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By the end of this section, you will be able to:
  • Explain how learned behaviors are different from instincts and reflexes
  • Define learning
  • Recognize and define three basic forms of learning—classical conditioning, operant conditioning, and observational learning

Birds build nests and migrate as winter approaches. Infants suckle at their mother’s breast. Dogs shake water off wet fur. Salmon swim upstream to spawn, and spiders spin intricate webs. What do these seemingly unrelated behaviors have in common? They all are unlearned behaviors. Both instincts and reflexes are innate behaviors that organisms are born with. Reflexes are a motor or neural reaction to a specific stimulus in the environment. They tend to be simpler than instincts, involve the activity of specific body parts and systems (e.g., the knee-jerk reflex and the contraction of the pupil in bright light), and involve more primitive centers of the central nervous system (e.g., the spinal cord and the medulla). In contrast, instincts are innate behaviors that are triggered by a broader range of events, such as aging and the change of seasons. They are more complex patterns of behavior, involve movement of the organism as a whole (e.g., sexual activity and migration), and involve higher brain centers.

Both reflexes and instincts help an organism adapt to its environment and do not have to be learned. For example, every healthy human baby has a sucking reflex, present at birth. Babies are born knowing how to suck on a nipple, whether artificial (from a bottle) or human. Nobody teaches the baby to suck, just as no one teaches a sea turtle hatchling to move toward the ocean. Learning, like reflexes and instincts, allows an organism to adapt to its environment. But unlike instincts and reflexes, learned behaviors involve change and experience: learning    is a relatively permanent change in behavior or knowledge that results from experience. In contrast to the innate behaviors discussed above, learning involves acquiring knowledge and skills through experience. Looking back at our surfing scenario, Julian will have to spend much more time training with his surfboard before he learns how to ride the waves like his father.

Learning to surf, as well as any complex learning process (e.g., learning about the discipline of psychology), involves a complex interaction of conscious and unconscious processes. Learning has traditionally been studied in terms of its simplest components—the associations our minds automatically make between events. Our minds have a natural tendency to connect events that occur closely together or in sequence. Associative learning occurs when an organism makes connections between stimuli or events that occur together in the environment. You will see that associative learning is central to all three basic learning processes discussed in this chapter; classical conditioning tends to involve unconscious processes, operant conditioning tends to involve conscious processes, and observational learning adds social and cognitive layers to all the basic associative processes, both conscious and unconscious. These learning processes will be discussed in detail later in the chapter, but it is helpful to have a brief overview of each as you begin to explore how learning is understood from a psychological perspective.

In classical conditioning, also known as Pavlovian conditioning, organisms learn to associate events—or stimuli—that repeatedly happen together. We experience this process throughout our daily lives. For example, you might see a flash of lightning in the sky during a storm and then hear a loud boom of thunder. The sound of the thunder naturally makes you jump (loud noises have that effect by reflex). Because lightning reliably predicts the impending boom of thunder, you may associate the two and jump when you see lightning. Psychological researchers study this associative process by focusing on what can be seen and measured—behaviors. Researchers ask if one stimulus triggers a reflex, can we train a different stimulus to trigger that same reflex? In operant conditioning, organisms learn, again, to associate events—a behavior and its consequence (reinforcement or punishment). 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 give him a treat when he does. After repeated experiences, Hodor begins to associate the act of sitting with receiving a treat. He learns that the consequence of sitting is that he gets a doggie biscuit ( [link] ). Conversely, if the dog is punished when exhibiting a behavior, it becomes conditioned to avoid that behavior (e.g., receiving a small shock when crossing the boundary of an invisible electric fence).

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

Observational learning extends the effective range of both classical and operant conditioning. In contrast to classical and operant conditioning, in which learning occurs only through direct experience, observational learning is the process of watching others and then imitating what they do. A lot of learning among humans and other animals comes from observational learning. To get an idea of the extra effective range that observational learning brings, consider Ben and his son Julian from the introduction. How might observation help Julian learn to surf, as opposed to learning by trial and error alone? By watching his father, he can imitate the moves that bring success and avoid the moves that lead to failure. Can you think of something you have learned how to do after watching someone else?

