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How do latent and observational learning force a reconsideration of learning views offered by classical and operant conditioning theorists?   

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Latent and observational learning differ from operant and classical conditioning in the method by which learning takes place. Please remember that learning is the result of experience. Latent learning involves the acquiring of information that an individual is only motivated to use when he or she considers it important, such as when a reward is available. For example, before learning how to drive, I relied on my parents to drive me around town. I would tell them where I needed to go. Once I got my car, I was left to my own devices to reach my destinations. Since I was now motivated to get somewhere within a certain timeframe, I recalled every street my parents would take. Thus, it wasn’t until I needed to reach a destination that I consciously recalled this information.

Second, observational learning, as the word implies, occurs after observing an event’s consequence. Observational learning may be classified as social or asocial. Social observational learning posits that an observer’s behavior will be reinforced or punished depending on the outcome of a model’s behavior. After a model’s behavior results in positive consequences, the observer is more likely to behave that way. Behavior is vicariously reinforced. For example, if I observe that my brother gets a chocolate bar every time he cleans his room, I will clean my room more often because I want a chocolate bar as well. Additionally, an observer may feel discouraged to behave a certain way after witnessing a model’s behavior result in negative consequences. Thus, a behavior is vicariously punished. Let's say that I saw my friend Kevin get bitten after trying to pet the neighbor’s dog. I will not try to pet it, because I know it will bite me.

Moreover, asocial observational learning involves learning from what you have observed when there is no model present. No vicarious reinforcement or punishment takes place, given the lack of a model; however, the observer still learns from what they have seen. For example, I arrived at a cabin in the woods for spring break but did not know how to open a window. It started to rain, and the strong winds opened the window with an inward motion but closed it back afterward. As a result, I learned how to open the window in the absence of a model.

Third, B. F. Skinner defined operant conditioning as the strengthening or weakening of behavior in function of its environmental consequences. There are four kinds of operant conditioning procedures. Positive reinforcement occurs when a behavior is strengthened by a positive reinforcer, a stimulus that people desire, which motivates an individual to keep behaving a certain way. Negative reinforcement occurs when the tendency to engage in a behavior decreases due to the removal of a negative reinforcer, a stimulus people aim to escape from. In positive punishment, behavior results in the application of punishment, such as being grounded. In negative punishment, the tendency to engage in a behavior decreases due to the removal of the desired...

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stimulus, such as the removal of privileges.

Fourth, classical conditioning, also known as Pavlovian conditioning, pairs up and creates an association between an unconditional stimulus and a conditional stimulus for both to evoke the same response. When food is presented to a dog, the dog naturally starts to salivate. Food is the unconditional stimulus, and salivating is the unconditional response. However, after food has been presented to the dog in a dish several times, the dog begins to associate the sight of the dish with food, so it will now start to salivate at the sight of a dish. The dish is the conditional stimulus, and salivating is the conditional response. After the unconditional and conditional stimuli have been paired, they deliver the same responses.

Last, it is fair to mention that latent and observational learning borrow two elements from operant conditioning: reinforcement and punishment. However, latent and observational learning have indirect relationships to stimuli, reinforcers, and punishers, unlike operant and classical conditioning. After the above discussion, it is clear how different stimuli and incentives lead to different types of learning.


Chance, P. (2014). Learning and Behavior (7th ed). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth/Cengage.

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This is an interesting question, and the difference lies mostly in the means by which a person learns something.  In classical and operant conditioning, the learning occurs through an actual, live, active experience that is happening to the person themselves.  So, for example, let's take learning how to change a light bulb.  Latent and observational learning have a person not actually changing the bulb to learn the skill; rather, they just watch someone do it and thus are able to pick up the skill themselves.  With conditioning, that person would have to actually go change the light bulb and experience reinforcements or punishment through the process in order how to do it right.

For example, if the person tries to take the old light bulb out but squeezes too hard and breaks it, cutting themselves, that would fall under classical and operant conditioning.  It would be classical conditioning if the next time a person approaches a light bulb, they feel nervous.  It is operant conditioning because they learned NOT to squeeze the lightbulb too hard, because they were punished the last time they did; their behavior was shaped by that reinforcement.

With latent and observational learning, there is no hands-on learning experience.  You see tons of people changing the bulbs, and are able to do it correctly yourself the first time because you saw it modeled.  That isn't the case with conditioning; in conditioning, you experience and learn for yourself through a series of stimuli and reinforcements.  Conditionists would argue that all learning comes through experience; but latent and observational learning shows how that is not always the case--we can, indeed, learn things simply through watching others.

I hope that helps; good luck!

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