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Three Stages of Breakdown


Explanations > Conditioning > Three Stages of Breakdown

The three stages | And one more | Discussion | So what?


In his experiments with the responses of dogs to stress, Pavlov found that they would break down through three different stages

The three stages

Before the three stages, dogs would react differently to different stimuli. Thus with food, they would be more anxious to get tasty or large quantities of food than small and bland food.

Equivalent stage

In the first breakdown stage, the dogs would react in the same way to stimuli of different strength. It is as if they were so mentally and physically exhausted, they did not have the inclination or were no longer able to distinguish between the levels of stressors.

Paradoxical stage

In the next stage, the dogs ceased to respond to strong stimuli, whilst they still responded to weak stimuli. It is as if their brains had acted to protectively shut down against stressors that could not be handled. Thus there would be no response to a strong electric shock, whilst a response was still seen for mild shocks.

Ultra-paradoxical stage

In this stage, behaviors started to reverse, for example dogs behaving in a friendly way towards keepers who they had previously disliked, and vice versa. It is as if, in desperation, they are creatively trying things that they had not previously tried, in order to seek ways to escape the stress.

And one more

A further stage that Pavlov discovered was when the laboratory flooded and the dogs were rescued just before they drowned. In their terror, they forgot everything they had learned up until that point and it took months to restore the conditioning.


The ultra-paradoxical behavioral reversal is equivalent in humans to the Stockholm syndrome, where prisoners become emotionally attached to their captors.

Some therapeutic methods use the additional stage, putting people into situations where they are so frightened that they forget to perform their stress response. Extremes of emotion, it seems, can lead to a sudden release of past terrors. It has, for example been used to create a cathartic release in shell-shocked soldiers. This is of course very hazardous and 'not something you should try at home'. This may also help to explain sudden conversion.

So what?

When the other person is responding in the same way whatever you do, then perhaps this is an effect of stress. If you increase your action and they ignore it, try a gentler persuasion to see if they are at the paradoxical stage.

When people start to reverse behaviors, be careful: they may be at the point of breakdown.

See also

The Brain Syndrome, Four stressors

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