All of the approaches covered in this chapter are part of a particular tradition in psychology, called behaviorism, which we discuss in the next section. However, these approaches do not represent the entire study of learning. Separate traditions of learning have taken shape within different fields of psychology, such as memory and cognition, so you will find that other chapters will round out your understanding of the topic. Over time these traditions tend to converge. For example, in this chapter you will see how cognition has come to play a larger role in behaviorism, whose more extreme adherents once insisted that behaviors are triggered by the environment with no intervening thought.

Summary

Instincts and reflexes are innate behaviors—they occur naturally and do not involve learning. In contrast, learning is a change in behavior or knowledge that results from experience. There are three main types of learning: classical conditioning, operant conditioning, and observational learning. Both classical and operant conditioning are forms of associative learning where associations are made between events that occur together. Observational learning is just as it sounds: learning by observing others.

Personal application questions

What is your personal definition of learning? How do your ideas about learning compare with the definition of learning presented in this text?

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What kinds of things have you learned through the process of classical conditioning? Operant conditioning? Observational learning? How did you learn them?

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Questions & Answers

what is Fixed interval
Paradise Reply
Which of the following is not true about physical punishment of children
Chris Reply
who is the writer of this book
Shiv Reply
I think people will not be skeptical but will be interested to know about it
Kabir Reply
Does anyone else here think that God is a made-up concept, developed by different cultures as a coping mechanism with the reality of nothingness and for reproduction? (just my thoughts)
Raman
idk if its a made up concept..or there's actually a super entity in the outer space controlling every thing..but I think it's the concept of God is a necessity for the being of righteous communities. The desire for heaven and the fear of hell is the only thing that keeps many people on the good path
Junaid
(Just my thoughts)
Junaid
Do anyone think that the only way to improve a country 😂 is by having a good education so that people can stand by their selves, and hopefully will help the country.
Genlaiza
Yes . But they aslo need a good economical foundation.
sayantan
I think the concept of God it is not made-up concept but it is made by the feelings of the people because God is nature and from the fact that we feel nature since i is the one who provides for all of us so as a sign of gratitude for everything that we are having from this world we made it as a God
Genlaiza
sure
Prince
That's something Genlaiza....reminds me a quote of Ramana Maharshi .."What is God? The question itself contains the answer: What is,(is) God."
Junaid
thank you very much by the way I am still in high school I'm just having an advance reading
Genlaiza
Good for you :)
Junaid
Any suggestions?
Junaid
if u know what is God or who is ..I think vedanta , one of the oldest treatise related to God . According to yajur veda -God Supreme or Supreme Spirit has no ‘Pratima’ (idol) or material shape. He cannot be seen directly by anyone. He pervades all beings and all directions. Thus,   Idolatry doe
sayantan
I think god is cannot be known because my father said god is nature so can a nature be known or studied? god is not something that should know but it is be feelled and believed and I don't think god is about superiority
Genlaiza
I am just saying..
Genlaiza
yup ..you aslo define God as a creator of our universe because when you goes deep though nature or universe you see that everything is organize with a precise mathematical design.. so you aslo say that if u understand the rhythm of our universe or nature then perhaps you understand what God says .
sayantan
In my thought god is a mind of our soul.bcoz when we see everything that what a manner we can understand, how to treat or how to realize,how to respect and so on...you know the only work of God is to realize who we are ,and what was the problem or anything behind us ..if it is the loss or soul pain
rajy
what causes the brain to produce melatonin
Kali Reply
melatonin is secreted by the pineal gland in the brain. it is a hormone that helps your body prepare for sleep and is activated at night when the CNS 'turns on' the pineal to actively produce melatonin. it remain mostly 'inactive' in the day time.
