A Critique of the Behavioural Theories of Learning

Topics: Reinforcement, Operant conditioning, Classical conditioning Pages: 16 (4640 words) Published: April 17, 2012

One of the most debated issues in psychology pertains to the nature and meaning of learning. The systematic study of learning is relatively new as it was in the late nineteenth century that studies in this realm began in a scientific manner. Psychologists borrowed techniques from the physical sciences, and conducted experiments to understand how people and animals learn. Psychologists have tried in the past to define and explain how learning takes place. Two of the most important early researchers were Ivan Pavlov and Edward Thorndike. Among later researchers, B. F. Skinner was important for his studies of the relationship between behaviour and consequences. They are also known as the Behaviourists. According to them, learning can be defined as “the relatively permanent change in behaviour brought about as a result of experience or practice.” Their goal was to explain complex behaviour in terms of learning from simple behaviour. Thus as a result of learning it is possible for an individual to, use past experience to predict the future, to adapt to a rapidly changing environment and to exert control over our environment.

The question or issues that concern us are about conditions or elements, which influence most of our learning. These, according to Dr Ferguson T.J., may be concerned with whether habits are learned? Is aggression learned or innate? How do we learn fears, guilt, and pleasures? Do we learn more when the reward is greater? If the greater the reward, the more we enjoy the behaviour?

This paper discusses the various learning theories, as proposed by the behavioural theories their advantages and limitations.


In the late 1800s and early 1900s, Pavlov and his colleagues studied the digestive process in dogs. During the research, the scientists noticed that the dogs started salivating not just while eating but also at the sight of food, the sight of the man who brought the food and the sound of his footsteps. After initial fruitless speculation Pavlov explored the phenomena experimentally. The dog was isolated in a room, secured in a harness and attached with devices to that diverted its saliva to a measuring instrument. The experiment they conducted is explained as follows.

Pavlov And His Experiments
Pavlov’s studied and observed that dogs reflexively salivate to food in mouth. He defined food as an unconditioned stimulus (UCS) to the salivation response. Salivation is unconditioned response (UCR) to the food (you don't need to learn to salivate to food; it's an automatic response). Pavlov wondered whether you could take these natural associations between certain stimuli and responses and use them to produce true learning. He noticed that his dogs would start to salivate before they were even given any food. When the lab assistant simply opened the door to the room in which dogs were housed took a neutral stimulus i.e. a stimulus that can catch the learner's attention but does not elicit the UCR

Before conditioning
Neutral Stimulus in the shape of a bell that is rung is given, which results in no salivation. Here the unconditioned stimulus is the food, which results in salivation that is the unconditioned response.

During the conditioning trials
The experimenter repeatedly rang bell just before presenting food. Here the bell is the neutral stimulus followed by UCS (food), which results in salivation (UCR).
After conditioning

The experimenter repeatedly rang bell without showing any food to the dog and found that the conditioned stimulus (Bell; CS) is followed by salivation CR. The initially neutral stimulus (bell) became an elicitor of learned or conditioned response. Five Major Conditioning Processes

For the next three decades Pavlov and his associates explored the causes and effects of classical conditioning. Their experiments...
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