IB Psychology/Perspectives/Learning

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Background to the learning perspective[edit | edit source]

Definition of learning: Learning in psychology is defined as change in behavior due to environmental influences.

The learning perspective has its background in the USA in the 1910's. It was born out of an optimistic approach to psychology, believing that if most behavior is learnt, then most behavior can also be changed, as opposed to for example biologists. The anti-German feelings of the time also contributed. The American psychologists gave little credence to the German idea of studying subjects by letting them make accounts of introspection. The learning perspective thus emerged as a reaction to the Germans' subjective study of the mind. It put an emphasis on the scientific study of observable behavior – i.e., what goes on in the mind is not important, only the resultant behavior. It has contributed to the scientific study of behavior (i.e. psychology as we study it) by advocating the experimental testing of hypotheses. Learning psychology is extreme in its favoring of experiments ahead of observational studies and case studies.

Basic assumptions of the learning perspective[edit | edit source]

  1. Only behaviour that can be seen may be studied.
  2. Behavior can be changed through new learning and unlearning.
  3. Human behavior is determined by the conditioning history of the individual (determinism)
  4. All species learn the same way.
  5. Complex behavior is caused by simple mechanisms (reductionism)

Classical conditioning[edit | edit source]

(One of the key theories of the learning perspective.)

Something that is conditioned is learnt or acquired.
A stimulus is something that affects the sense organs.

The idea of classical conditioning was born with the scientist Ivan Pavlov, who discovered that when dogs were presented with food, they began to salivate. When the presenting of food was repeatedly coupled with another, neutral stimulus, such as a bell chiming, the dogs would begin to salivate just upon hearing the bell. Watson took this idea further, generalizing it to saying that everything humans learn, they learn through classical conditioning. He made studies of Little Albert, who he got to develop a phobia for rats, by making a loud noise behind his back each time he was presented with a rat. He also supervised Jones as he experimented with Peter, whom Jones got to stop being afraid of rabbits by letting him have milk and cookies while there was a rabbit in the room, and gradually moving the rabbit closer over a number of sessions, while finally Peter could hold the rabbit without being afraid.

The process of classical conditioning[edit | edit source]

The process of classical conditioning goes as follows
  1. Reflex. An unconditioned stimulus gives an unconditioned response, a reaction that goes directly through the nervous system and is faster than perception. Gagging and sneezing, for example. In Pavlov's case, the unconditioned stimulus was the sight of food, and the response was salivation.
  2. Neutral stimulus without any specific reaction tied to it. In Pavlov's case, the ringing of a bell.
  3. Pairing of an unconditioned stimulus and a neutral stimulus. Pavlov presented the food at the same time as ringing the bell.
  4. Conditioned (neutral) stimulus giving a conditioned response (somewhat weaker than the unconditioned response). Finally, the pairing will result in the neutral stimulus giving the associated response, that is, the dogs began salivating just upon hearing the bell.

Studies and theories[edit | edit source]

Seligman developed the theory of preparedness, that humans are more likely to be conditioned to some things than others. Öhman studied this, and found that he more easily could induce what he called “mini-phobias” of snakes than for example flowers when connecting slide pictures to electrical chocks. Garcia found that it is easier to create conditioned responses in rats using taste and smell, not sight. The opposite was found for pigeons. He believed that the reason was the animals' dependency on some senses above others.

Seligman, as stated above, developed the theory of preparedness, non-preparedness and contra preparedness in humans to be conditioned. The theory states that humans can fast and easily learn some behaviors through classical conditioning, and that this behavior is also more resistant to extinction, because humans are biologically prepared to learn it. Other behaviors we are not prepared to learn, and some we are prepared not to learn.

Ader discovered, in an experiment on classical conditioning on rats, that the rats' bodily functions could also be conditioned. He fed the rats with saccharine water containing a poison that would give them a stomach ache, making the rats develop an aversion towards saccharine water. What he discovered was, since the poison also suppressed the rats' immune system, that when the rats were given unpoisoned saccharine water after developing the aversion, they also shut down their immune systems, eventually causing their deaths.

Studies have been made of the phenomena of anticipatory nausea and vomiting. Patients undergoing chemo therapy often become nauseous following the treatment. This conditions them into associating the treatment with nausea, making them feel ill even prior to a treatment session.

Garcia studied coyotes, making them hesitate to attack sheep by giving them poisoned meat, making them ill, wrapped in sheepskin. They were thus conditioned to associate the smell of sheep to illness.

