My Favorite Things: What Do Taco Bell and Pavlov Have in Common?

Posted inCreative Voices

We’ve been exploring the simple reality that all of us have favorite things in a wide range of categories. Whether it’s objects like sweaters or coffee cups, groups of songs in record albums, or different kinds of foods, all of us can pretty quickly name a few things at the top of our lists of those we prefer more than others.

We’ve seen that the things that become favorites are often things that fit into stories about our lives. In those stories, the objects are connected to people, places and times that make the objects more than just the materials that they’re made of. The fact is, we associate things with other things.

The man pictured above has given us important ways to understand how those associative meanings come about. His model can help us become clearer about how some of our favorite things become favorites. His name is Ivan Pavlov.

That name is familiar to many of us because of his 1904 Nobel Prize winning research with dogs. Pavlov was a physiologist and spent decades studying the digestive system. In the course of his work, he noticed that at feeding time, the dogs in his laboratories began to salivate when they saw the lab assistants who fed them walk into the laboratory, even though they did not have any food.

The dogs had learned to associate the arrival of the assistants with being fed.

Anyone who has ever had a dog knows how this process works. If you go to the area of your home where your dog’s food is kept and begin doing things that you do when preparing to feed your dog, your dog will become excited and start to salivate.

Salivating in the presence of food is an inborn, instinctual bit of animal behavior. A reflex.

After noticing the dogs’ salivation in the absence of food when they merely saw their caretakers, Pavlov added another element. Every time the assistants entered the lab, Pavlov introduced a sound— a buzzer, a whistle, or a bell. Very soon, the dogs began to salivate when they heard the sound, even though neither the lab assistants nor the food were anywhere in sight. They’d automatically learned to connect the sound with food.

The dogs’ salivation reflex was triggered by specific conditions (the appearance of the assistants or the sound he taught the dogs to associate with them). This learning process became known as classical conditioning.

OK, but what do salivating dogs have to do with My Favorite Things?

In the century or so since Pavlov’s discoveries, psychology has learned a lot about behavior. It turns out that it’s not just dogs that have instincts or reflexive needs that can be connected or associated with conditions in the environment. People do too.

Human infants are born with a set of capabilities passed down from our evolutionary ancestors. Those instincts, or reflexes, are predominantly mechanisms that increase the chances of the newborn surviving. Infants experience environmental conditions that are conducive to survival as calming or pleasurable. Conditions that threaten survival are experienced as frightening or painful. Very soon after birth, newborns begin to associate the environmental conditions that are calming or pleasurable with the people and/or objects in their immediate surroundings. It doesn’t take long— sometimes days, certainly within months— for the objects themselves (a blanket, a stuffed animal, a colorful, tuneful mobile) to produce pleasurable effects and for the infants to become attached to them.

Anyone who has been around a very young baby has experienced the almost magical calming effect a newly-favorited stuffed animal can have on a distressed child. In Pavlov’s terms, the child has been classically conditioned to associate the object with pleasure. That object may very well have just become the child’s first favorite thing.

That object definitely will not be the last thing to become a favorite via classical conditioning. It’s easy to believe that as we mature, we leave behind mechanisms like these. After all, we are educated and sophisticated, and form personal preferences based upon freely made choices.

But survival instincts aren’t the only ones we bring into the world with us. Our species is also equipped with strong mechanisms to enable reproduction.

As we mature, we still seek pleasure and avoid pain. We still learn to associate various objects with one or the other. We certainly learn to connect environmental circumstances with pleasure or discomfort.

We also learn the kinds of behaviors, and the objects associated with them, that will make us attractive, likable, or popular with others. Those objects and behaviors are the ones that will likely increase our chances of reproduction. Many of them will become our favorite things.

The advertising industry counts on classical conditioning. It is one of the most powerful ways to predictably create associations between products and pleasure; between objects and avoiding / relieving discomfort; between things and being / becoming a better candidate for reproduction.

The more a connection between an object and a pleasurable reflex can be strengthened— or reinforced in the language of psychology— the more likely it is that the object and the pleasure will become associated with one another. The stronger the connection, the more it is positively reinforced. The process is the same as the one that led to Pavlov’s dogs salivating at the sounds he played before the assistants came in with food. It’s also how wearing a certain scent will make us more appealing to those we wish to attract.

Take a look at this Taco Bell ad and see if you can find the classical conditioning mechanics it’s using.

The ad is a perfect example of using classical conditioning to create an association of food with a sound. Of course, in this case, the sound is a bell, which also naturally leads to an association with the brand name.

But the ad does double duty. In addition to associating the sound with food, it also shows two young people coincidentally dressed in unique cosplay outfits. Their eyes meet! Likely reproduction candidates? Possibly!

Then the “bell” rings and everything changes! It’s as if a spell’s been cast over the scene, as one of the characters cannot help but almost hypnotically seek out a Taco Bell taco. The sound of the “bell” (and, indeed, the word “bell” itself) can now be associated with both food and companionship.

The more times we see the ad, the stronger the positive association between the sound, the brand, and the two powerful sets of needs: survival and reproduction. Of course, this ad is only one in a series in which the brand uses the same classical conditioning technique to build up strong connections with the brand.

The point here is that our favorite things are often the products of associations between objects and our most fundamental human characteristics: the need to survive and the need to be positively regarded by others in the service of improving our chances for reproduction.

If you think about your lists of favorite things, it’s very possible that you may find some of these classical connections that have been reinforced throughout your life either by environmental coincidences or by intentional associations between the objects, other people, brands, and your most basic human needs.   

Next time, we’ll look at another kind of conditioning that might be the most powerful way to control human behavior ever devised.

Tom Guarriello is a psychologist, consultant, and founding faculty member of the Masters in Branding program at New York’s School of Visual Arts. He’s spent over a decade teaching psychology-based courses like The Meaning of Branded Objects, as well as leading Honors and Thesis projects. He’s spearheaded two podcasts, BrandBox and RoboPsych, the accompanying podcast for his eponymous website on the psychology of human-robot interaction. This essay was originally posted on Guarriello’s Substack, My Favorite Things.