Learning is key to human development and behavior. Behavioral psychology is one of the methods for understanding how learning develops and the understanding of individuals. Learning is a modification of behaviors due to consistent practice and requires the interaction of behavior and environment to yield changes. Assessment of learning is performed by means of tests that quantitatively measure achievements; whether they are newly acquired mental or physical skills. Learning and performance are related but separate subjects, and learning itself may be state dependent, meaning, that the conditions under which material was learned must be replicated in order for that learning to be properly performed.
There are several different types of learning. Classic conditioning is the result of a temporal proximity between events. Basically, when two events are close together in time the individual will come to associate the two events together (Sadock, Sadock, 2010, p. 141). Operant conditioning applies punishment and rewards for actions in order to solicit learning. Neobehaviorism seeks to bridge a gap between behavioral schools of psychology and logical positivism; essentially it accepts the importance of observed behavior while also incorporating deterministic elements of environmental interactions. Classic conditioning and operant conditioning theories come from the Behaviorism school of psychology. Pavlov, Watson, Skinner and Thorndike can all be said to be behaviorists and their theories regarding psychological learning derived from impartial scientific observations of behavior. The Neo-behaviorists similarly encouraged rigorous scientific application of observation while trying to encode laws of behavior. They relied on contributions from logical positivists and gestalt psychologists to form their worldview: the unobservable could also be learned. Luminaries of neo-behaviorism include Tolman and Hull.
Classical conditioning rests on the theory that repeated pairing of neutral stimuli and a response will eventually induce the stimulus to invoke the response (Sadock, Sadock, 2010, p. 141). Timing is an important element of classical conditioning as the conditioned and unconditioned stimuli must be extremely close together. The leading researcher behind classical conditioning was Ivan Petrovich Pavlov who conducted his work on dogs. Pavlov noticed that dogs began to salivate as their feeders were approaching before the food was smelled or seen. In this case the approaching handlers are considered the conditioned response, the response that occurs under particular conditions. Pavlov modified this into a famous experiment using a bell to alert the dogs of their impending feeding. Under normal circumstances a bell would not invoke salvation in a dog, as there is no association of the ringing with food. The sight and smell of food on the other hand, normally produces salvation by initiating the cephalic phase of digestion. When the dogs were consistently fed with the sound of the bell, in due time, they began to salivate merely at the sound of the bell. Salivation at the sound of the bell is thus termed the conditioned response, in contrast to the natural salivation that occurred as a result of the food being presented: the unconditioned response (Sadock, Sadock, 2010, p. 141).
In classic conditioning a stimulus that has no potential to evoke a response is made to evoke a specific response by the association of the two stimuli. Classic conditioning relies on several rules though. Extinction is the undoing of the conditioned stimulus. If conditioned stimuli are repeated often enough, but without the reinforcement of unconditioned stimuli, the response gradually weakens and disappears: if the bell is never reciprocated with food, the dog will stop salivating at the sound of the bell (Sadock, Sadock, 2010, p. 142). The American scientist John Watson expanded on Pavlov’s theories by hypothesizing that phobias were conditioned responses. In an experiment he used an eleven-month old child and a white rat that the child didn’t fear on initial exposure. The child was exposed to the rat at the same time as frightening noises. Eventually the boy was terrified of the rat. In further experiments this was extrapolated to rabbits, until the boy was fearful of all furry objects (Sadock, Sadock, 2010, p. 142).
Other rules of conditioning are: stimulus generalization and discrimination. Stimulus generalization means that a condition response may be invoked by another stimulus that the response is transferred to; a dog can be made to salivate with a tuning fork and a bell (Sadock, Sadock, 2010, p. 142). Discrimination is the recognition of small differences between similar stimuli. Discrimination explains the process in a child learning to tell different four legged animals apart. Learning can be viewed as a balance of generalization and discrimination, and disorders of thought can be established when inappropriate generalizations are made or discrimination is poor ((Sadock, Sadock, 2010, p. 143).
Operant conditioning was developed by B.F. Skinner. In operant conditioning the subject is an active part of the learning process and behaves to earn a reward. Learning is done as a result of consequences to behavior.There are two types of behaviors: respondent behavior and operant behavior. Respondent behavior results from particular stimuli like the doctor tapping the knee for a patellar reflex. Operant behavior on the other hand is independent of a stimulus. In the famous Skinner Box experiment, a rat was placed in a box and starved. In it’s aimless meandering for food it would randomly press at a bar in the box. On occasion the examiner released food in response to a bar pressing. The rate of lever depressing depended on the reinforcement by food. Thus, a reinforcer is something that supports a response; it’s the reward (Sadock, Sadock, 2010, p. 144).
Continuous reinforcement involves every behavior being reinforced by reward. This schedule leads to the fastest achievement, but not maintenance. Partial reinforcement means that the reward only comes sometimes, as in a slot machine. Partial reinforcement can maintain behaviors for a very long time. Positive reinforcement is when consequences of a response induce the behavior to occur. Negative reinforcement means that a threat is removed in response to a behavior. Negative reinforcement must not be confused with punishment. Punishment is the application of painful stimuli and usually reduces the likelihood of recurrent behavior (Sadock, Sadock, 2010, p. 144).
Reinforcement schedules are critical to operant conditioning. Intervals can be fixed or variable. Fixed-ratio scheduling means that every x number of responses, a reward is given, as in a factory worker paid for every 5 items he makes. Fixed-ratio leads to rapid responses as the organism knows the reward depends on its speed. Variable ratio scheduling occurs when a reward is given sometimes on the sixth response, and at others on the 2nd response. Responses occur regularly, as the chances of a reward are stable. Fixed-interval schedule means that a reward occurs in relation to a fixed time lapse. It insures that subjects keep track of time and response drops to 0 immediately after the reward and steadily rises in anticipation of time. Variable interval scheduling means that response will occur after random interval. People will consistently respond (gambler with a cup of quarters at a slot machine) when the reward is available (the jackpot) (Sadock, Sadock, 2010, p. 145).
