Introduction (Psychology and Mental Health)
Learning refers to any change in behavior or mental processes associated with experience. Traditionally psychologists interested in learning have taken a behavioral approach, which involves studying the relationship between environmental events, and resulting behavioral changes, in detail. Though the behavioral approach typically involves studying the behavior of nonhuman subjects in controlled laboratory environments, the results that have been found in behavioral research have often found wide application and use in human contexts. Since the early twentieth century, behavioral psychologists have extensively studied two primary forms of learning, classical and operant conditioning.
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Classical Conditioning (Psychology and Mental Health)
Classical conditioning is also referred to as associative learning or Pavlovian conditioning, after its primary founder, the Russian physiologist Ivan Petrovich Pavlov. Pavlov’s original studies involved examining digestion in dogs. The first step in digestion is salivation. Pavlov developed an experimental apparatus that allowed him to measure the amount of saliva the dog produced when presented with food. Dogs do not need to learn to salivate when food is given to them—that is an automatic, reflexive response. However, Pavlov noticed that, with experience, the dogs began to salivate before the food was presented, suggesting that new stimuli had acquired the ability to elicit the response. To examine this unexpected finding, Pavlov selected specific stimuli, which he systematically presented to the dog just before food was presented. The classic example is the ringing of a bell, but there was nothing special about the bell per se. Dogs do not salivate in response to a bell ringing under normal circumstances. What made the bell special was its systematic relationship to the delivery of food. Over time, the dogs began to salivate in response to the ringing of the bell even when the food was not presented. In other words, the dog learned to associate the bell with food so that the response (salivation) could be elicited by either stimulus.
In classical conditioning terminology, the food is the unconditioned stimulus...
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Underlying Factors (Psychology and Mental Health)
Psychologists have long studied the factors that are necessary and sufficient for producing classical conditioning. One important principle is contiguity, which refers to events occurring closely together in space or time. Classical conditioning is most effective when the CS and US are more contiguous, though precisely how closely together they must be presented depends on the type of classical conditioning observed. Taste-aversion conditioning, for example, will occur over much longer CS-US intervals than would be effective with other conditioning arrangements. Nevertheless, the sooner illness (US) follows taste (CS), the stronger the aversion (CR) will be.
Though seemingly necessary for classical conditioning, contiguity is not sufficient. A particularly clear demonstration of this fact is seen when the CS and US are presented at the exact same moment (a procedure called simultaneous conditioning). Though maximally contiguous, simultaneous conditioning is an extremely poor method for producing a CR. Furthermore, the order of presentation matters. If the US is presented before the CS rather than afterward, as is usually the case, then inhibitory conditioning will occur. Inhibitory conditioning is seen in experiments in which behavior can change in two directions. For example, with a conditioned suppression procedure, inhibitory conditioning is seen when the animal increases, rather than decreases, its ongoing behavior...
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Operant Conditioning (Psychology and Mental Health)
At about the same time that Pavlov was conducting his experiments in Russia, an American psychologist named Edward L. Thorndike was examining a different form of learning that has come to be called instrumental or operant conditioning. Thorndike’s original experiments involved placing cats in an apparatus he designed, which he called a puzzle box. A plate of food was placed outside the puzzle box, but the hungry cat was trapped inside. Thorndike designed the box so that the cat needed to make a particular response, such as moving a lever or pulling a cord, for a trap door to be released, allowing escape and access to the food outside. The amount of time it took the cat to make the appropriate response was measured. With repeated experience, Thorndike found that it took less and less time for the cat to make the appropriate response.
Operant conditioning is much different from Pavlov’s classical conditioning. As was stated before, classical conditioning involves learning “what goes with what” in the environment. Learning the relationship changes behavior, though behavior does not change the environmental events themselves. Through experience, Pavlov’s dogs began to salivate when the bell was rung, because the bell predicted food. However, salivating (the CR) did not cause the food to be delivered. Thorndike’s cats, on the other hand, received no food until the appropriate response was made. Through experience,...
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Skinnerian Conditioning (Psychology and Mental Health)
In addition to changing the strength of responses, operant conditioning can be used to mold entirely new behaviors. This process is referred to as shaping, and it was described by American psychologist B. F. Skinner, who further developed the field of operant conditioning. Suppose that the experiment’s objective was to train an animal, such as a laboratory rat, to press a lever. The rat could be given a piece of food (Sr) each time it pressed the lever (R), but it would probably be some considerable time before it would do so on its own. Lever pressing does not come naturally to rats. To speed up the process, the animal could be “shaped” by reinforcing successive approximations of lever-pressing behavior. The rat could be given a food pellet each time that it was in the vicinity of the lever. The law of effect predicts that the rat would spend more and more of its time near the lever as a consequence of reinforcement. Then the rat may be required to make some physical contact with the lever, but not necessarily press it, to be rewarded. The rat would make more and more contact with the lever as a result. Finally, the rat would be required to make the full response, pressing the lever, to get food. In many ways, shaping resembles the childhood game of selecting some object in the room without saying what it is and guiding guessers by saying “warmer” as they approach the object, and as they move away from...
