CHAPTER 7 (LEARNING)
When psychologists talk about learning, they are referring to a relatively permanent change in knowledge or behavior that comes about as a result of experience. Experience is necessary for us to speak, read, write, add and subtract, ride a bicycle, or know how to charm a romantic partner. Regardless of your specific area of study, they all incorporate the concept of learning. Often what we learn makes us happier, healthier, and more successful; sometimes it does not. The beauty of adaptation by learning is that it is flexible. This means that each of us can learn to behave in ways that benefit rather than harm ourselves and others. The question is: how does this learning take place? We will focus on four types of learning – habituation, classical conditioning, operant conditioning, and observational learning. What is common among all these types of learning is that they work under the principle of learning by association. The simplest form of learning is habituation – a tendency to become familiar with a stimulus merely as a result of repeated exposure. The first time it happens, a sudden loud noise or a blast of cold air has a startling effect on us and triggers an ‘orienting reflex’. Among humans, the eyes widen, the eyebrows rise, muscles tighten, the heart beats faster, and brain-wave patterns indicate a heightened level of physiological arousal. On the second and third exposures to the stimulus, the effect is weakened. Then as we become acclimated or ‘habituated’ to the stimulus, the novelty wears off, the startle reaction disappears, and boredom sets in. Habituation is a primitive form of learning and is found among mammals, birds, fish, insects, and all other organisms. For example, sea snails reflexively withdraw their gills at the slightest touch. Then after repeated tactile stimulation, the response disappears. Animals may also habituate to objects that naturally evoke fear after repeated and harmless exposures. When lab rats were presented with a cat collar smeared with a cat’s odor, they ran from it and hid. However, after several presentations the rats hid for decreasing amounts of time, eventually resembling control group rats exposed to an odorless collar. If you think about everyday life, numerous examples of habituation come to mind. People who move from a large city to the country or from a region of the world that is hot to one that is cold often need time to adjust to the sudden change in stimulation. Once they do, the new environment seems less noisy, quiet, hot or cold. Habituation also has important implications for the power of rewards to motivate us. Regardless of whether the rewarding stimulus is food, water, or money, it tends to lose impact, at least temporarily, with repeated use. Thus, you have to keep increasing the reward for its continued success (unless there is a pause in the rewarding cycle, then you can kind of ‘reset’ the value). In habituation, an organism learns from exposure that a certain stimulus is familiar. Over the years, however, psychologists have focused more on the ways in which we learn relationships between events. Thus, we’ll move to the latter three learning processes. Following Aristotle, modern philosophers and psychologists have long believed that the key to learning is association, a tendency to connect events that occur together in space and time. Enter Ivan Pavlov, a Russian physiologist (not psychologist!). After receiving his medical degree in 1882, he spent twenty years studying the digestive system and won a Nobel Prize for that research in 1904. Pavlov was the complete dedicated scientist. Rumor has it that he once reprimanded a lab assistant who was ten minutes late for an experiment because of street riots stemming from the Russian Revolution – saying ‘Next time there’s a revolution, get up earlier!’ Ironically, Pavlov’s most important contribution was the result of an incidental discovery. In studying the...
Please join StudyMode to read the full document