Philosophers such a John Locke, David Hume, and even Aristotle concluded that as human beings we learn by association. Understanding how we learn can be very crucial. Understanding how learning works helps us to understand our individual learning styles. What does association mean? It means that our minds connect events that occur in a sequence. We smell freshly baked cookies, we eat those cookies, and we feel satisfied. A week later you smell freshly baked cookies again, you will know expect to be satisfied if you eat those cookies. You have learned to associate freshly baked cookies with satisfaction.
Learning, in a psychological sense, is a relatively permanent change in an organism’s behavior due to experience.
Another example of association is listening to a CD. I may not know the name of every song in order on my favorite CD (or Ipod playlist) but when I hear the end of one song it prompts the anticipation of the next song. Have you ever listened to a song on the radio, and when it ended you expected to hear a certain song following it? That’s association; you associate the end of one song with the beginning of another. That is a learned response.
Learned associations affect our habitual behaviors. We learn to repeat the same behaviors in a certain context. Our behaviors become associated with a certain context, the route we walk to class, where we study, the road we take home, etc. The context can automatically trigger our habitually response. At my school for example we have “smokers sections” to help keep the campus clean. If I were to quit smoking, I would have to avoid those areas, being around smokers or in areas where I used to smoke would make quitting much more difficult.
Humans aren’t the only ones who learn by association. All types of animals learn this way. The most famous example of this would be Pavlov’s classical conditioning experiment. But, I am not going to get into that in this article.
Let’s look at pet training as an example of learning by association. When you train your dog you give them a treat as a reward. Many times it gets to the point that once they learn what you are training them, whether it be sit, lay down, speak, every time you take out a treat you have them perform one of these acts. Your pet learns to associate these acts with a treat. That is one of the clearest examples of learning by association. Associative learning is all about linking two events that occur close together.
We learn associations through conditioning. There are two different types of conditioning, Classical and Operant which I will discuss in more detail in a different article.
If we didn’t learn to associate things we would end up making the same mistakes over and over again. Association helps us survive. If we didn’t learn to associate a hot pan with burning our hand then we would continually grab a hot pan with our hand.
Conditioning is not the only way that we learn things. We can also associate things by observational learning. If we watch something bad happen to someone else we are going to avoid doing what they did. While driving you see someone get pulled over for speeding, you are probably going to slow down, if only until you reach your destination. If a Chimpanzee watches a fellow Chimpanzee solve a puzzle and get rewarded with food the observer Chimpanzee will attempt to solve that puzzle.
Through conditioning and observation we learn to adapt to our environments. We learn to expect and to prepare for certain events, whether they be rewarding like food or something that may cause pain. We learn to repeat acts that bring good results, such as studying and passing an exam. We learn to avoid behaviors that bring bad results, speeding and getting a ticket. We watch things that happen to others and learn through that. On top of those things, we also learn things that we have neither observed nor experienced through language.