Psychology Topics > Learning and Behavior


From the moment we are born to the day we die, we are constantly learning. Some may think that learning is solely associated with school and or specific training regimens. Some people say they hate learning new things yet they know how to use all the latest technical devices. Even the defiant teenager who refuses to cooperate in class or participate in the discussion is learning. He or she is testing the instructor. If the instructor reacts by yelling or attempting to force the student, he or she is learning they can gain attention or control of the classroom through their behavior. Whether we like it or not, we are always and forever learning.

Research concerning learning and behavior is important because we cannot influence or change behavior unless we understand how the behaviors were learned in the first place. In fact, a big part of psychology is studying human and/or animal behavior to discover how behaviors are learned and why they occur. Psychologists then use their understanding of learning and behavior to treat psychological disorders and addictions. Concepts of learning and behavior are used in various parenting styles. Finally, our knowledge also applied to develop more effective curriculums or training programs for children versus adults.

Psychologists have also discovered that people learn in different ways and learning is the most efficient when teachers match the curriculum to the students' particular learning style. There are 3 types of learning styles.

  • Kinesthetic: Kinesthetic learners need to touch and do things with their hands. They learn best by doing something tactile to learn the concept.
  • Auditory: Auditory learners learn best by hearing the concept explained to them. These learners are also adept at remembering pitches and learning coupled with music.
  • Visual: These individuals learn by seeing the material in a book or behaviors that are shown to them. Individuals with a photographic memory fall into this category.

In addition to learning styles, we learn in different places and situations. learning can be formal (school) or informal. We may learn by practicing behaviors or rote memorization. We learn by watching other people. We learn in from a variety of formats, e.g. multimedia, books, lectures, etc.. Our learning is influenced by our culture, family, social status, genetic traits, developmental ability, and age. Thus, learning is unique to each individual.

It is important to note that learning and behavior are linked together. learning can change or modify our behavior while our behaviors are often antecedents for additional learning. You cannot have one without the other. For instance, consider the steps in learning to ride a bicycle. First, we see someone riding a bicycle. Either out of curiosity, desire, or necessity, we decide we want to learn to ride a bike also. Second, we get a bike and sit down on the seat. Third, we push down on the pedals with our feet in order to propel the bike forward. At this point, balance is an important part of riding a bike. As we ride the bike, we may fall several times. We may complete one behavior, i.e. pushing down on the pedals, and improper balance causes us to fall. From the consequence of that behavior, we learn we must lean more to the opposite side so we won't fall on the next try.

This process or trial and error continues until we get used to the feeling of balance required to stay upright. We are proud of ourselves as we speed down the street with perfect balance until we realize we don't know how to stop. After more tries and more skinned knees, we finally learn how to stop without getting injured. As seen in this example, learning and behavior precedes additional learning which in turn modifies our behaviors....etc. Therefore these two concepts (learning and behavior) must co-occur for progress to take place.

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Key Figures & Theories

Classical Conditioning
Sometimes learning and behavior is involuntary such as in classical conditioning. Classical conditioning is defined as a conditioned response to a neutral stimulus after having been paired repeatedly with an unconditioned stimulus. The response is involuntary, similar to a reflex reaction. A simple experiment in classical conditioning can be done with a squirt bottle filled with water and a partner. Being squirted in the face with water will cause a person to flinch. The squirting of the water (unconditioned stimulus) causes a reflexive reaction of flinching (unconditioned response). Saying a word such as "pear" (neutral stimulus) will not normally cause a person to flinch.

If, however, you say a string of random words but always squirt a person in the face immediately after saying the word "pear," you can condition the person to flinch at the word "pear" without squirting them in the face with water. By pairing the squirting of the water with the word "pear," the person learns to associate being squirted with hearing that particular word. Therefore, the reflex of flinching becomes transferred or "conditioned" to occur with the neutral stimulus.

classical conditioning was discovered by Ivan Pavlov, a Russian psychologist. Pavlov was actually a physician who was studying gastric functioning in dogs by examining their saliva in various feeding conditions. During some of his experiments, Pavlov observed that the dogs began to salivate before they were even given any food. Upon further investigation, Pavlov discovered that the dogs salivated in response to hearing a sound from the mechanism that delivered the food. Pavlov realized something 'unusual' was occurring because he knew that dogs don't instinctively salivate in response to a sound.

After further investigation, Pavlov realized that the dogs "learned" that every time they heard that sound, they were about to be fed. This "pairing" of a stimulus that naturally caused a biological response with another stimulus that did not reflexively cause a response is the essence of classical conditioning. The vital part is the pairing of the two stimuli that precedes the conditioning of a reflexive response to the neutral stimulus.

