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The Theories of Learning in Psychology – Part One (Classical Conditioning)

There are different beliefs amongst psychologists as what mechanisms are actually involved in learning to make any changes occur. This series will have three parts which will discuss on the three common theories of learning in psychology context – Classical Conditioning, Operant Conditioning and Social Learning.

Most psychologists concur learning as the process which is credited to past experience and is relatively permanent. However, these psychologists have different beliefs as to what mechanisms are actually involved in learning to make any changes occur and what kind of past experiences to identify. The following pages will discuss the three theories of learning namely classical conditioning, operant conditioning and social learning and how these theories can influence the very essence of human behavior.

According to Worldnetweb, learning is defined as `the cognitive process of acquiring skill or knowledge”.  However, in the world of psychology, the definition of learning is cited as “a relatively enduring change in the potential to engage in a particular behavior resulting from experience with environmental events specifically related to that behavior”.

Classical conditioning occurs when a natural reaction responds to a stimulus. It is a form of learning in “which one stimulus comes to predict the occurrence of another stimulus and to elicit a response similar to or related to the response evoked by that stimulus”. The scientific study of conditioning dates back to the beginning of the 20th century, and was first described by Ivan Pavlov with his famous experiment on the process of digestion in dogs. Pavlov’s experiments mainly were on animals and in a laboratory setting.

However, this learning theory can also be drawn from our everyday life. For example, a woman may be scared to walk alone at night. In this case she was robbed before which is the unconditioned stimulus (UCS). The robbery has been paired with her walking alone at night which became the conditioned stimulus (CS) eliciting her fear. On the other hand, if the woman continues to walk alone at night and nothing happens to her anymore, she may lose that fear which is the conditioned response (CR).

The eventual decline and disappearance of a CR in the absence of an unconditioned stimulus is known as extinction. This discovery can also apply to cause and treat phobias and anxiety.

 This theory was revolutionary during its time but eventually came to be seen as limited in its application to most human behavior, which is far more complex than a series of automatic responses to various stimuli. Hence, other types of learning were introduced.

In my next article, I will share on another type of learning – Operant Conditioning. Look out for this article soon.

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