The Psychology of Learning



Learning involves behavioral adaptations acquired through experience that help living creatures survive and function in a wider variety of environments. Three powerful learning processes are classical conditioning, operant conditioning, and observational learning. In classical conditioning, organisms learn through the repeated pairing of events. In operant conditioning, organisms learn from the desired or undesired consequences of behaviors. In observational learning, organisms learn by watching others. Learning theory has important implications for parenting, education, mental health treatment, and marketing.

At A Glance

  • In classical conditioning, a neutral stimulus is repeatedly paired with a stimulus that elicits a reflexive response, and then the neutral stimulus acquires the power to elicit the response on its own.
  • Once an association between an unconditioned stimulus and a conditioned stimulus has been acquired, the conditioned stimulus can be used to elicit the conditioned response.
  • Conditioned responses may occur only in response to specific stimuli (discrimination) or may generalize to similar stimuli. They may end after no longer being paired with the unconditioned stimuli (extinction) but return through spontaneous recovery.
  • Classical conditioning underlies drug tolerance, overdose, and relapse.
  • Classical conditioning can underlie the development of fetishes—the association of neutral stimuli with magical power or sexual arousal—and phobias—the association of neutral stimuli with fear-inducing stimuli.
  • Classical conditioning is used in aversion therapy, by pairing undesired behavior with an unpleasant stimulus, and in advertising, by repeatedly pairing desirable images with a company logo.
  • In operant conditioning, voluntary behavior is shaped by consequences.
  • Desired outcomes increase the frequency of behavior (reinforcement), while undesired outcomes decrease the frequency of behavior (punishment).
  • A schedule of reinforcement is a rule that describes how frequently a behavior is reinforced. Different schedules yield different behavioral outcomes.
  • Operant conditioning is a powerful means of modifying and deterring behavior across a wide range of applications. However, overusing rewards can reduce motivation.
  • Simply observing behavior and its consequences, without actually participating in the behavior, can still lead to learning.
  • There is a correlation between violent media consumption and aggression. Violent media may increase risk for aggression, but the relationship is complex and involves many other factors.
  • Stimulus associations that had significant survival value during a species' evolutionary history are more easily acquired than other associations.
  • Observational learning, learning that occurs by observing the behavior of others, is possible because mirror neurons become active both when performing and observing behaviors.