Contiguous Conditioning

Contiguous conditioning is also a part of the behaviorist school. This approach, developed by Edwin Guthrie, states that a stimulus that causes a response will cause the same response if the stimulus is experienced again. In other words, a behavior (response) will be repeated if the same situation (stimulus) is experienced again.

For example, if a teacher provides a stimulus of “be quiet in the classroom” and the students’ response is silence every single time they are in the classroom this is considered contiguous conditioning. Every time they hear “be quiet in the classroom” the students develop an association between silence and the classroom.


One influential aspect of Guthrie’s work was in habits. Habits are learned behaviors in response to various cues. Continuing with the be quiet example, if the teacher tells the students to be quiet in the classroom, library, and hallway. Students develop the habit of being quiet in many different settings. The stimulus is now leading to responses in various context developing an overall habit.

Habit Breaking

Guthrie not only study habit formation but also habit breaking. He devised three methods of breaking habits

  • Threshold
  • Fatigue
  • Incompatible response


In order to break a habit, a person introduces a weak stimulus and gradually increasing the strength right to the point of the person’s tolerance. For example, if students cannot sit still to study (bad habit). The teacher might gradually increase the amount of time students have to sit still and study (weak to strong stimulus) from five minutes to eventually 30 minutes. By moving incrementally, the students slowly break the bad habit of restlessness and replace it with the habit of diligent study.


This approach works by forcing an individual to repeat an unwanted response in the presence of a stimulus. Continuing with our restless student example, if students cannot sit still (bad habit), the teacher would make them run around nonstop until they are exhausted (stimulus until fatigue). Even though students love to play, the possibility of fatigue from over exposure changes their behavior.

Incompatible Response

This method involves the presence of a stimulus but having the person make a response that is incompatible with the unwanted response. Using the same example of restless students (bad habit/response), a teacher might have students write a story (incompatible response). Since it is difficult to write and talk at the same time, it helps to encourage the desired behavior of silence (desired response). The response of writing and talking are incompatible with each other. This friction leads to the silence that the teacher desires.


Guthrie’s work seems to have been forgotten in education. It is common to speak of classical and operant but rarely of contiguous conditioning. Guthrie work discourages punishment while encouraging the replacement of bad habits with good. This is advice that many teachers struggling with classroom management should consider.

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