Learning Theories

When we talk of learning we usually think of something related to the classroom, such as English or Maths. However, Psychologists refer to learning as a relatively permanent change in behaviour as a result of experience'. Learning is a fundamental process in all animals and the higher up the evolutionary scale the animal, the more important is the ability to learn. All animals need to adapt their behaviour in order to fit in with the environment and to adapt to changing circumstances in order to survive.

Much of our behaviour consists of learned responses to simple signals. Can all behaviour be analysed in the same way? Some psychologists believe that behaviour is the sum of many simple stimulus-response connections. However there are other psychologists who think that stimulus-response is too simplistic and that even simple responses to stimuli require the processing of a vast amount of information.

The Behaviourists are a group of psychologists who focus on these stimulus-response connections, the two most famous being Watson and Skinner. Behaviourism arose because there was dissatisfaction with approaches in psychology that involved 'unscientific, techniques such as introspection and dealt with unmeasurable aspects of behaviour such as the role of the unconscious mind. Behaviourists try to explain the causes of behaviour by studying only those behaviours that can be observed and measured. They leave focused their efforts on two types of learning processes known as classical conditioning and operant conditioning.

Classical Conditioning

This is learning by association. A Russian physiologist called Ivan Pavlov, studied salivation in dogs as part of his research programme. Normally, dogs will salivate at the when food is presented, but Pavlov was interested why the dogs had started to salivate when the saw the people that usually fed them (they also responded to the sound of the dishes being used for their meals). Pavlov set up an experiment to find out if the dogs could be trained to salivate at other stimuli such as the sound of a bell or a light. At feeding times, Pavlov would ring a bell and the amount of saliva produced by the dog was measured. After several 'trials' Pavlov rang the bell without presenting the food and found that the dogs salivated in the same way as if food was being presented.

You will note that the conditional response is the same as the unconditioned response, the only difference being that the response is evoked by a different stimulus.

The Classical Conditioning Procedure:

In scientific terms, the procedure for this is as follows.

1 Food is the unconditioned stimulus or UCS. By this, Pavlov meant that the stimulus that elicited the response occurred naturally.

2 The salivation to the food is an unconditioned response (UCR), that is a response which occurs naturally.

3 The bell is the conditioned stimulus (CS) because it will only produce salivation on condition that it is presented with the food.

4 Salivation to the bell alone is the conditioned response (CR), a response to the conditioned stimulus.



Classical conditioning involves learning by association, that is associating two events which happen at the same time.


Try the following exercise for yourselves:

Name the four components of classical conditioning in the following situations.

1. Sara is watching a storm. A bolt of lightening is followed immediately by a huge crash of thunder and makes her jump. This happens several more times. The storm starts to move away and there is a gap between the lightening bolt and the sound of thunder, yet Sara jumps at the lightening bolt.

What is the:





2. Steve's mouth waters whenever he eats anything with lemon in. One day, while seeing an advertisement showing lemons, his mouth begins to water.

What is the:






Nearly all automatic, involuntary responses can become a conditioned response:

heartbeat, stomach secretion, blood pressure, brain waves etc. For the conditioning to be effective, the conditioned stimulus should occur before the unconditioned stimulus, not after. This is because, in classical conditioning, the conditioned stimulus becomes a kind of signal for the unconditioned stimulus.

The following are some of the important principles of classical conditioning:


If a conditioned stimulus is repeatedly presented without the unconditioned stimulus, then the conditioned response will disappear. This is known as extinction. If a dog learns to associate the sound of a bell with food and then the bell is rung repeatedly, but no food is presented, the dog will soon stop salivating a the sound of the bell.

Stimulus Generalisation

A dog who has been conditioned to salivate to the sound of a bell of one tone, may well salivate to a similar sounding bell or a buzzer. Stimulus generalisation is the extension of the conditioned response from the original stimulus to similar stimuli.


An animal or person can be taught to discriminate between different stimuli. For example, if a dog is shown a red circle every time he is fed, then he will salivate at the sight of the red circle alone. But initially, the dog may generalise and salivate at circles of any colour. If the dog is only fed when the red circle is presented and not when other colours are shown, he will learn to discriminate between red and the other colours.

Higher Order Conditioning

This is where more than one stimulus is paired and presented; there can be a chain of events that are linked to the same stimulus. It is thought that words may acquire their emotional meaning through higher order conditioning, for example by pairing the words with something that causes emotion, eventually the word alone will have the emotional meaning.



Think about the following scenarios and try to apply some of the aspects of classical conditioning:

How we acquire likes or dislikes for certain foods.

How classical conditioning may be used to treat conditions such as alcoholism.

How advertisers use classical conditioning.

How phobias and fears can be acquired.

How phobias and fears could be treated.


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last update April 5, 2003

© L.Cryer/Northern College 2000