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Four Stressors


Explanations > Conditioning > Four Stressors

The four stressors | Discussion | So what?


In his experiments with dogs, Pavlov discovered four different ways in which he could induce stress in them.

The four stressors


Pavlov used electric shocks to the legs of the dogs as a part of the conditioning process. He found that if the voltage was too high, that the dog would start to go into a breakdown process.


Another physical method of causing stress was to exhaust them, either by over-working them or by depriving them of food. Either way, the result was that the dogs' ability to resist stress was weakened.


A further way of inducing stress was to cause cognitive distress by inserting a delay between the ringing of the bell (that signaled meal-time) and the delivery of the food to the dog. The dogs thus experienced the Cognitive Dissonance of expecting food and finding that it was not there when it should be.


Finally, he could use conflicting signals such that the dogs could not predict what to expect, and hence became confused and uncertain. As with the effect of delay, this method induced additional cognitive processing that eventually led to exhaustion and an inability to cope.


Two of these stressors are physical and two are mental. Physical stressors are pain and exhaustion. Mental stressors delay and confusion. Another way of dividing them is by the methods of direct threat and indirected erosion. Thus we can create the 2x2 matrix as below.


Pavlov's four stressors


Direct threat Indirect erosion

Stress target









These stressors have a remarkable similarity to methods used in Conversion techniques such as Brainwashing.

So what?

Although direct pain is seldom a real choice in human persuasion, the other methods are regularly used to various degrees, including in many day-to-day situations as well as specific environments such as military interrogation.

In any situation where other people may suffer stress and distress, always remember the caveat.

See also

Confusion principle, Conversion techniques

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