paschal
why do people sleep in the day time
John
melatonin acts as a 'time cue' anticipating sleep. And since it influences our sleep-wake cycle and circadian rhythm (or body-clock), it comes to play when you didnt get enough sleep time or when you are fatigued. Hence, it activation during the day. Remember, the CNS is the 'commander' of your body
paschal
sleeping in the day time, can it be a habit?
John
anything u do very often will eventually become a habit. but u must understand that peoples' biosystem can be different - what can be a habit in mr A might be a hormonal imbalance in mr B. so, if u suddenly find yourself sleeping often in the daytime (when u are not working nightshifts) see a doctor
paschal
I want to study psychology but I don't know how to start it.
John
yes
Prince
Naturally, John, we all use psychology in our daily interactions. if you want to study it professionally, then you have to attend an educational institution or take an online course. you can do it.
paschal
yes I can do it
Prince
There are many resources on the internet that can aid you in your endeavour.
paschal
whats the topic? be i just downloaded this app and trying to figure it out.
Roxanna Reply
is this your begining in psychology ?
KhaLid
This is my beginning in psychology
Junaid
I am new to psychology
Dom
what are u pursuing ba psychology or applied psychology
Sajan
I am new here any friend please?
Teben Reply
I'm new too, hello friend
Mark
i am also new here
Maliha
i'm new three😂
Mohammad
i'm new three😂
Mohammad
Me too....How you all doing?
Junaid
I good thank you, just in a government lockdown, and now with no job bit searching for a new one in something on the global digital platform would be nice a start to a new job career, from turning a hobby into a new career.
Mark
I am retrospectively new here 😂😂😂😂 Hey everyone !
KhaLid
hi
sayali
Hi Im new for this chat!
Shyam
Let me introduce myself
Shyam
That's great *MARK* I'm also bit searching for a job on digital marketing
Shyam
yes
Bikram
if anyone needs any concepts about psychology lemme know !
KhaLid
I am new new here too
Dom
certainly Salma .....
KhaLid
go ahead ... how can I help you?
KhaLid
Hi
Aliena
hi
Justina
Hello everyone. How u guys hanging?
paschal
I have been struggling
Bosie
What have u been struggling with?
paschal
finding a way to get a laptop to do my work on.
Bosie
Where are you from?
paschal
hi..i need help with my assignment..i need 3 written role plays and each role play i need to use 2 different counseling therapies.
Ashital Reply
why they didn't investigate another person?
NFAK Reply
?
Leuka
?
Cary
be aware your life and others life's It is humanity
muhammad
what is the topic?
paschal
why do people say that girls are more emotional than boys
Soohie Reply
***goodtherapy.org/blog/do-boys-and-girls-express-emotions-differently-1226122?fbclid=IwAR1qdt09vHmDoMHzkoFP8MBRr8nocv9P_I3zluC4rpQ7yo0wO7wVyFwQiB4
Sarah
thanks
NishaOfficial
no problem
Sarah
Wilhem Wundt's introspection technique with his own strict rules for the experiment. Is the technique able to recognize symptoms of mental illnesses, like schizophrenia or dementia for example, or is it only applicable to a certain degree? If so, what is the extent of this technique he used?
Shilla Reply
Yes
Mehmood
Oh, so, yes it can recognize mental illness symptoms?
Shilla
Pls I want to study psychology in higher education but am a bit confused between educational psychology and social psychology which is better?
Odey
confused about what these are two particular fields of psychology tell me odey in which you are interested ?
KhaLid
***differencebetween.com/difference-between-psychology-and-vs-social-psychology/
Sarah
psychology deals with mental processes and behavior in an individual while social psychology deals with society and their influence on an individual
Sarah
what about cognitive psychology and cognitive neuroscience?
Mehmood
Am interested studying social psychology bt I dnt knw the one that is better
Odey
I can't see the full message u want to know about cognitive psychology and cognitive what was the last part
Sarah
cognitive psychology and cognitive neuroscience
Mehmood
Cognitive psychology is more focused on information processing and behavior. Cognitive neuroscience studies the underlying biology of information processing and behavior.
Sarah
Cognitive neuroscience overlaps with cognitive psychology, and focuses on the neural substrates of mental processes and their behavioral manifestations.
Sarah
According to the American Psychological Association (APA), cognitive psychology is the “study of higher mental processes such as attention, language use, memory, perception, problem solving, and thinking.” As a scientific study of mind and mental functioning, the core focus of modern cognitive psych
