Letter 33: Pavlov and Virtue


My Son,


I think about Pavlov’s dog experiment nearly every week. That sounds strange, and you probably think your ole man is crazy, but let me explain.

Ivan Pavlov pioneered research on how people learn through classical conditioning by experimenting with dogs. Dogs naturally salivate when food is brought to them. Food is an “unconditioned stimulus” and salivation is the dog’s “unconditioned response.” Pavlov would feed his own dogs each day, and each time they would see food they would salivate. Eventually, whenever Pavlov would simply walk in the room, the dogs would salivate. He was curious about this and decided to do some experimenting. He gave some dogs their food, but every time the food was given he would ring a bell. The dogs eventually learned to associate the bell ringing with food being brought to them, so even if the food didn’t come the dogs would still salivate if they heard the bell ring. A natural response could be triggered by an unnatural stimulus by having that stimulus associated with a natural stimulus.

Why am I sharing this with you, my son? Although people are more than mere animals, we often learn in a similar manner when it comes to classical conditioning. If someone has a flood of positive associations with a given activity, they will probably be more inclined to do the action. For example, if you were given a cookie while you did homework, you could associate your enjoyment of the cookie with your homework. Maybe you would get to the point where the original stimulus of enjoyment, the cookie, could be taken away and you would be left with the sheer enjoyment of homework (a somewhat unnatural stimulus for many kids). This was a very basic example, so now let’s turn our attention to how we can use classical conditioning to aid in our journey of godliness and virtue.

I was once told that virtue is a habit of doing good. Faith, hope, and love are chief among Christian virtues, and there are many others. How do we live a life of virtue? The key is habit. How do we develop habits? The key is discipline. Some basic “disciplines” of the faith include praying, reading the Scripture, meditating, adoration, fasting, almsgiving, etc.

For many, including myself, these disciplines do not involve positive associations and seem quite unnatural at first. How do we get an unnatural stimulus to bring about a natural enjoyment? Pavlov’s dog experiment! If you naturally find enjoyment in eating chocolate, then perhaps you should eat chocolate while reading Scripture for a while until you can have that same enjoyment with only Scripture. If you naturally feel peace wash over you when you light a candle, then light a candle before morning and evening prayer; you may find yourself feeling that same peace through the natural rhythm of prayer with or without the candle. Experiment with this yourself. Find out what seems to naturally give you those positive feelings and add a discipline to make the discipline enjoyable. Your enjoyment of the discipline could be key in you sustaining the discipline for the long haul. Vices (those things opposite of virtue) are normally practiced because they “feel good.” Vices can be destroyed by negative association and virtues can be established through positive association. I myself am still learning how to use this method of classical conditioning to form virtue and destroy vice in my life.

May we, as creatures of habit, learn to practice the good and shun the evil. May faith, hope, and love become our knee-jerk reactions in every situation. May we become more and more like Christ as we learn to enjoy the virtue-forming disciplines he has given us.




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