Conditioned responses are not permanent however. Upon further investigation, Pavlov discovered that after several times of ringing the bell without giving dogs food that the dogs would re-learn that the bell was no longer associated with being fed. This process is called extinction. If the conditioned response is never paired again with the neutral stimulus then the conditioned response will fade and then disappear.

John Watson was also instrumental in our understanding of classical conditioning. His most notable experiment was "Little Albert." Albert was an 11 month old baby that had the misfortune of being a participant in Watson's study. Watson showed Albert a small white mouse, which Albert liked (he was not afraid of it at all). Then, while seeing the mouse, Watson presented a loud noise that scared Albert and made him cry. By pairing the loud noise that scared Albert with the mouse he liked, Watson was able to teach Albert to be afraid of the mouse. Every time Albert saw the mouse, he cried and acted fearful.

In addition, Albert began to show signs of "generalization" - he started showing the same fear response to other things that were also white and fuzzy. Instead of only being afraid of mice, Albert became afraid of mice, white rabbits, and other similar things like a cotton ball beard and fuzzy puppy. This experiment with Albert demonstrated how phobias are formed.

Operant Conditioning
Another core theory of learning is Operant Conditioning, posited by B. F. Skinner. Skinner found that he could train pigeons and other animals to do particular behaviors in exchange for a reward, namely food. His experiments consisted of placing a pigeon in a cage with a lever. When by chance the pigeon pecked at the lever, it was rewarded with a pellet of food. Consequently the pigeon continued to peck at the lever to get more pellets of food. Skinner also conducted this experiment by putting several pigeons in a box and periodically rewarding the birds with pellets of food at random intervals. Skinner discovered that the pigeons associated whatever behavior they were doing at the time with the reward of food and consequently repeated that action. Some pigeons turned around in a circle while others tossed their heads back several times in between the Reinforcement (food reward). On a side note: this is how some superstitions and rituals are formed. For instance, a child who gets a good score on a test may attribute the score to wearing "lucky socks" rather than the fact that he or she studied all week. Afterwards, the child thinks that he or she won't get a good score on a test unless he or she is wearing the same socks.

This pairing of behavior and reward may sound similar to classical conditioning but it is very different because the behaviors are voluntary, whereas conditioned responses are involuntary. Operant Conditioning includes pairing through reinforcement and punishment. Reinforcement is something that increases the likelihood that a behavior will continue. Punishment is something that decreases the likelihood that a behavior will continue. Both Reinforcement and punishment have two types, positive and negative. Normally when we hear the word "negative," we think it is something bad. In this case however, negative simply means that something has been taken away. Positive means that something has been added. The following table illustrates this relationship.

Positive Something is added to increase the likelihood a behavior will occur Something is added to decrease the likelihood a behavior will occur
Negative Something is taken away to increase the likelihood a behavior will occur Something is taken away to decrease the likelihood a behavior will occur

An example of a powerful negative reinforcer is a screaming child. The sound is so annoying that many adults will give the child anything he or she wants in order to get the screaming to stop. The child will stop screaming (take away the piercing sound) when the adult gives him or her candy (increase likelihood that behavior occurs.) Children use this technique with adults every day. It doesn't take a psychologist to understand how to change behavior!

Skinner's theories were very influential in education and have been used in the classroom for both discipline and learning. Skinner stated that a good educational program needed to have clear directions, tasks broken into small steps, immediate feedback, and positive reinforcement. Children are also taught using the concept of shaping. Shaping is a type of Reinforcement used to create a new behavior by guiding the subject towards a desired behavior.

For instance, a piano teacher helps a student learn to play by starting with simple pieces of music. When the student plays the simple piece correctly, the student may be reinforced with a positive statement "Good job!" or a sticker. The next piece the student learns, however, is slightly more difficult, and the student will not receive the same reward unless he or she can play the harder piece and so on until the student can play very technical and difficult music. Shaping is also used to train animals to perform tricks such as jumping through a hoop. At first the animal is rewarded for approaching the hoop. Next the animal is reinforced for walking through the hoop. The next time the hoop is raised slightly and the animal is reinforced for a small jump through the hoop, and so on until the animal has learned the behavior.

Skinner also outlined several different reinforcement schedules, fixed ratio, variable ratio, fixed interval, and variable interval. Ratio refers to the amount of times a behavior must be performed before it is reinforced. Interval refers to the amount of time that has passed before reinforcement occurs. These schedules are outlined in the following table.

  Fixed Variable
Ratio Reinforcement is given after the subject performs a behavior a fixed # of times, e.g. paying a worker every time they make 10 items. The number of times the subject must perform a behavior before being rewarded is unknown or random, e.g. slot machine at a casino.
Interval A behavior is only reinforced if performed after a set amount of time has passed, e.g. a person has a chance at winning a prize for a contest but can only enter once each week. A behavior is only reinforced if performed after an unknown amount of time has passed, e.g. Fishing requires a great deal of patience because the fisherman never knows when a fish will get caught on the hook.

