Superheroes, dogs and the power of anticipation.

Expectantly waiting for food. Image courtesy of DALTON MIYABARA.


Underneath the outrageous beard, braces and business shirt, a friend of mine is a gravity-defying, metal-bending, bullet-bouncing superhero called… Superman. What else? Amazingman doesn’t really sound the same. In fact, for many years, he had his children convinced that he really was Superman. He did it by coming back into a room he’d left, straightening his tie, rearranging his glasses, looking flustered and saying he’d just had to dash off to Abu Dhabi or Mongolia to avert some disaster, rescue someone, restore power to the Sun or something.

It had to stop when the school suggested that it wasn’t on to be fooling his kids. Obviously they had figured out that he wasn’t really Superman, because everyone knows Superman’s name is Clark, and my friend is called Stuart. He should have stuck with Amazingman.

He had to break the news to his kids. “Kids, I’m not Superman.” Apparently they took it well.

But the cool thing, other than him pulling it off for so long, was how he was shaping his kids’ brains and giving us a great take on a famous psychological study.

Associative learning

It’s a wonderful example of associative learning, and each time he averted a disaster (and I’m sure there were plenty) he was able to create a legitimate, believable opportunity to reinforce the story. The kids, too young to understand otherwise, naturally believed the story that he’d had to leave the room for Morocco, or wherever.

Here’s how the association works. Anticipation of pleasurable events generates a dopamine and adrenaline increase. We don’t have to think about it, or learn to do it, our brain does it by itself. It’s an unlearned, unconditioned response. So for the children, it looks like this

AmazingmanDad story >>> adrenaline and dopamine

So he comes into a room looking dishevelled and the children, because they’ve learned that dishevelled means a great story from AmazingmanDad, generate a chemical increase in response to the expectation of a story. He duly delivers a great story, and it reinforces the learning.

Buttoning and straightening >>> AmazingmanDad story >>> adrenaline and dopamine

Now in this case, the buttoning and straightening glasses are an integral part of the story because superheroes have to get changed back into their civilian wardrobe, but the thing is, he could have used anything. He could have used a particular facial expression, or a certain cough, or a gesture, none of which are related to him being a superhero, but any of which, associated enough times, would have generated the same chemical response, like this:

Gesture >>> AmazingmanDad story >>> adrenaline and dopamine

After enough associations, the gesture by itself will be able to generate the chemical response in his children. They simply learn that the gesture means the story is coming, like this:

Gesture >>> adrenaline and dopamine

Pavlov’s dogs

And here’s the famous study. Ivan Pavlov was a Russian physiologist, studying the gastric systems of dogs. To do so, he was collecting dog saliva. Mmmmm. Over time, he noticed that the dogs would salivate before they got their food. Wondering why, and thinking this was more interesting than dog saliva (get outta town, right?), he ditched the physiology angle and took up the psychology angle. For dogs, salivating to meat is an unlearned thing, they just do, like this:

Meat >>> salivation

In short, and if you’ve got pets you’ll recognise this, the dogs had associated his lab technician with food and would salivate when they saw him.

Technician >>> meat >>> salivation, becomes Technician >>> salivation

Testing this out, he realised that by introducing something unrelated to food, such as a ringing bell, and associating it with food, the dogs would salivate, having learned that it means food next. Our cats do it to the noise of cat biscuits in the box, the can opener, fridge door and so on. We, too, could ring a bell. Our dog? He’ll salivate at anything.

If you think for a moment, I’m sure you’ll find loads of examples with your pets and children of how this works. Formally, it’s called Classical Conditioning. Next time you’re on a farm and they ring a dinner bell, you can bet the same thing happens to the workers.

The key things are that we generate an unlearned, or unconditioned response (UCR) such as salivation to a normal, unconditioned stimulus (UCS) like meat. We then introduce an earlier neutral stimulus (NS) like the bell. After pairing the two things together for a time (bell >>> meat) the neutral stimulus acquires the power to generate the response (saliva) by itself. Now the response, whereas it’s unlearned in response to meat, is learned in response to a bell. What was an unlearned, or unconditioned response, is now a conditioned response (CR). But you must have some groovy shorthand for it to sound really impressive.


NS –> UCS –> UCR

After repeated pairings…

NS becomes CS –> UCR becomes CR

CS –> CR

When you see it, it seems so obvious, and yet this simple observation was the basis for a significant shift in thinking, the development of the Classical Conditioning movement, trillions of research articles, therapies, books, movies, jokes and so on.

To explain how this works, there are two main ideas. One suggests there is a simple learned response to the stimulus, and that the learning is unconscious. The other suggests that there is a thinking component involved in the learning, and this triggers the response. You can see the latter in play in this case. Stuart’s kids were generating a response because they understood (thinking required!) what was coming next.

So here’s the take home bit

Because Classical Conditioning works on simple behaviours and responses, it’s easy to try at home. Just don’t tell people what you’re doing, because you’re cheating if you let them know first. Kids are the best subjects. If you have pets, give it a go with something different for fun. Let me know how you get on.

Oh, and I understand Stuart’s kids are fine.

Impressive words to drop into the morning coffee chat

Classical conditioning, unconditioned stimulus, unconditioned response, conditioned stimulus, conditioned response, neutral stimulus, Pavlov’s dogs

Tell me what you notice.

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About brendonbclark

Hi, I’m Brendon, but people usually call me B. I’ve a Masters degree in psychology, postgraduate qualification in mental health, and qualifications in counselling, professional supervision and adult education. I consult, speak and blog. Join me, you can subscribe for free.
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One Response to Superheroes, dogs and the power of anticipation.

  1. Beth Ackerman says:

    A quote from the unknown: “When your parents accuse you of lying to them, just look them in the eye and say; SANTA CLAUS! EASTER BUNNY! TOOTH FAIRY! SUPERMAN!”

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