Learning Theories In Psychology

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During the early part of the twentieth century, a number of psychologists became increasingly interested in turning psychology into a more scientific endeavor. To be more scientific, they argued, psychology needed to study only those things that could be measured and quantified.

A number of different learning theories emerged to explain how and why people behave the way that they do. The learning theories of development are centered on the environmental influences on the learning process. Such environmental influences include associations, reinforcements, punishments, and observations.

Some of the primary learning theories of development include:

Let’s start by taking a closer look at each theory and then comparing them to one another.


Basic Principles of Social Learning Theory

Learning Through Classical Conditioning

The concept of classical conditioning has had a major influence on the field of psychology, yet the man who discovered it was not a psychologist at all. A Russian physiologist named Ivan Pavlov first discovered the principles of classical conditioning during his experiments on the digestive systems of dogs. Pavlov noticed that the dogs in his experiments had begun to salivate whenever they saw the white coats of his lab assistants prior to being fed.

So how exactly does classical conditioning explain learning? According to the principles of classical conditioning, learning takes place when an association is formed between a previously neutral stimulus and a naturally occurring stimulus. In Pavlov’s experiments, for example, he paired the natural stimulus of food with the sound of a bell. The dogs would naturally salivate in response to food, but after multiple associations, the dogs would salivate to the sound of the bell alone.

Learning Through Operant Conditioning

Operant conditioning was first described by the behavioral psychologist B.F. Skinner. It is sometimes also referred to as Skinnerian conditioning and instrumental conditioning. Skinner believed that classical conditioning simply could not account for all types of learning and was instead more interested in learning how the consequences of actions influence behaviors.

Like classical conditioning, operant conditioning relies on forming associations. In operant conditioning, however, associations are made between a behavior and the consequences of that behavior. When a behavior leads to a desirable consequence, it becomes more likely that the behavior will be repeated again in the future. If the actions lead to a negative outcome, however, then the behavior then becomes less likely to occur.

Learning Through Observation

Albert Bandura believed that associations and direct reinforcements simply could not account for all learning. "Learning would be exceedingly laborious, not to mention hazardous if people had to rely solely on the effects of their own actions to inform them what to do," he famously wrote in his 1977 book Social Learning Theory.

Instead, he proposed that much of learning takes place through observation. Children observe the actions of those around them, particularly caregivers and siblings, and then imitate these behaviors. In his well-known Bobo doll experiment, Bandura revealed just how easily children could be led to imitate even negative actions. Children who watched a video of an adult beating up a large inflatable doll were then much more likely to copy those same actions when given a chance.

Perhaps most importantly, Bandura noted that learning something does not necessarily result in a change in behavior. Children frequently learning new things through observation, but might not engage in such behaviors themselves until there is actually a need or motivation to utilize the information.

Key Difference in Learning Theories

Classical Conditioning

Operant Conditioning

Social Learning

Learning occurs by forming associations between naturally occurring stimuli and a previously neutral stimuli

Learning occurs when behaviors are followed by either reinforcement or punishment

Learning occurs through observation

The neutral stimulus must occur immediately before the naturally occurring one

The consequences must quickly follow the behavior

Observations can take place at any time

Focuses on automatic, naturally occurring behaviors

Focuses on voluntary behaviors

Focuses on the give-and-take interaction between social, cognitive, and environmental influences

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