Sarah
***bestpsychologydegrees.com/faq/what-is-cognitive-psychology/
Sarah
I'm currently in college studying for my BA in Science of Psychology which is General Psychology
Sarah
thanks Sarah. can a psychologist be a cognitive neuroscientist? or this domain is out of reach from psychologist s
Mehmood
Odey have u looked into the different types of social psychology and what each of them are?
Sarah
cognitive neuroscientists all study psychology biology neurologist chemistry and philosophy. they typically have training in at least one of these disciplines and can work in a variety of roles, from conducting brain research to helping therapy clients overcome mental illness.
Sarah
so I would say yes a psychologist can be a neuroscientist after furthering their education more
Sarah
Pls Sarah, if u can help me wit any material on the difference I will rili appreciate, we find it difficult to get good psychology material in my country
Odey
yes Sarah. it seems it is an interdisciplinary field of study. I don't know whether most of th universities will provide education in cognitive neuroscience. it seems so expensive and laborious to me. what do you think
Mehmood
yes Sarah. it seems it is an interdisciplinary field of study. I don't know whether most of th universities will provide education in cognitive neuroscience. it seems so expensive and laborious to me. what do you think
Mehmood
***careersinpsychology.org/becoming-a-cognitive-neuroscientist
Sarah
Odey here is a link on social psychology and their different types for you to explore ***bestselling.com/research-areas-in-social-psychology-2795913
Sarah
nobody wants to help answer and explain the question I had? Besides a simple yes? And you guys went on with a different discussion here -_- Thank you very much
Shilla
reask your question again and I'm sorry
Sarah
Wilhem Wundt's introspection technique with his own strict rules for the experiment. Is the technique able to recognize symptoms of mental illnesses, like schizophrenia or dementia for example, or is it only applicable to a certain degree? If so, what is the extent of this technique he used?
Shilla
It's okay, forgiven 😂
Shilla
I have to look in my text for that I havent gotten there yet
Sarah
thank you
Sarah
I'm still looking i hope someone else can help. Forgive me?
Sarah
hey guys can anybody provide me.notes regarding indian psychology and how it changes according to time
nitesh
you mean history of indian psychology?
PUSHPITA
yes would be interesting... as individual psychology is influenced by socialization too... my opinion regards
Neelkanth
What explanation will you give to a student  who has challenges with retrieving information from memory? 
Yaa Reply
Memories of events or items tend to be recalled in the same order in which they were experienced, so by thinking through a list or series of events.
Raluca
I personally study using music so when I need to remember what I'm doing I have to use the same playlist
Sarah
Ohk thanks
Yaa
you're welc5
Sarah
welcome
Sarah
How is everyone doing
Lotegeluaki Reply
good.
Cathleen
good
Flora
I didn't know it had this feature. Good, thanks for asking.
Cheriyan
getting better thanks ... how are you ?
Jim
Oh hey
Nikki
Hmm
Nikki
Doing well, thank you!
Amanda
could someone talk about the 4th level of maslow's hierarchy of needs pyramid. thanks
Neelkanth
@Neelkanth , The fourth level depicts self worth. It basically means pride enters one's life later on. Honestly, I don't confirm to the hierarchy much.
Zoya
An example, this a drastic example, : Making an 11 year old kid that has gone through basic conditioning beg for his/her life may be easy when you put a gun to their head.
Zoya
However, when you do so to a man in his late 30's to 40's who has also gone through the same conditioning in his childhood, it may be more difficult to make him beg. This is because he has earned a reputation. Went up the hierarchy
Zoya
is there anyone L&D professional here
Abhishek
Abhishek yes go ahead !
KhaLid
Great
Abhishek
when young children speak in short phrases using verbs and nouns,what it is referred to
Simran Reply
how old? generally that's how kids talk isn't it?
Ezra
especially shy ones
Ezra
slang
Emma
what are the social psychology concepts
MICOT Reply
their are about seven main theories... hope someone could help out with main one and their characteristic
Neelkanth
the self concept, social cognition, attribution theory, social influence, group processes, prejudice and discrimination, interpersonal processes, aggression, attitudes and stereotypes.
Deepa

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Source:  OpenStax, Psychology. OpenStax CNX. Feb 03, 2015 Download for free at https://legacy.cnx.org/content/col11629/1.5
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