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Learning Theory

Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.

Learning Theory is rooted in the work of Ivan Pavlov, the famous scientist who discovered and documented the principles governing how animals (humans included) learn. Two basic kinds of learning or conditioning occur:

  • Classical conditioning happens when an animal learns to associate a neutral stimulus (signal) with a stimulus that has intrinsic meaning based on how closely in time the two stimuli are presented. The classic example of classic conditioning is a dog's ability to associate the sound of a bell (something that originally has no meaning to the dog) with the presentation of food (something that has a lot of meaning for the dog) a few moments later. Dogs are able to learn the association between bell and food, and will salivate immediately after hearing the bell once this connection has been made.
  • Instrumental conditioning happens when an animal learns to perform particular behaviors in order to obtain an intrinsically rewarding stimulus. Instrumental conditioning has occurred when a trained dolphin leaps out of the water in order to obtain a fish reward, and when a human employee shows up at work in exchange for a paycheck.

Years of learning research have lead to the creation of a highly precise learning theory that can be used to understand and predict how and under what circumstances most any animal will learn, including human beings. Because most behavior is learned according to the principles of instrumental conditioning, learning theory can be used to help people figure out how to change their behaviors.

Though there is only one learning theory, there are several flavors of behaviorism, which is the school of psychology that developed around learning theory. Strict behaviorism ignores the importance of mental events in shaping behavior. According to this view, the same principles that are used to train dogs are also useful for training or educating human beings. As backwards as this sounds, there is much merit in this position. Strict behaviorist approaches to human education have flourished as a guiding philosophy for educating autistic and mentally retarded individuals.

Cognitive behaviorism is a newer approach that applies learning theory to mental events like thoughts and feelings. Cognitive behavioral therapists teach people new ways of thinking, and in so doing, help them to overcome various problems that stem from dysfunctional thinking, including depression and anxiety problems (Depression and anxiety can be seen and successfully treated as just another variety of learned behavior, according to this approach). We'll talk more about cognitive therapy later on in the Methods section.

The key insight to take home from learning theory is that most behavior is learned behavior, for animals as well as human beings. If behavior can be learned, it can also be unlearned, so long as the right steps are followed (as described by the learning theory), and the right reinforcements or punishments are applied. If your problem has to do with a bad habit you'd like to change, learning more about learning theory is a good idea for you.

 

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