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Techniques Conditioning > Pairing

Description | Example | Discussion | See also



Pairing is a core aspect of conditioning in the way it is deliberately used to connect stimuli (including cues and rewards) to responses. More completely, the process of conditioning includes:

  1. Connecting a reward with a reward word (eg. food with 'good dog').
  2. Connecting a reward with an action (eg. food for sitting down).
  3. Connecting a cue with an action and reward (eg. 'sit' with sitting down).

The basic principle of pairing in conditioning is that things that occur simultaneously or in close succession will become associated with one another.

Removal of a pairing is called 'extinction'. Typically this is done by removing any reward for an action such that the subject eventually gives up, although other methods may be used.


A mother hugs her daughter 'good morning' when she gets up in the morning. The girl associates getting up with the warmth of the hug and before long she gets up on time rather than being slow in rising.

A dog owner gives a morsel of food to the dog and says 'good dog'. Before long, 'good dog' gets attention and makes the dog wag its tail.

A dog learns that when its owner puts on a certain coat he is going for a walk. Now when the owner picks up the coat, the dog gets excited.


The brain is a highly associative structure. Our neurons form into chains as we think, often with the same neurons being used for multiple thoughts. Patterns from one idea appear in others, for example in the way we see basic shapes (circles, triangles, squares, etc.) within more complex shapes. When we think of one thing, our thoughts immediately connect into a network of associated thoughts. For example if we think 'government' we may think of particular politicians, governmental buildings, TV courtroom dramas, recent political news and so on.

We cannot help but connect items based on all kinds of similarities, including:

  • Things that happen at the same time or in sequence.
  • Things that look, sound, taste, smell or feel similar.
  • Things that are located near one another.
  • Things that have something else in common.

While pairing can be very useful in training, it can also happen in unwanted ways, with the result that the subject may be cued to act or become aroused in expectation by things that you do not intend.

Pairing is the basis for learning many things and we often make cause-and-effect connections between things we associate, even if this causal relationship does not exist. In particular, we causally associate sequential things. If A happens then B happens, we assume A causes B. This is an important principle in conditioning.

See also

Association principle, Habit, Alignment principle, Bonding principle


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