, blending back into the background of everyday life.

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