Thorndike treated operant conditioning as trial-and-error learning where an individual tries multiple actions until one is successful. Thorndike experimented with cats in a Thorndike Puzzle Box where they had to learn to push a lever to escape from the box. Certain responses are reinforced by the rewards and there is primary reward conditioning, avoidance conditioning, escape conditioning, and secondary reward conditioning. Primary reward conditioning is the simplest and it’s simply tying behavior to a biologically significant reward (food, water). Escape conditioning is the learning process for figuring out how to exit an undesirable predicament. Avoidance conditioning is important for developing responses key to avoiding pain. Secondary reward conditioning is teaching behavior for a stimulus with no biological significance. The classic experiment associated with this involves monkeys pressing a lever to get poker chips that are exchanged for grapes, eventually they learn to accumulate poker chips even if grapes are no longer interesting (Sadock, Sadock, 2010, p. 143).David Premack took operant conditioning even further by using high frequency behavior to reinforce low frequency behavior. In one application of the experiment, schizophrenia patients were observed loitering about rather than performing modest assignments. When a few minutes of loitering about was made dependent on work output, productivity drastically increased (Sadock, Sadock, 2010, p. 146).
Neo-behaviorism is a school of learning that developed after behaviorism. It includes diverse areas and expands on behaviorism into areas such as social learning. There is considerable overlap in the theories behind both insofar as both apply rigorous scientific method to the study of behavior. Drawing on the behaviorists before him, Hull believed that behavior is best explained by conditioning. In his drive reduction theory he stated that deprivation created needs, and needs created motivation. The behavior elicited is goal-oriented to survival. Learning occurred when survival demands were met (Oxford Handbook of Psychiatry, 2013, p. 780). Later researchers discovered that the motivating stimuli did not need to be tied to survival in order for learning to occur.
Tolman sought to use behaviorist’s methods to learn about mental processes in animals and people. Learning could be done that would allow for flexible later performance as opposed to the rigidity induced by conditioning. In his experiments, satiated rats were shown a maze without having a reward. When they were later introduced into the maze while hungry, they knew exactly how to proceed. This learning was termed latent. His theories of learning were non-reinforcement based and termed stimulus-stimulus, as opposed to stimulus-response theory of learning (Oxford Handbook of Psychiatry, 2013, p. 781).
Bandura developed the theory of social learning, where role modeling, identification, and human interactions are key. Behavior is the result of a combination of cognitive and environmental inputs, known as reciprocal determinism. Cognitive learning relies on understanding for the desired learning. Piaget defined his stages of cognitive growth, where ability to process information is dependent on maturity (Oxford Handbook of Psychiatry, 2013, p. 784).
Learning theories continue to be current scientific literature. In a study by Dalla and Shors, the differences of learning processing in classical and operant conditioning of the sexes was investigated (2009). The article notes that males and females learn in different ways. In a comprehensive literature review they concluded that females had better acquisition and retention of eye blink conditioning, startle responses, active avoidance, and with differential reinforcement. Males on the other hand responded to contextual fear conditioning, and taste aversion better (Dalla, Shors, 2009). This study is particularly important in light of the modern debate about the direction of education. It is similarly important in the area of the treatment of psychiatric disorders.
Modern imaging technology has opened a new world with regards to research in learning. In an interesting study, Delgado et al, sought to examine the underlying neural regulation of conditioned fear responses and their extinction (2008). Emotional regulation is thought of as a conditioned response to aversive emotional stimuli. Using functional MRIs the researchers found that the lateral pre-frontal cortex of the brain is engaged in emotion regulation strategies by influencing the amygdala through the ventro-medial pre frontal cortex. During extinction exercises in eighteen human volunteers, the amydgdala seemed to be inhibited by the actions of the ventro-medial pre frontal cortex. This matched squarely with previous experiments in animal models that had been undertaken. This experiment showed that humans did not develop complex strategies, but instead rely on mechanisms common to animal models. Fear acquisition and fear extinction rely on similar patterns of neuronal activity, going through the amygdala as the checkpoint. This experiment confirms the use of animal modeling to understand fear extinction and emotional regulation allowing for a broad search for pharmacological and therapeutic treatments (Delgado et al, 2008).
Another area where operant learning is applied in the current scientific literature is in pain management. In a study by Gatzounis et al, a literature review was conducted to discuss the role of operant learning during pain rehabilitation (2012). Operant learning theory and pain basically holds that pain is ultimately behavior based. The goal of operant learning than is to change those behaviors that are learned to be associated with pain, and consequently the pain intensity will be lowered. The authors provide ample literature setting out scientific experiments that showed the value of operant conditioning in reducing pain. Ultimately they conclude that operant conditioning has substantially influenced the treatment and rehabilitation of chronic pain (Gatzounis et al, 2012). This is a welcome development, as limiting access to powerful pharmaceuticals is a great benefit.
In sum, there is great overlap in the different schools of learning. The answers are likely to be found in the neobehaviorists synthesized world view which incorporates varying aspects of psychological theory to tweak the science. Learning theory is of profound importance as behaviors that are taught to children have a major impact on their lives and development. Despite millennia of human development and research into the concept of learning, there continues to be new research conducted to understand how humans acquire skills and information. Modern research is still necessaru for both learning in children, as well as in treating individuals with psychiatric disorders. Ultimately, each school has applications that it works better in than the other schools. It is only with a combination of learning approaches that most people will be brought to their full learning potential.
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