Do you know which reinforcement schedule is the strongest (increases the likelihood a behavior will occur the most)? If you guessed Variable Ratio, then you were right.

According to behaviorists such as B. F. Skinner or John Watson, all behavior can be explained through applying the above principles of operant or classical conditioning. In other words, the environment controls our behavior and everything we do is in response to some type of reflex, reinforcement, or punishment. This is the heart of behaviorism. Not all psychologists agree, of course, and the remainder of this section will describe a few other theories of learning and behavior.

Social Learning
The main idea of social learning is that people learn by watching what other people do and then copy that behavior. This is also called modeling. Albert Bandura was a psychologist most noted for this theory. He conducted a study by using an inflated Bobo Doll. In his study, he had children present in a room while an adult kicked and hit a Bobo doll. Then he had the adults leave in order to observe what the children would do. He wanted to find out if viewing violence would increase the likelihood that children or others would be violent.

He found that the children did model the violence if certain aspects were present. First, they had to witness and pay attention to the behavior. Second, they had to remember what happened or how the behavior was done. Third, they had to be physically and mentally capable of copying the behavior. And lastly, they needed to have some motivation and opportunity to repeat the behavior. Bandura found that if the children witnessed another person being rewarded for a particular behavior, the children were more likely to copy the behavior as well.

Likewise, people also learn from vicarious punishment. If someone witnesses a person doing a particular behavior that is then punished, the individual will be less likely to copy the behavior.

Modeling is not solely a human phenomenon. Even animals model each other. In Japan, monkeys were witnessed to wash their rice before eating it. They gathered the rice, which was mixed with sand, and threw it in some water. Subsequently, the sand sank to the bottom of the water and the rice floated. This allowed the monkeys to scoop up the remaining "clean rice" and eat it. This behavior was not instinctual. The monkeys learned this trick by watching other monkeys clean their rice.

Constructivist Theory
Constructivism, attributed to Jean Piaget, consists of an individual accommodating and assimilating information and then constructing new knowledge from their experience. A person is accommodating information by paying attention and storing it away in their memory for later use. To assimilate means this person not only stores the information, but he or she understands it and can make connections to other experiences. For example, if a person learns in school that cats are nocturnal, meaning they are awake at night, that person can also conclude that cats sleep during the day and do their hunting at night. That person may also remember that owls are also nocturnal so they are similar to cats. Thus, the individual makes connections to other information through the process of accommodation and assimilation.

Piaget took this further and believed that people used previous experience to construct new knowledge and hypothesizes. Piaget believed that "play" was a vital source of learning for children. He stated that when children play, they learn several skills on which to construct new knowledge as they develop. They learn about objects and how they fit together by completing puzzles. They learn balance and construction from playing with building blocks. They even learn conservation from playing with clay and putting water in different shaped containers. (Conservation means that masses of equal volume and weight do not change simply by altering their shape or the shape of the container they are placed in.)

Piaget stated these early learning experiences of children were necessary for later learning. The child can use previous experience of putting puzzles together to putting more complicated puzzles together or to problem solve. Another example is how an individual who has learned more than one language can learn additional languages faster because they already understand the basics of language construction.

The process of accommodation and assimilation can also change the individual's framework. If an individual learns something new that is contradictory to previous experience, he or she can change their perception to a new way of seeing the problem. This accounts for how a person who has learned information incorrectly or had a faulty perception of events can change their internal understanding.

Constructivist theory is different from other theories because it takes into account the individual's unique characteristics. Individuals' talents, skills, age, stage of development, and culture, to name only a few, all influence the results of their learning and how they will assimilate experiences. Constructivism also takes into account that people may collaborate with each other to construct new ideas and hypotheses. Learning is not solely an individual experience.

Learning continues to change dramatically as technology advances. Connectivism is a theory that accounts for our digital age. Developed by George Siemens and Stephen Downes, this theory explains how technology influences learning and other aspects of our lives. Today, there is access to so much information that one person cannot personally experience it all. This theory is about making connections and seeing patterns. It is about sharing knowledge and connecting with other people in a network. According to Siemens, the principles of connectivism are:

  • Learning and knowledge rest in diversity of opinions.
  • Learning is a process of connecting specialized nodes or information sources.
  • Learning may reside in non-human appliances.
  • Capacity to know more is more critical than what is currently known.
  • Nurturing and maintaining connections is needed to facilitate continual learning.
  • Ability to see connections between fields, ideas, and concepts is a core skill.
  • Currency (accurate, up-to-date knowledge) is the intent of all connectivist learning activities.