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Chapter: Psychology: Learning

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Similarities in How Different Species Learn

In short, there are certainly differences—as well as crucial similarities—in how species learn, and, as we’ve noted, the differences make good biological sense.

Similarities in How Different Species Learn

In short, there are certainly differences—as well as crucial similarities—in how species learn, and, as we’ve noted, the differences make good biological sense. After all, each species lives in its own distinctive environment and needs its own set of skills, and so it may need to learn in its own ways. But what about the similarities? After all, the rats and pigeons we study in the laboratory don’t gather food the way a human does. They don’t communicate with their fellows the way a human does. Their nervous systems are much simpler than ours. It wouldn’t be surprising, therefore, if they learned in different ways than we do. Yet, as we’ve repeatedly noted, the major phenomena of both classical and instrumental conditioning apply across species— whether we’re considering humans, rats, pigeons, cats, dogs, fish, or even some types of snails (Couvillon & Bitterman, 1980; E. Kandel, 2007).

How should we think about this point? Why do such diverse creatures share certain types of learning? The answer lies in the fact that all of these creatures, no matter what their evolutionary history or ecological niche, share certain needs. For example, virtu-ally all creatures are better off if they can prepare themselves for upcoming events, and to do this they need some way of anticipating what will happen to them in the near future. It’s no wonder, then, that many species have developed nervous systems that support classical conditioning.

Similarly, in the world we all inhabit, important outcomes are often influenced by one’s behavior, so it pays for all species to repeat actions that have worked well in the past and to abandon actions that haven’t succeeded. Hence we might expect natural selection to have favored organisms capable of learning about the consequences of their actions and able to adjust their future behavior accordingly. In other words, we’d expect natural selection to have favored organisms capable of instrumental conditioning.

Of course, people are different from pigeons, and pigeons from sea slugs; no one is questioning these points. Even so, it seems that there are some types of learning that all species need to do.

 

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