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Classical Conditioning in “A Clockwork Orange”

How classical conditioning makes for classic Hollywood.

The blog posts I’ve written so far have mostly focused on fairly recent films, such as Twilight or Harry Potter. But today, I want to write about a classic film that used, appropriately enough, Classical Conditioning. The film is A Clockwork Orange.

Classical Conditioning and Aversion Therapy

As anyone who’s taken Psych 101 will recall, classical conditioning is all about transferring an automatic response (such as drooling when you see or smell food) to a new, formerly neutral stimulus (such as hearing a bell ring).

As Pavlov famously demonstrated with dogs in Russia, if you ring the bell enough times before presenting food, the dogs will learn to drool when they hear the bell (an unnatural response) because they associate the bell with the prediction that food is about to appear. So, classical conditioning is all about associating one stimulus in your environment with another.

This basic human tendency has been modified slightly in a therapeutic technique called “Aversion Therapy.” Here, the therapist tries to modify a person’s behavior by teaching him or her to associate the behavior (or even thinking about the behavior) with some kind of negative consequence, such as the pain of an electric shock or extreme nausea.

In the South Park movie, Cartman is exposed to this when an electronic chip is inserted into his brain, such that if he swears he’s punished by an electric shock. In one treatment for alcoholism, alcoholics consume a pill that has no effect unless they also consume alcohol; the combined drugs cause intense projectile vomiting designed to make the alcoholics want to avoid alcohol in the future.

Due to the unpleasant nature of Aversion Therapy, ethics get complicated. Most of the time, the clients/patients must voluntarily agree to the negative experiences, as a temporarily unpleasant path to being “cured.”

Unfortunately, many years ago, several research studies were conducted on prisoners who were basically coerced into participation in exchange for things like greatly decreased sentences. It was basically a situation where they were told, “Hey, sign up for this crazy study where we’ll do painful stuff to you, and you’ll get out in one year instead of 25.” Pretty tempting, right? Also pretty unethical, which was one of the major themes of the book (read the book, it’s way better than the movie, and that’s saying something) and movie A Clockwork Orange.

Aversion Therapy in Film

The main character in the movie is Alex, an adolescent who is prone to the extreme violence of assault, murder, and rape. After being betrayed by his gang of buddies (who have just helped him break into a home and rape a woman), he is sent to prison. There, he manipulates several people into thinking that he sincerely wants to be reformed, so he is chosen for an experimental study in which they will try to “cure” him of his violent tendencies.

To do this, they inject Alex each day with a drug that is designed to cause extreme nausea (they don’t tell him this—they tell him it’s “vitamins”). Then they strap him into a chair and force him to watch a series of extremely violent movies, including everything from rapes to the genocide of the Holocaust.

As he’s watching the films, he starts to feel the nausea from the injections. Thus we have classical conditioning and aversion therapy: Alex now associates any form of violence with feeling “violently” ill. After several weeks of this training, they test him by putting him in various situations that previously would have caused him to become violent. But the “cure” has worked; all Alex can do is stoop into the fetal position and wait for the nausea to pass. He is released from prison.

The Side Effects

While A Clockwork Orange is brilliant for a lot of reasons (the interesting cinematography, the excellent acting by Malcolm McDowell, etc.), it’s the psychology of the film that’s relevant to this blog. Two points about psychology are fascinating to watch as the movie unfolds.

First, the author of the book (Anthony Burgess) noted that sometimes, there can be accidental side effects to classical conditioning. Pavlov actually discovered this himself way back in the famous “my dogs are drooling” study. Pavlov caught on to the fact that the dogs did, indeed, drool when they heard the bell ring, but they also drooled in response to anything else that had been an accidental cue that food was coming, such as Pavlov’s footsteps coming into the room, or the white lab coats that he and his assistants wore. So now we have a bunch of dogs drooling due to white lab coats. Weird, right? But the coats were just as much a predictor that they were about to get food as the bell ringing.

We see this side effect in A Clockwork Orange in that the prison experimenters chose the series of violent movies that were silent, except for the soundtrack of Beethoven music in the background. Each film played Beethoven. So inevitably, and to his personal horror, Alex also became violently ill every time he heard Beethoven. Both thinking about violence and hearing Ludwig Van became cues for him to be sick. Classic movie, classical music, classical conditioning.

The Cure for the Cure

How does it all end? What happens to our murderous protagonist, Alex?

In classical (or operant) conditioning, after an association has been made, we can continue with a “Step 2” to remove the pairing. Remember that Pavlov had taught his dogs to drool when they heard the bell ring, by repeatedly giving them food after ringing the bell. Now imagine that Pavlov decides to ring the bell a hundred times without giving them food afterward. Eventually, the dogs would stop drooling as a reaction to the bell, because they’ve learned that the bell-food pairing no longer exists. This process is called extinction.

So for Alex to have extinction for his violence-nausea pairing, what would he have to do? One option would be for him to repeatedly be violent, in spite of the nausea association, and eventually he’d realize that without the drug in his system, the pairing would go away. But Alex can’t do that; the classical conditioning was too strong.

But fortunately for him, one day Alex accidentally stumbles into the home where it all began: where he raped the woman and was sent to jail. The woman’s husband recognizes Alex. The man has read about Alex in the papers and knows about Alex’s conditioning experiment, causing his early release.

So the man decides to get revenge by torturing Alex: Alex is captured into a locked room and forced to listen to Beethoven for hours and hours. The man wants Alex to feel the pain and nausea caused by the experiments, which he initially does. But after a while, this torture has the unintended effect of actually curing him of the nausea, due to extinction. Without the drug in his system, Alex’s body eventually realizes that Beethoven is safe. And so is violence.

He’s been cured of the cure.

While I’m not sure if either Anthony Burgess or Stanley Kubrick knew that much about psychology, this film is one of the absolute “must-sees” for any student of psychology. Plus, it’s just super cool.

Copyright Wind Goodfriend, Ph.D.