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Superstitious Pigeons (Psychology and Mental Health)
As with classical conditioning, exactly what associations are learned in operant conditioning has been an important research question. For example, in a classic 1948 experiment, Skinner provided pigeons with food at regular intervals regardless of what they were doing at the time. Six of his eight pigeons developed stereotyped (consistent) patterns of behavior as a result of the experiment despite the fact that the pigeons’ behavior was not really necessary. According to the law of effect, some behavior would be occurring just prior to food delivery, and this behavior would be strengthened simply by chance pairing with reinforcement. This would increase the strength of the response, making it more likely to occur when the next reward was delivered—strengthening the response still further. Ultimately, one behavior would dominate the pigeons’ behavior in that experimental context. Skinner referred to this phenomenon as superstition. One need only observe the behavior of baseball players approaching the plate or basketball players lining up for a free-throw shot to see examples of superstition in human behavior.
Superstition again raises the issue of contiguity—simply presenting reinforcement soon after the response is made appears to strengthen it. However, later studies, especially a 1971 experiment conducted by J. E. R. Staddon and V. Simmelhag, suggested that it might not be quite that simple. Providing food...
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Negative Consequences (Psychology and Mental Health)
Positive or rewarding outcomes are not the only consequences that govern behavior. In many cases, people respond to avoid negative outcomes or stop responding when doing so produces unpleasant events. These situations correspond to the operant procedures of avoidance and punishment. Many psychologists have advocated using reinforcement rather than punishment to alter behavior, not because punishment is necessarily less effective in theory but because it is usually less effective in practice. For punishment to be effective, it should be (among other things) strong, immediate, and consistent. This can be difficult to accomplish in practice. In crime, for example, many offenses may have occurred without detection prior to the punished offense, so punishment is not certain. It is also likely that an individual’s court hearing, not to mention his or her actual sentence, will be delayed by weeks or even months, so punishment is not immediate. First offenses are likely to be punished less harshly than repeated offenses, so punishment gradually increases in intensity. In the laboratory, such a situation would produce an animal that would be quite persistent in responding, despite punishment.
In addition, punishment can produce unwanted side effects, such as the suppression of other behaviors, aggression, and the learning of responses to avoid or minimize punishing consequences. Beyond this, punishment requires constant...
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Interactions and Biological Constraints (Psychology and Mental Health)
Though the distinction between classical and operant conditioning is very clear in principle, it is not always so clear in practice. This makes sense if one considers real-life learning situations. In many circumstances events in the environment are associated (occur together) in a predictable fashion, and behavior will have consequences. This can be true in the laboratory as well, but carefully designed experiments can be conducted to separate out the impact of classical and operant conditioning on behavior.
In addition, the effectiveness of both classical and operant conditioning is influenced by biological factors. This can be seen both in the speed with which classically conditioned taste aversions (as compared with other CRs) are learned and in the stimulation of natural food-related behaviors in operant superstition experiments. Related findings have demonstrated that the effects of rewarding behavior can be influenced by biology in other ways that may disrupt the conditioning process. In an article published in 1961, Keller and Marian Breland described their difficulties in applying the principles of operant conditioning to their work as animal trainers in the entertainment industry. They found that when trained with food reinforcement, natural behaviors would often interfere with the trained operant response—a phenomenon they called instinctive drift. From a practical point of view, their...
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Applications of Conditioning Technology (Psychology and Mental Health)
Beyond being interesting and important in its own right, conditioning research also serves as a valuable tool in the psychological exploration of other issues. In essence, conditioning technology provides a means for asking animals questions—a way to explore interesting cognitive processes such as memory, attention, reasoning, and concept formation under highly controlled laboratory conditions in less complex organisms.
Another area of research is the field of behavioral neuroscience, or psychobiology, a field that combines physiological and behavioral approaches to uncover the neurological mechanisms underlying behavior. For example, the impact of various medications and substances of abuse on behavior can be observed by administering drugs as reinforcing stimuli. It is interesting to note that animals will produce operant responses to receive the same drugs to which humans become addicted. However, in animals, the neurological mechanisms involved in developing addictions can be studied directly, using both behavioral and physiological experimental techniques in a way that would not be possible with human subjects, due to ethical considerations.
In addition, the principles of classical and operant conditioning have been used to solve human problems in a variety of educational and therapeutic settings, a strategy called applied behavior analysis. The principles of operant conditioning have...
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Sources for Further Study (Psychology and Mental Health)
Domjan, Michael, and Barbara Burkhard. The Principles of Learning and Behavior. 5th ed. Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth, 2006. An extremely useful and complete textbook presenting classical as well as up-to-date research in the areas of operant and classical conditioning.
Lavond, David G., and Joseph E. Steinmetz. Handbook of Classical Conditioning. New York: Springer, 2003. This reference by two experts in conducting classical conditioning experiments shows how to perform a conditioning experiment, describing useful techniques and equipment.
Schwartz, Barry, ed. Psychology of Learning: Readings in Behavior Theory. New York: W. W. Norton, 1984. A collection of reprinted articles on conditioning and learning.
Skinner, B. F. Beyond Freedom and Dignity. 1971. Reprint. Indianapolis, Ind.: Hackett, 2002. The influential Skinner outlines his philosophical views on conditioning and its importance in confronting world problems.
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Conditioning (Encyclopedia of Psychology)
A broad term to describe techniques used by psychologists to study the process of learning.
Psychology has often been defined as the study of behavior. As such, psychologists have developed a diverse array of methods for studying both human and animal activity. Two of the most commonly used techniques are classical conditioning and operant conditioning. They have been used to study the process of learning, one of the key areas of interest to psychologists in the early days of psychology. Psychologists also attach considerable significance to conditioning because it has been effective in changing human and animal behavior in predictable and desirable ways.
The Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov developed the principles of classical conditioning. In his Nobel Prize-winning research on the digestive processes, he placed meat powder in the mouths of his research animals and recorded their levels of salivation. At one point,
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