In discussing how organisms can be trained to behave in a certain way, or how they can be accustomed to certain circumstances, social scientists use the term conditioning. Conditioning evokes images of Pavlov's dogs or a rat in a box, but it is not confined to the laboratory. At its heart, conditioning is simply learning. We are all conditioned every day. Our environment, the culture we live in, our peer groups, the structures of our society and dozens of other factors contribute to our conditioning. Conditioning can be conscious (e.g. the explicit lessons we learn from our families and schools as children) or unconscious (e.g. the messages we absorb subconsciously through advertising and the media). Conditioning affects our perception, our behavior, our emotions, and our biases.
There are two main types of conditioning: classical and operant. In classical conditioning, one stimulus comes to signal the occurrence of a second stimulus; for example, a person who had food poisoning after a meal that included beets will feel disgust at the taste and smell of beets, even if that’s not what made them sick. In operant conditioning, an individual changes its behavior because of the consequences of that behavior; for example, a child will learn to not hit her sibling if every time she does so, she is punished. Because all organisms evolved to seek out benefits and avoid pain, we are quickly conditioned into responses that help us to survive.
But conditioning doesn't just come from these primal drives, it also comes from culture and society. Social psychologist Hazel Rose Markus and her team set out to study the different ways in which American and Japanese college students conceive of the world and most especially themselves. They noted that Americans, like other Westerners, view the self as a complete, independent entity, while Japanese view the self as an interdependent entity that cannot be separated from others. This led to significant differences in how both groups were conditioned. For example, Japanese people reported feeling more positive emotions when they had more good interpersonally engaging experiences over the course of a week (e.g. friendly interactions with others), while Americans reported feeling more positive emotions when they had good disengaged experiences (e.g. pride). Though human emotions are universal, why and how they are expressed is influenced by cultural conditioning.
photo by Artaxerxes