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From Salivating Dogs to Assertive Neighbors: A Guide to the Principles of Learning

Updated: Mar 10

The way you behave is largely a result of your learned behavior. Consider the scenario where you were adopted by a family in a distant part of the world as an infant - you would speak a different language, have different eating habits, and exhibit behaviors specific to that culture. This exemplifies the significant impact that learning experiences have on shaping individuals.

In 1934, Ruth Benedict, a young scientist, wrote a book about cultures that were vastly different from one another. For instance, the Dobu people living in Papua New Guinea were competitive and violent, while the Zuñi people, a Native American tribe from the Southwest, valued generosity and modesty. Benedict argued that if certain cultures exhibited traits such as greed, ambition, or violence, it was not an inherent trait in all humans, but rather a learned behavior from one's culture.

Benedict further illustrated how courtship and marriage differ among cultures, providing evidence that learning experiences have a tremendous impact on shaping personalities. The Zuñi strictly separated male and female children until adolescence, whereas in Dobu society, sex play among children was common and approved of by adults.

Benedict's work highlighted that people from different cultures had varying behaviors and values, and it was essential to acknowledge and understand these differences. Overall, learning experiences play a significant role in shaping human behavior, and it is vital to recognize their importance. Learning is a natural part of life, and it happens as we experience new things. We learn new information, skills, and attitudes, and even develop our personalities throughout our lives. Learning can create permanent changes in behavior, but not all changes in behavior are due to learning. Learning only refers to changes in behavior that are relatively permanent and caused by experiences. The effects of learning may not be immediate, and they can be unintentional and even undesirable, like developing a dislike for a specific sandwich after getting sick from one before. Psychologists have studied the different ways learning occurs and identified principles of learning that can affect our daily lives.

Classical conditioning is a type of learning in which a neutral stimulus is repeatedly paired with a stimulus that naturally triggers a response. As a result, the neutral stimulus eventually comes to elicit a similar response, known as a conditioned response (CR), as the natural stimulus. Classical conditioning was first described by Ivan Pavlov, a Russian physiologist, in the late 19th century. Pavlov's famous experiment involved conditioning dogs to salivate at the sound of a bell. Pavlov noticed that the dogs in his lab began to salivate when they saw their food. He then introduced a bell sound before the dogs received their food. After several repetitions, the dogs began to salivate at the sound of the bell alone, even when no food was present. This experiment demonstrated that a neutral stimulus (the bell) could become associated with an unconditioned stimulus (the food), resulting in a conditioned response (salivation).

The association is a key element in classical conditioning. The neutral stimulus becomes associated with the unconditioned stimulus, which leads to the development of a conditioned response. The more often the neutral stimulus is paired with the unconditioned stimulus, the stronger the association becomes. In classical conditioning, the unconditioned stimulus (UCS) is a stimulus that naturally triggers a response, such as the smell of food. The unconditioned response (UCR) is the natural response to the unconditioned stimulus, such as salivation when smelling food. The conditioned stimulus (CS) is the previously neutral stimulus that is now associated with the unconditioned stimulus, such as the sound of a bell. Finally, the conditioned response (CR) is the learned response to the conditioned stimulus, such as salivating at the sound of a bell.

One example of classical conditioning is the development of a phobia. For instance, a child may develop a fear of dogs after being bitten by one. The unconditioned stimulus is the dog bite, which naturally triggers fear (the unconditioned response). Over time, the child may develop a fear of any dog (the conditioned stimulus), even if the dog has not bitten them. The conditioned response is fear in the presence of dogs.

Another example of classical conditioning is advertising. A commercial may pair a product with a catchy jingle or a positive image. Over time, the jingle or image becomes associated with the product, and consumers may be more likely to purchase the product when they encounter the jingle or image.

Classical conditioning is an important form of learning because it helps organisms adapt to their environment. By associating neutral stimuli with important stimuli, organisms can learn to anticipate events and respond more efficiently. It is also important in the field of psychology because it helps explain how phobias and other learned responses develop. Finally, classical conditioning is used in various therapeutic techniques to help individuals overcome anxiety disorders and other phobias.

The good, The bad, The ugly Operant conditioning is a type of learning in which an organism's behavior is shaped by the consequences of that behavior. Developed by B.F. Skinner, this theory is based on the idea that behaviors are reinforced or punished based on the outcome, which can lead to changes in future behavior.

