What Is Learning?
Learning is an adaptive function by which our nervous system changes in relation to stimuli in the environment, thus changing our behavioral responses and permitting us to function in our environment. The process occurs initially in our nervous system in response to environmental stimuli. Neural pathways can be strengthened, pruned, activated, or rerouted, all of which cause changes in our behavioral responses.
Instincts and reflexes are innate behaviors—they occur naturally and do not involve learning. In contrast, learning is a change in behavior or knowledge that results from experience. The field of behavioral psychology focuses largely on measurable behaviors that are learned, rather than trying to understand internal states such as emotions and attitudes.
Types of Learning
There are three main types of learning: classical conditioning, operant conditioning, and observational learning. Both classical and operant conditioning are forms of associative learning, in which associations are made between events that occur together. Observational learning is just as it sounds: learning by observing others.
Classical conditioning is a process by which we learn to associate events, or stimuli, that frequently happen together; as a result of this, we learn to anticipate events. Ivan Pavlov conducted a famous study involving dogs in which he trained (or conditioned) the dogs to associate the sound of a bell with the presence of a piece of meat. The conditioning is achieved when the sound of the bell on its own makes the dog salivate in anticipation for the meat.
Operant conditioning is the learning process by which behaviors are reinforced or punished, thus strengthening or extinguishing a response. Edward Thorndike coined the term “law of effect,” in which behaviors that are followed by consequences that are satisfying to the organism are more likely to be repeated, and behaviors that are followed by unpleasant consequences are less likely to be repeated. B. F. Skinner researched operant conditioning by conducting experiments with rats in what he called a “Skinner box.” Over time, the rats learned that stepping on the lever directly caused the release of food, demonstrating that behavior can be influenced by rewards or punishments. He differentiated between positive and negative reinforcement, and also explored the concept of extinction.
Observational learning occurs through observing the behaviors of others and imitating those behaviors—even if there is no reinforcement at the time. Albert Bandura noticed that children often learn through imitating adults, and he tested his theory using his famous Bobo-doll experiment. Through this experiment, Bandura learned that children would attack the Bobo doll after viewing adults hitting the doll.