38 6.1. What Is Learning?

Human babies have a lifetime of learning ahead of them. However, they are born with a small number of reflexes that increase their chances for survival. These innate behaviors are unlearned. For example, healthy newborns are born knowing how to suck—this reflex increases the chances that they will get adequate nourishment to grow and thrive. However, a baby quickly learns other new behaviors that help them to adapt to their environment. Unlike innate behaviors, learning involves a relatively permanent change in behavior, knowledge, or skills, and depends on experience. For example, babies would have a hard time picking up small objects (like raisins or small toys) if everything in their environment was larger than their fists. They need experience touching small objects for their fine motor skills to develop.

A lot of learning involves the integration of multiple complex processes. However, traditionally, psychologists studied learning in the simplest way— by investigating the mechanisms underlying associative learning. Associative learning refers to our natural tendency to make connections between events that occur closely together or in a sequence. Although each event is represented by different patterns of neural activity—a process we refer to as encoding—our brains organize the information so that the patterns of activity become linked together. You will see that associative learning is central to all three basic learning processes discussed in this chapter: classical conditioning, operant conditioning and observational learning. However, they differ in important ways. In classical conditioning; we make associations without any conscious intention. In operant conditioning, our ability to learn involves consciously associating a behavior with a consequence, while observational learning adds social and cognitive layers to both conscious and unconscious associative processes.

In classical conditioning, animals and humans learn to associate a new stimulus with an existing stimulus that always produces a reflex (unlearned behavior). You probably remember that humans have a number of reflexes, which often serve as protective mechanisms. For example, we pull our hand away from a stove if it is very hot, and we blink our eyes when something comes close to our face, or we startle when we hear a loud noise, like a balloon popping or the sound of thunder. However, many people also startle when they see a flash of lightning that comes before the thunder. This is because they have learned through experience that a crash of thunder is on its way. So, they have been classically conditioned to jump when they see the lightning—this is an unconscious process—it happens automatically.

In operant conditioning, animals and humans learn to associate a behavior with its consequence. A pleasant consequence encourages more of that behavior in the future, whereas a punishment deters the behavior. Imagine you are teaching your dog, Hodor, to sit. You tell Hodor to sit, and you give him a treat when he does. After repeated experiences, Hodor begins to associate the act of sitting with receiving a treat (Figure 6.2). Conversely, if you have an invisible electric fence that gives Hodor a small electric shock if he leaves your property, he will soon learn to stay in the yard.

A photograph shows a dog standing at attention and smelling a treat in a person’s hand.
Figure 6.2. In operant conditioning, a response is associated with a consequence. This dog has learned that certain behaviors result in receiving a treat.

Observational learning extends the range of learning beyond classical and operant conditioning. In classical and operant conditioning, learning occurs only through direct experience. However, observational learning occurs by watching others and then imitating what they do. A lot of learning among humans and other animals comes from observational learning. For example, young babies learn to imitate facial expressions at an early age, and wave “Bye” after watching their caregivers doing the same thing. Can you think of something you have learned how to do after watching someone else?

The learning processes covered in this chapter are part of a particular tradition in psychology, called behaviorism. Behaviorists measure learning in terms of changes in observable behavior. However, these approaches do not represent the entire study of learning. We will cover other types of learning in the chapters on Memory and Cognition.


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Introduction to Psychology (A critical approach) Copyright © 2021 by Rose M. Spielman; Kathryn Dumper; William Jenkins; Arlene Lacombe; Marilyn Lovett; and Marion Perlmutter is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.