The Psychology of Learning


The Psychology of Learning

All of us have been learning and have been running behind the academic rat races unique to each of our lives ever since we were children. Not just academics, most of the behaviours one exhibits during one’s lifetime are all learnt by the individual during different stages of his or her life through various methods of learning.

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Our emotional reactions, perceptions, and physiological responses are all influenced by what we learn. We learn to think, act, and feel in ways that enrich our identities through experience. Learning can be defined as the process by which an organism’s behaviour or capabilities change as a result of experience. Through this article, let us delve into the 4 major forms or types of learning in detail.

1. Habituation:

Assume you are a student sitting alone in a quiet classroom, engrossed in your classwork when a loud sound startles you. Your body shakes slightly, you grow aroused, and you turn to look at the source of the noise. As you hear it again and again, your startled response fades until you ultimately disregard the sound. A decrease in the strength of response to a recurrent stimulus is referred to as habituation. It is possibly the most basic form of learning and occurs in species ranging from humans to dragonflies to sea snails.

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2. Classical conditioning:

Classical conditioning emphasizes greatly associations. Classical conditioning is the process by which an organism learns to link two stimuli so that one stimulus comes to elicit a response that was previously elicited only by the other. Classical conditioning, like habituation, is a fundamental form of learning that even insects exhibit. Its discovery dates back to the late 1800s and an unusual turn of events.

Ivan Pavlov was a renowned physiologist, whose research on digestion in dogs earned him the Nobel Prize in 1904. Pavlov fed food to dogs and analysed their salivary response to examine digestion. Pavlov made an unintentional but significant finding, as is often the scientific case. With repeated testing, he discovered that the dogs began to salivate before the meal was offered, such as when they heard footsteps. This observation was confirmed by an additional investigation by Pavlov’s (1923/1928) research team.

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Dogs have an instinct to salivate in response to food but not in response to tones. However, when a tone or other stimulus that normally would not cause salivation was delivered right before squirting food powder into a dog’s mouth, the sound of the tone soon caused the dog to salivate. This method of learning by association became known as classical, or Pavlovian, conditioning.

Many psychologists consider Pavlov’s finding to be one of the most significant in the history of psychology. Classical conditioning is one of the most basic forms of learning that has its applications for human beings as well. One of its major applications is in the field of aversion therapy which helps to reduce arousal and attraction to stimuli. This idea is applied in aversion treatment, which tries to develop an aversion (repulsion) to a stimulus that causes unwanted behaviour by matching it with an unpleasant UCS.

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A therapist may couple photographs of children with a strong electric shock to cure paedophiles (child molesters), and to lessen an alcoholic desire to drink, the patient may be given a medicine that causes extreme nausea when alcohol is consumed. Aversion therapies produce inconsistent results, frequently creating short-term benefits that fade over time, which is a disadvantage of classical conditioning. The responses learnt through classical conditioning can be extinguished quite conveniently if the associations are not made between these stimuli over a long period.

3. Operant conditioning:

Skinner (1938, 1953) defined operant conditioning as a type of learning in which behaviour is influenced by the consequences that follow it. BF Skinner, a Harvard psychologist, was a behaviourist who attempted to understand the processes of learning. To navigate the quest, he invented the Skinner box, a unique chamber used to conduct experimental studies on operant conditioning. On one wall, a lever is positioned above a little cup. When the lever is depressed, a food pellet falls into the cup automatically.

A hungry rat is placed in the chamber and mistakenly presses the lever as it moves around. The rat consumes a food pellet that clinks into the cup. The rat’s behaviour was recorded, which indicates that the rat presses the bar more frequently with time. Skinner talked about two types of consequences: reinforcements and punishments. Reinforcements are those consequences that increase the frequency of the individual or organism exhibiting the behaviour. Positive reinforcements are those consequences that strengthen the presentation of a particular behaviour.

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Negative reinforcement involves the removal of a particular stimulus which causes the strengthening of a particular response. The 2nd type of consequence is punishment. Punishment occurs when the consequences weaken the exhibition of a particular response. Positive punishment involves the application of aversive stimuli which follows the weakening of a particular response. this kind of punishment involves the administration of slaps, electric shocks etc, and is also called aversive punishment. Negative punishment involves the removal of a stimulus that subsequently causes the weakening of the response. It is also known as response cost.

4. Observational learning:

Observational learning is the process of learning by observing the behaviour of a model. Teachers, parents, and coaches frequently assist us in learning by modelling abilities, but observational learning goes beyond these situations. We learn about your anxieties, prejudices, loves and dislikes, and so on. Observational learning has the potential to be very adaptable. An organism can learn which events are significant by seeing others, which cues indicate that such events are about to occur, and which responses are likely to have good or bad repercussions.

Monkeys, for example, may learn adaptive fears, such as a dread of snakes, by watching other monkeys react with terror. There exists a plethora of practical applications for observational learning in our personal lives. We model on our elders, teachers, siblings and even peer group members for most of our pro-social behaviours given the fact that they are positively reinforced or positively accepted by society for the exhibition of those behaviours. Albert Bandura, through an experiment named the Bobo Doll experiment, emphasized the importance of observation in influencing people’s behaviour and this has become the basis of many interventions designed to address multiple social problems.

Learning seems a very easy process. This perception exists only until the psychological nuances of the same are investigated. Accurate and adequate comprehension of different types of learning would help in designing invaluable learning strategies that could come in handy while delving into academics and research work.

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