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Chapter: Psychology: Learning

The Perspective of Learning Theory

What exactly is “learning”? In ordinary language, this term is applied to many different cases—the development of new skills, the acquisition of new knowledge, and more.


What exactly is “learning”? In ordinary language, this term is applied to many different cases—the development of new skills, the acquisition of new knowledge, and more. According to some scholars, though, all learning involves the same basic processes.

As we discussed, empiricist philosophers like John Locke (1632–1704) and George Berkeley (1685–1753) offered a simple account of how we come to under-stand our world. Perception, they argued, was massively influenced by learning; and (in their view) learning was just a matter of creating associations among ideas as a direct result of experience. Thus, for example, the sight of a stove might be followed immedi-ately by the feeling of heat, creating an association between this sight and this feeling; and so you learned that stoves are hot. The sound of the word flower might be followed by the sight and smell of the flower, and so these ideas become associated.

But what about more complicated forms of learning? The answer, according to these philosophers, was easy: More complex learning simply involves more associations, built layer upon layer, so that complicated notions—and whole belief systems—are just the result of creating more and more links among individual ideas.

This is an appealing proposal, partly because similar conceptions have fared well in other sciences. Chemistry teaches us that complex molecules are built up by linking rel-atively simple atoms to each other, and then linking still other atoms to these, contin-uing in this way until huge combinations are created and the whole has properties that are often strikingly different from those of the individual components. Will a similar proposal work as our basic conception of learning?

A large number of researchers, called learning theorists, would answer this question with a firm yes, and in their research, they’re guided by a striking implication of this view: If all learning depends on essentially the same mechanisms (i.e., mechanisms of association), then for research purposes it may not matter very much what forms of learning we choose to study, because the lessons we will draw from our research and the principles we will uncover should be the same whether we’re scrutinizing simple cases of learning or far more complex ones.

Learning theorists also argue that it’s sensible to focus experiments on simple organisms learning simple patterns; that way, the experiments will be easy to do, and the principles we’re hoping to uncover should be immediately visible. Thus, rather than studying learning by asking how a college student masters calculus, we might choose to examine how less complicated organisms—rats, for example—form simple associations.

Does this strategy work? Are there uniform principles of learning that will emerge no matter what species and type of learning we examine? We know at the start that all ani-mal species, as diverse as they are, have a lot in common biologically—in the structure of their nervous systems, for example, and in their evolutionary past. On this basis, perhaps all species do learn in essentially the same way; and, if so, we should be able to identify basic laws of learning that apply equally well to a dog learning to sit on com-mand, a fish learning to navigate its way through a dense growth of algae, or a student learning to play a Mozart sonata.

As we’ll see, this research strategy—an effort toward understanding all learning by studying simple learning—has led to many important discoveries. Indeed, we’ll discuss principles of learning that have amazing generality and apply to many species, situations, and types of behavior. These principles are also the basis for various useful techniques, including procedures used in treating phobias, techniques used to manage prison inmates’ behavior, and more.

We’ll also see that some forms of learning do not follow these general principles; so our overall discussion of learning will also need to take these distinctive forms of learn-ing into account. Let’s look at the data that underlie these important claims.

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