Summary and Key Terms

What Is Learning?

Instincts and reflexes are innate behaviours—they occur naturally and do not involve learning. In contrast, learning is a change in behaviour 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.

Classical Conditioning

Pavlov’s pioneering work with dogs contributed greatly to what we know about learning. His experiments explored the type of associative learning we now call classical conditioning. In classical conditioning, organisms learn to associate events that repeatedly happen together, and researchers study how a reflexive response to a stimulus can be mapped to a different stimulus—by training an association between the two stimuli. Pavlov’s experiments show how stimulus-response bonds are formed. Watson, the founder of behaviourism, was greatly influenced by Pavlov’s work. He tested humans by conditioning fear in an infant known as Little Albert. His findings suggest that classical conditioning can explain how some fears develop.

Operant Conditioning

Operant conditioning is based on the work of B. F. Skinner. Operant conditioning is a form of learning in which the motivation for a behaviour happens after the behaviour is demonstrated. An animal or a human receives a consequence after performing a specific behaviour. The consequence is either a reinforcer or a punisher. All reinforcement (positive or negative) increases the likelihood of a behavioural response. All punishment (positive or negative) decreases the likelihood of a behavioural response. Several types of reinforcement schedules are used to reward behaviour depending on either a set or variable period of time.

Observational Learning (Modeling)

According to Bandura, learning can occur by watching others and then modeling what they do or say. This is known as observational learning. There are specific steps in the process of modeling that must be followed if learning is to be successful. These steps include attention, retention, reproduction, and motivation. Through modeling, Bandura has shown that children learn many things both good and bad simply by watching their parents, siblings, and others.

Key Terms

period of initial learning in classical conditioning in which a human or an animal begins to connect a neutral stimulus and an unconditioned stimulus so that the neutral stimulus will begin to elicit the conditioned response
associative learning
form of learning that involves connecting certain stimuli or events that occur together in the environment (classical and operant conditioning)
classical conditioning
learning in which the stimulus or experience occurs before the behaviour and then gets paired or associated with the behaviour
cognitive map
mental picture of the layout of the environment
conditioned response (CR)
response caused by the conditioned stimulus
conditioned stimulus (CS)
stimulus that elicits a response due to its being paired with an unconditioned stimulus
continuous reinforcement
rewarding a behaviour every time it occurs
decrease in the conditioned response when the unconditioned stimulus is no longer paired with the conditioned stimulus
fixed interval reinforcement schedule
behaviour is rewarded after a set amount of time
fixed ratio reinforcement schedule
set number of responses must occur before a behaviour is rewarded
higher-order conditioning
(also, second-order conditioning) using a conditioned stimulus to condition a neutral stimulus
unlearned knowledge, involving complex patterns of behaviour; instincts are thought to be more prevalent in lower animals than in humans
latent learning
learning that occurs, but it may not be evident until there is a reason to demonstrate it
law of effect
behaviour that is followed by consequences satisfying to the organism will be repeated and behaviours that are followed by unpleasant consequences will be discouraged
change in behaviour or knowledge that is the result of experience
person who performs a behaviour that serves as an example (in observational learning)
negative punishment
taking away a pleasant stimulus to decrease or stop a behaviour
negative reinforcement
taking away an undesirable stimulus to increase a behaviour
neutral stimulus (NS)
stimulus that does not initially elicit a response
observational learning
type of learning that occurs by watching others
operant conditioning
form of learning in which the stimulus/experience happens after the behaviour is demonstrated
partial reinforcement
rewarding behaviour only some of the time
positive punishment
adding an undesirable stimulus to stop or decrease a behaviour
positive reinforcement
adding a desirable stimulus to increase a behaviour
primary reinforcer
has innate reinforcing qualities (e.g., food, water, shelter, sex)
implementation of a consequence in order to decrease a behaviour
radical behaviourism
staunch form of behaviourism developed by B. F. Skinner that suggested that even complex higher mental functions like human language are nothing more than stimulus-outcome associations
unlearned, automatic response by an organism to a stimulus in the environment
implementation of a consequence in order to increase a behaviour
secondary reinforcer
has no inherent value unto itself and only has reinforcing qualities when linked with something else (e.g., money, gold stars, poker chips)
rewarding successive approximations toward a target behaviour
spontaneous recovery
return of a previously extinguished conditioned response
stimulus discrimination
ability to respond differently to similar stimuli
stimulus generalization
demonstrating the conditioned response to stimuli that are similar to the conditioned stimulus
unconditioned response (UCR)
natural (unlearned) behaviour to a given stimulus
unconditioned stimulus (UCS)
stimulus that elicits a reflexive response
variable interval reinforcement schedule
behaviour is rewarded after unpredictable amounts of time have passed
variable ratio reinforcement schedule
number of responses differ before a behaviour is rewarded
vicarious punishment
process where the observer sees the model punished, making the observer less likely to imitate the model’s behaviour
vicarious reinforcement
process where the observer sees the model rewarded, making the observer more likely to imitate the model’s behaviour


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Introduction to Psychology Copyright © 2021 by Southern Alberta Institution of Technology (SAIT) is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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