The One Thing You Know About Pavlov and His Dogs is Wrong

If anything rings a bell about the name Ivan Pavlov, it's got to be drooling dogs and bells. Well, we hate to break it to you, but the single fact you've retained from Psychology 101 about the iconic scientist isn't even accurate. Oh, and putting a lesson about Pavlov's dogs in a psychology class? That's not entirely right either.

Ding Ding Ding!

In case you missed it in school, Ivan Pavlov was a Russian physiologist best known for his work with the conditioned reflex — specifically, one particular experiment he conducted to study it. The experiment is so well known that it's become a common metaphor: Pavlov's dogs were trained to salivate at the sound of a bell because they knew that meant food was coming. Or were they?

According to "Ivan Pavlov: A Russian Life in Science," a biography by Daniel P. Todes, a professor of the history of medicine at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, Pavlov never used a bell with his dogs. It would've been a bad experimental practice to do that. The scientist never actually "trained a dog to salivate to the sound of a bell," writes Todes. "Indeed, the iconic bell would have proven totally useless to his real goal, which required precise control over the quality and duration of stimuli (he most frequently employed a metronome, a harmonium, a buzzer, and electric shock)." It's likely English speakers associate Pavlov's experiments with a bell due to a mistranslation of the Russian word for "buzzer." Add to that the fact that the West was more familiar with the image of behaviorists toting bells (like JB Watson, for example).

Psyche Out

Now for the second half of this famous misconception. Pavlov's dogs weren't salivating at the sound of the bell, er, the buzzer at all; they had been conditioned to start drooling for food when they saw the white lab coats. This is something else that frequently gets glossed over and misrepresented: Pavlov didn't just train his dogs to think about food when they saw a lab coat; he was able to actually trigger a physical reflex in the form of salivation. Psychology? This is straight-up physiology. Somewhere along the line, we forgot about the part where Pavlov showed how a mental stimulus can cause a physical response, not just a mind-association game where one thing makes us think of something else.

His original research came from a place of hard science, and dealt very little with psychology. In fact, he earned his 1904 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his work noting how eating activated salivary, gastric, and pancreatic secretions. "Essentially, only one thing in life is of real interest to us — our psychical [mental] experience," Pavlov stated in his Nobel address. "Its mechanism, however, was and still is shrouded in profound obscurity. All human resources — art, religion, literature, philosophy, and the historical sciences — all have joined in the attempt to throw light upon this darkness. But humanity has at its disposal yet another powerful resource — natural science with its strict objective methods."

These myths were busted in the biography mentioned in this article. Get your hands on "Ivan Pavlov: A Russian Life in Science" by Daniel P. Todes for more! We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase through that link, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

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Key Facts In This Video

  1. Ivan Pavlov discovered that animals are capable of associative learning, which is the linking of events, behaviors, or stimuli via conditioning. 01:59

  2. In one famous conditioning experiment, John B. Watson conditioned a small child ("Little Albert") to fear a white rat. 04:46

  3. Negative reinforcement is not the same as punishment. 08:33

Written by Joanie Faletto April 6, 2018