What are the psychological and biological factors that set the pathway for learning? The topic of learning has fascinated psychologists since the dawn of the profession. There have been many debates in the early years of psychology about whether or not we learn due to a biological function, such as instincts, or we are empty of thought (tabula rasa) and learn through what our environment (the outside forces) teaches us.
Early learning theorists also known as behaviorists
The first of the learning theories which are considered the second wave of psychology rose as a result of a dislike in general for Freud and the psycho analytical approach. The new breed of psychologists of the early 1900’s, did not believe the mind had very much to do with learning. There was no talk of thinking, or feelings, which we now know influence the way we think and act.
These researchers were only interested in our behavior. For the new breed of psychologists on the forefront, behavior was a reaction to what happened to us in the outside world. Their theory became known as behaviorism. These new psychologists of the early 1900’s developed a process they called classical learning.
Behaviorists of the time theorized that every animal on the planet, whether it be dogs, chimpanzees, or humans learned the same way. Their research to support their claims was conducted on animals and they believed these results would prove to be the same for humans as well.
Basically what the classical conditioning researchers theorized was that animals and humans alike did the same thing over and over. We behave in that fashion because we are conditioned to do so. This means we don’t think about our actions. We just do something automatically because we always did it that way. Our habits, are an example of what the classical conditioning theorists were referring to.
Many of our habits are unknown to us. We did not think about the habit before we actually did it. For example, a person who jumps around a lot playing a video game may not realize he or she is doing it. The action is oblivious because of the concentration on the game itself. In this case it would take an onlooker to point out this behavior.
Somehow during the process of learning to play the video game the player was conditioned to moving around a lot. Perhaps that happened because a certain position gave a better score, or movement was associated with speed and so on. The reason the habit was formed was because a trigger, which is something from the environment, such as a bad score, or a good score, provoked the response from the player. Though the response may have been appropriate for better game results, somehow the player now jumps around in every game played. Now, the conditioned response is evoked in games that would not require speed or excessive movement.
Ivan Pavlov and classical conditioning
Most of us are familiar with Ivan Pavlov’s dogs. Pavlov trained his dogs to salivate every time they heard a bell ring. They learned from the environment that bell would mean they would be feed. This Russian scientist developed the theory of classical conditioning. Here are some of the requirements for this theory. Unconditioned stimulus and unconditioned response An unconditioned stimulus is something that happens naturally. An example would be a noise that startles a person. The unconditioned response from the person would be to jump. There is no thought involved in the response, the person does not think should I jump or not? It is just an involuntary action, or response to the stimulus which is the noise.
Conditioned stimulus and conditioned response
The example of a bell sounding is a deliberate act on the part of the scientist to condition the dogs to respond in a certain fashion every time the bell is rung. The conditioned response is that the dogs salivated every time, in expectation, of the food they knew would come.
The conditioned response is usually something neutral such as the bell which has absolutely nothing to do with food, but has been paired with food, so that the dogs associate the sound of the bell with food. Every time they hear a bell they will connect it with food, whether food is actually coming or not. So what happens is that two stimuli; food and a bell, which have nothing in common, now produce the conditioned response of salivating. The dogs would salivate when they heard the bell even if no food was placed in front of them.
How is classical learning theory used today?
Of course humans would not response exactly the same as a dog. If we responded like a dog the reaction on our part would resemble being hypnotized to respond to a certain word in a certain way. We do have a myriad of responses and different people may respond a different way. However, any person can be conditioned to a respond in a certain way unique to their own individuality. Therefore, there are applications where classical conditioning still works. Animal trainers no doubt will use this technique in obedience training. Teachers will use classical conditioning to create a positive learning environment, psychologists will treat phobias and other anxiety related disorders by using classical learning theory. Also, behavior modification programs are based on classical learning theory.