Positive reinforcement involves providing a desirable consequence to increase the likelihood of a behavior being repeated. Primary reinforcement, such as food or water, directly satisfies a biological need. Secondary reinforcement, such as money or praise, is learned through association with primary reinforcement. For example, a child receives a candy bar (primary reinforcement) for getting good grades and later feels motivated to study hard again to receive more candy bars. The four types of schedules of reinforcement include fixed ratio, variable ratio, fixed interval, and variable interval. A fixed ratio schedule reinforces behavior after a set number of responses, while a variable ratio schedule reinforces behavior after an unpredictable number of responses. Fixed interval schedules reinforce the first response after a fixed amount of time has passed, and variable interval schedules reinforce the first response after varying amounts of time have passed. An example of a fixed ratio schedule would be a salesperson receiving a bonus for every 10 sales they make, while a variable ratio schedule would be a gambler winning at a slot machine after an unpredictable number of pulls.

Shaping involves reinforcing successive approximations of a desired behavior. This technique is useful for training animals to perform complex tasks. For example, to teach a dolphin to jump through a hoop, a trainer might begin by reinforcing the dolphin for simply touching the hoop, and then gradually increase the difficulty until the dolphin is jumping through the hoop.

Negative reinforcement involves removing an aversive stimulus to increase the likelihood of a behavior being repeated. Escape conditioning occurs when a behavior ends an unpleasant event, such as a person covering their ears to escape the sound of a jackhammer. Avoidance conditioning occurs when a behavior prevents an unpleasant event from occurring, such as a person wearing sunscreen to avoid sunburn.

Punishment involves presenting an aversive consequence to decrease the likelihood of a behavior being repeated. An example of punishment would be a student receiving detention for talking in class. However, punishment is not always effective and can lead to negative consequences such as fear, anxiety, and resentment. The criticism trap occurs when punishment takes the form of verbal criticism or negative feedback, which can have a similar effect to physical punishment. For example, if a manager constantly criticizes an employee for making mistakes, the employee may become anxious and less productive.

The best situation to use each type of reinforcement depends on the specific behavior being targeted and the individual being trained. Positive reinforcement is generally the most effective, but the type of reinforcement and schedule used should be tailored to the situation. Shaping is useful for training complex behaviors, while negative reinforcement and punishment should be used sparingly and only when necessary. It is important to remember that reinforcement and punishment should be consistent and immediate in order to be effective.

These are some rules for when it's okay to use punishment to change someone's behavior. Punishment means making someone suffer a negative consequence for doing something wrong. But it's not always the best way to change behavior. If you have to use punishment, follow these guidelines to make sure it works:

  1. Don't use physical punishment, like hitting or spanking. Instead, try taking away privileges or giving a timeout. Physical punishment can make things worse.

  2. Punish bad behavior right away, don't wait.

  3. Reward good behavior to replace bad behavior you want to stop.

  4. Make it clear what behavior you are punishing and stop punishing once the behavior stops.

  5. Don't mix punishment with rewards for the same behavior.

  6. Stick to your punishment once you start, don't give in to begging or pleading.

Classical and operant conditioning are two types of learning, but they differ in a few ways:

  1. Classical conditioning involves linking two stimuli together, like hearing a tone and getting food. Operant conditioning involves linking behavior and a consequence together, like studying hard and getting an A.

  2. Classical conditioning involves involuntary behaviors like fear responses or salivation, while operant conditioning involves more complicated voluntary behaviors.

  3. The most important difference is how the conditioning "happens". In classical conditioning, the unconditioned stimulus (UCS) is paired with the conditioned stimulus (CS) without the individual doing anything. In operant conditioning, the consequence only happens if the behavior has just been performed.

What is stimulus discrimination, and how can it be learned? What is stimulus generalization, and how does it differ from stimulus discrimination?

Stimulus discrimination is a phenomenon where an individual discriminates between appropriate and inappropriate occasions for a response, and most responses are more likely to occur in the presence of some stimuli than in the presence of others. Stimulus discrimination can be learned through a teaching program. For example, in the rat lab, we can teach a rat to press the lever only in the presence of a specific stimulus, such as a light. This is done by turning on a light over the lever, letting the rat pressed the lever, and receiving the reinforcer several times. Then, the light is turned off for a little while, and we do not reinforce lever presses when the light is out. Then the light is turned back on, and responses are reinforced, and so on many times. The stimulus in which the response is reinforced is called the discriminative stimulus, and the stimulus in which the response is never reinforced is called the S delta.

