What Is The Difference Between Unconditioned And Conditioned Responses?

Unconditioned responses are automatic and innate behaviors, whereas conditioned responses are learned behaviors acquired through association.

What Is The Difference Between Unconditioned And Conditioned Responses?

The process of learning any behavior in humans, animals, or automatons is governed by the way our brains function. It is a complex process where we learn and adapt our behavior according to the environmental cue. The learned behavior could either be applicable to survival or allow us to have a better quality of life. Psychologists have categorized the behavior into two types - the unconditioned response and the conditioned response. These two behavioral responses differ in several ways, including the way they occur, their relationship with environmental stimuli, and the time frame in which they manifest themselves. In this paper, we will explore the difference between unconditioned and conditioned responses in detail.

Unconditioned Response:

An unconditioned response (UR) is an automatic and predictable response to a specific stimulus. In other words, a UR is a behavior that an organism exhibits naturally in response to a specific environmental stimuli, without requiring prior experience or training. This type of response tends to be biologically based, and is not something that is learned. Examples of unconditioned responses include breathing, sweating, blinking, flinching, and other reflexive responses.

UR is primarily an instinctual behavior that is hard-wired into the nervous system. This means that whether it is a human or any other organism, the response is consistent and predictable. The body automatically responds to certain stimuli, and it can not be controlled voluntarily. The UR usually occurs without warning, and its purpose is to help organisms stay alive and avoid danger.

For instance, a mosquito bite can result in itching, which is the unconditioned response. You do not have to train your body to itch in response to a mosquito bite; the reaction is automatic.

Conditioned Response:

In contrast, a conditioned response (CR) is a learned response that is acquired over time. A CR is a behavior that an organism exhibits in response to a specific stimulus, but this response is not natural or automatic. Instead, it must be learned through association or conditioning. The animal or person learns that a particular stimulus co-occurs with a particular event.

For instance, if a dog is trained to salivate every time it hears a bell ring, then salivating at the sound of a bell is an example of a conditioned response. The dog has learned to associate the bell with food and knows that the sound of the bell signals mealtime.

The CR usually arises from repeated pairing of the neutral stimulus with an unconditioned stimulus (US), which is a stimulus that naturally elicits an unconditioned response (UR). After repeated pairing of the neutral stimulus with the US, the neutral stimulus becomes conditioned or associated with the US. Now, the previously neutral stimulus elicits the same response as the US. The new response is a conditioned response (CR).

For instance, if you have a habit of drinking coffee in the morning, every time you hear the sound of a coffee grinder or smell the aroma of coffee, you might immediately start feeling alert, even if you haven't had a sip of it yet. This reaction would be an example of a conditioned response.

Difference between Unconditioned and Conditioned Responses:

The main difference between these responses is that an unconditioned response is an automatic and predictable behavior that occurs naturally in response to a specific stimulus. On the other hand, a conditioned response occurs when an organism learns to associate a particular stimulus with a particular response.

Here are a few more differences between the two types of responses.

1. Nature:

Unconditioned responses are evolutionary and are mediated by the nervous system. They occur naturally in response to specific stimuli without any prior experience or training. In contrast, a conditioned response is learned through training or conditioning.

2. Response Time:

Unconditioned responses are more rapid, as they occur as soon as the stimulus is presented. On the other hand, conditioned responses take time to develop as they are not automatic, and require training to develop.

3. Voluntary Vs. Involuntary:

Unconditioned responses are involuntary and automatic, meaning they cannot be controlled voluntarily. In contrast, conditioned responses may be voluntary or involuntary depending on the type of behavior and the context in which it occurs. Some conditioning effects are moderated, and individuals may choose not to respond to certain stimuli.

4. Relationship between the Stimulus and Response:

Another difference between the two responses is the relationship between the stimulus and response. In unconditioned responses, the stimulus-response relationship is innate, and they have natural connections in the body. In conditioned responses, the stimulus-response relationship is learned through association.


Unconditioned responses and conditioned responses are two different types of behaviors. URs occur naturally, and they are involuntary, whereas CRs are learned through association and are voluntary or involuntary. Both types of responses play a significant role in shaping an individual's behavior, but they are different from each other in many ways. Understanding the difference between them is essential for psychologists, researchers, and educators as it can help them develop strategies to modify behavior or manage any mental health disorders.