Summary of classical conditioning[edit | edit source]

An association is formed between two stimuli (an unconditioned stimulus and a neutral stimulus), resulting in the subject having the same response to the neutral stimulus and the unconditioned stimulus. This could explain learnt and automatic emotional reactions in humans (e.g. aversions and phobias).

Theorists: Pavlov and Watson
Research: The salivation of Pavlov's dogs, Watson's study of Little Albert, Jones' study of Little Peter, Ader's studies of rats and Garcia's studies of coyotes.
Theorist: Seligman, theory of preparedness
Studies: Öhman et al, skin conductance.
Important point: the theory of preparedness puts an emphasis on biological factors.

Operant conditioning[edit | edit source]

(Another key theory of the learning perspective.Note that this theory, as well as the theory on classical conditioning, is quite determinist.)


Thorndike (1913)
Developed the idea of the law of effect: “Behavior is governed by its consequences.”
Preformed experiments with cats, learning to open a “puzzle box” by trial and error.
All organisms are spontaneously active. He developed the theory that humans learn from this spontaneous behavior.
“Spontaneous behavior which grants positive consequences is more likely to reoccur than behavior which grants no or negative consequences.”
The Skinner box experiment. Put a pigeon into a specially designed box which delivered food when the pigeon did what Skinner wanted it to do.
Developed theories of operant conditioning.
Shaping behavior. Successive approximations to required behavior are rewarded and learnt.
Chaining behavior. One kind of behavior is rewarded and learnt, then another kind which is added to be successive to the first, etc.
Reinforcement. There is positive reinforcement and negative reinforcement. Positive R means presenting something that is wanted, a reward. Negative R means taking away something that is unwanted.
Punishment. Positive, negative. Positive P, presenting something unwanted, e.g. slapping. Negative P, taking away something wanted, e.g. fines (taking away money).
Reinforcement and punishment do not need to be dealt by a particular person. Reinforcement aims to lead to repetition of a behavior, punishment aims to lead to avoidance of it.

Language acquisition (in children)[edit | edit source]

(Note that this psychological question is particularly well suited for evaluation.)

Some psychologist have attempted to explain language acquisition through operant conditioning. Skinner, for example, saw language as a verbal behavior that is reinforced and shaped. As can be seen in handout 8, this has proven to be unsatisfactory to explain language acquisition.

Noam Chomsky has criticized Skinner's simplistic view and come up with a view of his own. He hypothesizes that humans have a unique biological and cognitive Language Acquisition Device, LAD which automatically detects the rules of a language. His arguments are

  • If language was acquired through reinforcement and shaping, children learning a language would make all kinds of errors in their language, which they don't.
  • Language is learnt by a predetermined order – children start by forming “one-word sentences”, then go on to two words, etc.
  • Language would take a lot of time to acquire if Skinner was correct, when it in reality is very rapid.
  • It has been shown that parents don't interfere very much, i.e. supply very little reinforcement, in their children's learning process.
  • Language seems to evolve by a nature of its own. The mesh that is created when two languages meet, Pidgin, is in the second generation developed into a more advanced language, Creole.

Social learning theory[edit | edit source]

Main theorist: Bandura. Please add more information to this section.

Bandura used bo-bo dolls to investigate wheather children copy adults behavior (modeling).== Alternative learning theories ==

Imprinting[edit | edit source]

The theory that humans and non-human animals have certain critical or sensitive periods for learning. Lorenz studied ducklings and found that in their first 24 hours, the first thing they see move, they will have an instinct to follow. This normally means their mother. Bowlby developed this into the attachment theory, saying that children need to have frequent contact with their parents in order to attach to them and adhere to their values.

Insight learning[edit | edit source]

Köhler gave rise to this theory, saying that we learn not only by conditioning, but also by the cognitive process, thinking. His theory is supported by his study of a chimpanzee in a cage who figured out how to reach a banana with a stick.

Learned helplessness[edit | edit source]

A theory on depression.Seligman gave rise to the theory and made studies of for example dogs on electrocuting floors. He found that those who were given the possibility to prevent the electrical shocks to happen were more inclined to take the opportunity to free themselves of the floor than the ones who could not change their situation. In effect, the dogs had learned that they were helpless.

Questions to be prepared for in the exam[edit | edit source]

  • Identifying an assumption of the learning perspective and relating it to a theory or study.
  • Describing the historical or cultural background of the perspective.
  • Outlining an explanation of a psychological or social questions based on learning, and evaluating this explanation.
  • Describing how the perspective has contributed to the study of psychology.
  • Describing an empirical study related to the perspective and its applications.
  • Describing a theory related to the perspective and evaluating it.