Stimulus generalization, on the other hand, is a term that indicates that individuals do not always discriminate between stimuli that are similar to one another. Stated another way, the more similar two stimuli are, the more likely the individual is to respond to them as if they were the same stimulus. For example, a person who is afraid of Siamese cats may also be afraid of tabby and alley cats. In the lab, we can study stimulus generalization based on similarity in the color of the stimulus. For example, we can reinforce a pigeon only for responding in the presence of a yellow-green light whose wavelength is 550 nanometers. The more we change the wavelength of the light stimulus, the less likely the pigeon will be to respond to it, and the more similar stimuli are, the more likely the pigeon is to respond to them as if they were the same. Learning When to Quit: Extinction

Learning is a crucial process for human survival. It equips us with the skills to adapt to our ever-changing environment. If we were only capable of learning once and never changing, we would not be able to survive the changes that occur in the environment. For instance, if we were Stone Age people who learned to get oranges from the tops of orange trees by shaking them, this behavior would be useful and positively reinforced. However, once all the oranges were shaken out of the tree, the learned behavior of shaking orange trees would become redundant. In such a scenario, we would need to quit shaking the trees to find new ways of accessing oranges. Failure to adapt our learned behavior to changes in the environment would pose a significant threat to our survival.

Extinction occurs when a learned response ceases to occur due to changes in the environmental factors that originally caused the learning. The process of extinction is similar in both classical and operant conditioning. One approach is to remove the source of learning altogether. This can be done by utilizing the partial reinforcement effect, in which a behavior is reinforced only some of the time. This approach is more resistant to extinction than continuous reinforcement, which reinforces the behavior every time it occurs. The partial reinforcement effect can be useful when trying to extinguish a behavior because it makes the individual less likely to notice the lack of reinforcement and continue the behavior.

Another approach to extinction is response prevention. This involves removing the individual's ability to engage in the behavior, thereby preventing any reinforcement from occurring. For example, if an individual has learned to play video games excessively, response prevention could involve removing access to video games entirely.

While extinction can be effective in reducing a learned response, it is not always permanent. Spontaneous recovery is the reappearance of a previously extinguished response after a period of time. This can occur even when the individual has not been reinforced for the behavior during the intervening period. Spontaneous recovery suggests that the original learning is not erased entirely, but rather is suppressed and can re-emerge under certain circumstances.

Disinhibition is another phenomenon that can occur during extinction. Disinhibition is the sudden increase in the frequency or intensity of a previously extinguished behavior that occurs in the presence of a novel stimulus. This can happen because the individual is no longer actively suppressing the behavior, leading to a temporary increase in its occurrence. Connection or Cognition: Theoretical interpretations of learning refer to how people or animals learn and what happens when they learn through classical or operant conditioning. One view suggests that neural connections are formed in the brain between specific stimuli and responses. For example, when a rat is rewarded for pressing a lever in the presence of light, a connection is believed to be made between the light and the specific muscle movements required for the lever press. Another view emphasizes the role of internal mental processes in the learning process, such as changes in cognition (thinking, expecting, believing, perceiving, etc.) about a given situation during learning. Place learning, latent learning, insight learning, and learning sets are different types of learning. Place learning involves learning the location of objects or places in an environment. Latent learning refers to learning that occurs without an apparent reward, which may be later used to solve a problem. Insight learning involves sudden realization or understanding of a problem's solution. Learning sets refer to an animal's ability to learn a set of tasks or rules that apply to different situations. Researchers have studied these types of learning in animals, and the findings can also be applied to human learning. Modeling is a type of learning where individuals acquire new behaviors by observing the actions of others. Psychologist Albert Bandura of Stanford University has been a key proponent of the cognitive view of learning, which emphasizes the role of mental processes in acquiring new knowledge and skills. According to Bandura, people learn not only through classical and operant conditioning but also through modeling. Through modeling, individuals can learn a wide range of behaviors, from simple actions like how to tie a shoe to more complex behaviors like how to solve a math problem.

In the next article, we will talk about Memory: A Blessing or A Curse?

The resources: Lahey, B. B. (2018), Wood, S. E. (2016), The American Psychological Association

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