Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange: An Analysis of Conditioning

Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange: An Analysis of Conditioning

Written by Thomas Menna

Original Poster by David Moscati

Conditioning, what is it? Well, conditioning is learning and learning is “a relatively permanent change in an organism’s behavior to experience” (Myers 306). So if something is conditioned it is learned. In essence there are three types of conditioning. They are Classical Conditioning, Operant Conditioning, and Learning by Observation.

Echoing the philosophy of associate learning, learning two things occur at the same time, Classical Conditioning was made eminent by Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov (1849-1936). Essentially classical conditioning consists that a stimuli creates a reaction, and when this stimuli occurs with another stimuli, which does not create a reaction – neutral if you will, the neutral stimuli will later create the reaction of the first stimuli. The terms to define this are the unconditioned stimulus (UCS) which automatically triggers a response – the unconditioned response (UCR) which is an automatic or naturally occurring response. Then there is the conditioned stimulus (CS) or the natural stimulus and the conditioned response (CR) or the response learned for the CS. The CR is the same/similar to the UCR at varying levels. So again the UCS produces the UCR, however when a CS is introduced with the UCS, the CS will produce a CR which is same/similar to the UCR (Myer 306-8). There are also some other aspects of classical conditioning. There is extinction, which is the elimination of the CR when a UCS no longer occurs with a CS. There is spontaneous recovery, which is; even though it may have been extinguished a CR some times reappears. There is generalization, which is when stimuli similar to a CS produce a similar response. Then there is discrimination, the opposite of generalization, which the ability to tell that other stimuli do not render the response of the UCS. These are considered survival tactics (Myer 310-11).

Another associative learning, where it is learned that a one certain thing has a certain consequence, is the background of operant conditioning which is “a type of learning in which behavior is strengthened followed by a reinforcer [good consequence] or diminished if followed by a punisher [bad consequence]” (Myer 318). So in essence operant or instrumental (as it is some times referred) conditioning has a base of cause and effect, that behavior is controlled by what its consequence is, good or bad. So the two main parts of this, the consequences if you will, are reinforcement and punishment (both being consequences). Reinforcement is an “event [(consequence)] that strengthens the behavior it follows”. There are two types of reinforcers, a primary reinforcer which is a natural reinforcer linked to biological needs (i.e. eating when hungry) and then there is conditioned reinforcers, which is a reinforcer that is conditioned by being associated with primary reinforcer. Some conditioned reinforcers are things like money or a word of praise – each being linked with a more basic reward. Punishment is the same but has the opposite effect of decreasing the behavior. Now each, reinforcers and punishers have negatives and positives. A positive is when you get something and a negative is when something is taken away. So a positive reinforcer is when you get something good, such as a reward, and a positive punishment is getting something bad (i.e. if you speed in your car you may get a ticket). A negative reinforcement is taking something bad away and a negative punishment is taking something good away (Myer 320-23).

Learning by observation is essentially learning by observing others do something, it is as simple as that.

Stanley Kubrick’s 1971 film A Clockwork Orange still stands as one of one of the best films ever made. Cinematic methods aside the story alone is quite captivating. A Clockwork Orange is the story of the delinquent youth Alex de Large. The story takes place in a future that is astray in several ways. Youth violence is overbearing, the cities are dangerous and falling apart, and prisons are overrun. Alex is just another hooligan, and the leader of his gang of other hooligans, who stomp around through the night spreading havoc. They start bloody fights with other hooligan gangs, assault elderly street dwellers, drive around like maniacs, break into people’s homes – assault them – and even rape them. Alex is the strong leader of all of this – his “droogs” as his calls his gang members appear to childish followers. Alex’s nights are paralleled by his days, which he spends sleeping and listening to music rather then going to school. His parents are completely passive allowing him to do as he wishes. Then one day Alex’s actions catch up with him. During one of his usual measures one evening he goes too far and kills a woman, then as he tries to escape his counterparts betray him, being fed up with his imperiousness towards them, and he is unable to escape. He is caught and goes to jail – where hooligans are treated like hooligans. It is there where after two years Alex volunteers for government testing of aversion therapy to “cure” delinquency in order to lessen his sentence (of 14 years). The testing essentially makes Alex sick whenever he is around or attempts acts of aggression, or misbehaving. What the testing did was give Alex a drug which made him sick and forced him to watch, with eyelids sealed open, violent movies etc. Also in the process on of the films played the 9th by Beethoven, making – turning Alex off from his favorite musician. Once “cured” and released Alex goes home to be rejected by his parents, then later by his friends, who take advantage of his newfound disability of performing violence. He then finds refuge at the house of the man who he had attacked and raped his wife. Eventually the man (who is against the aversion therapy and tries to help Alex) realizes who he is and drugs him. Then he locks him in a room, blasting the 9th all over, forcing Alex to attempt suicide to ease the pain. This embarrasses the government greatly and shows their “cure” program was a failure, in turn the promise to help Alex get rid of his “cure”. In order to saves their names the government offers him a job if he campaigns with them – anticipating his return to havoc. Clockwork Orange is translated into Clockwork Man, which mean a man that is controlled or manipulated.

There are many instances of conditioning in A Clockwork Orange. Classical conditioning is blatantly apparent in the testing Alex undergoes to be “cured”. Alex was given a drug which made him sick. Therefore the drug is a UCS and he being sick is UCR. Now once this was given he was forced to watch the violent pictures depicting delinquency while Beethoven’s 9th played in the background. So therefore violence/delinquency as well as Beethoven’s 9th became CS with the CR being feeling painfully sick. We also see generalization with how even though he saw specific films violence and delinquency in general repulsed Alex. However there was discrimination in how only Beethoven’s 9th made him sick, as where he could listen to, let’s say the 5th, or another composer’s music and not get sick. Also in the end extinction is implied when it is implied that Alex will return to his former self.

Operant conditioning is also very apparent. Reinforcement and punishment occur in several places. Reinforcement (positive) of Alex’s delinquency in the beginning is seen by his passive parents allowing him to do as he wishes as well as him get away with all his crimes (note: In a scene Alex has a drawer full of money and other valuables which were taken in his crimes – a secondary positive reinforcer). Then we see Punishment (positive) when Alex’s gang members attempt a negative punishment by taking away his leadership and he beats them up. It is also a clear positive punishment is when Alex murders the women and he goes to prison. This brings us to a negative reinforcement of Alex volunteering for the testing to get out of his prison sentence early.

Observational learning is also important. This is seen in how Alex’s “droogs” follow in his footsteps of misbehavior even though they really don’t understand it. Also it may be an underlying reason for the youth delinquency in the society in general, as in the youth seeing other youths acting badly and joining them. This is how conditioning is seen in Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange.

Works Cited


Myers , David G.. Psychology 105: Taken From Psychology, Seventh Edition In Modules. 7. New York: Worth, 2005.

Works Consulted


“A Clockwork Orange.” The Internet Movie Database. 4 Dec 2006 <;.

A Clockwork Orange. Dir. Stanley Kubrick. 1971. DVD. Polaris, Warner Bros., 1999.



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