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Classical Conditioning and Observational Learning

Most Psychologists agree that the process of learning is usually permanent and is credited to past experience. However, they differ greatly in their belief as to what mechanisms are actually involved in learning to make changes occur and what kinds of past experiences are involved (Gross, (1992) p.165). It is the author’s intention, within the body of this essay to examine and evaluate the theory of learning from a behaviorist viewpoint, focusing on classical conditioning and the social learning theory, concentrating on observational learning.

BEHAVIOURISM. The behaviorism approach sees every individual born a ‘blank book’. An individual’s personality and the kind of person they become are wholly attributed to their environment and their learning experiences; no biological or instinctive causes come into the equation (Class notes, (2001/2002). Watson, (1930) stated: “Give me a dozen healthy infants, well-formed and my own specified world to bring them up and I’ll guarantee to take anyone at random and train him to become any type of specialist I might select – doctor, lawyer, artist, merchant-chief and yes, even beggar-man and thief, regardless of his talents, penchants, tendencies, abilities, vocations, and race of his ancestors” (Cardwell et al, (1996) p.544).

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The approach focuses solely on observational experiments, mainly with animals, so therefore it can be objectively measured and controlled (Class notes, (2001/2002) and whereas for example, some psychologists would study the mental experience of ‘hunger’, behaviorists would observe the ‘eating’ process (Sdorow, (1990) p.13). The ultimate goal of behaviorist therapists is to control behavior, however, the approach denies the existence of a ‘mind’, overlooking any form of free will on the part of the individual, who is seen as passive and acceptant (Holden et al, (1996) p.113). Behaviorists concentrate mainly on the process of learning, with the key processes being classical and operant conditioning. It is classical conditioning that the author will look at in more depth.

CLASSICAL CONDITIONING. Classical conditioning is basically learning through simple association and reinforcement (Class notes, (2001/2002), with the leading theorist being Ivan Pavlov, (1927) who studied how animals responded to conditioning. In Pavlov’s best-known experiment, he rang a bell as he fed some dogs several meals. Each time the dogs heard the bell they knew that a meal was coming, and they would begin to salivate. Pavlov then rang the bell without bringing food, but the dogs still salivated. He concluded that the animals had learned an association between the noise and the food and had been ‘conditioned’ to salivate at the sound of a bell. Pavlov noted as well there were two stimuli – food (Unconditional Stimuli or the US) and the buzzer (Conditioned Stimuli or CS) there were two responses – the reflexive salivation (Unconditional Response or UR) and the learned salivation (Conditioned Response or CR).

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This can be viewed more clearly in Appendix A. Further experiments went on to reveal that the animals also learned to discriminate between sounds that produced food and those that didn’t (Discrimination). It was also noted that, after several trials, if the food was not presented after the bell had been rung then salivation would cease if not occasionally reinforced. Pavlov believed, as Watson was later to emphasize, that humans react to stimuli in the same way as dogs and this is the basis of human behavior (Gross, (1992) p.167-171). However Pavlov’s experiments can be criticized for the fact that they involve mainly animals in a controlled laboratory setting, and it can be argued that humans are much more complex with many factors that could never be tested in a laboratory. Other theorists such as Menzies, (1937) did experiment on humans, conditioning them to respond to the cold when a buzzer sounded which produced a reflexive response (Hayes et al, (1987) p.16).

But human experiments are limited, due to them being difficult to implement and monitor long term (Davenport, (1988) p.149). Whilst experiments like this can demonstrate that humans don’t seem to have anything to do with a conscious decision when things are reduced strictly to stimulus and response, it can be overlooked that humans have feelings, thoughts, and motivations. For instance, how can a behaviorist explain a human desire to do a dangerous sport if conditioned from an early age that it is dangerous? Motivation and self-gratification drive a person to do it. On the other hand, Classical conditioning has produced good results in a therapy situation, especially involving the cause and treatment of phobias such as that involving ‘little Albert’ (Watson and Rayner, (1920) in Gross, (1992) p.170) and the case of ‘little Peter’ (Jones, (1924) in Gross, (1992) p171). It has also been successful with Aversion therapies such as the treating of alcoholism (Sdorow, (1990) p.600).

SOCIAL LEARNING THEORY. Social Learning takes on board many of the behaviorists’ theories, such as the importance of observation, as well as agreeing that reward and punishment play an important role (Davenport, (1988) p.140). However, social learning theorists such as Bandura, (1977) also think people learn by “observing the consequences of other people’s actions”. Bandura believes learning can take place through observation alone; a person doesn’t have to experience something in order to learn about it. Social learning incorporates several schools of thought, the main ones being vicarious learning, in other words, learning by consequences and observational learning, involving imitation and identification (Hardy et al, (1979) p.174). For the purpose of this essay, the author will examine the latter.

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OBSERVATIONAL LEARNING. Imitation – often referred to as ‘short learning’ and basically involves copying specific acts or actions consciously or unconsciously starting from a very early age (Hayes et al, (1987) p.292). For example, if a child sees another child climbing a chair to reach the biscuit tin, this behavior may be copied in order for that child also to obtain a biscuit (Davenport, (1988) p.140). Miller and Dollard, (1941) argued that by imitation children learned to behave like adults (Gardner, (1982) p.209) and this certainly seems to ring true in one of Bandura’s famous experiments involving a ‘bobo doll’. In the experiment, a group of children watched an adult behaving aggressively towards an inflated doll. The children were then left in a room with the doll along with other toys. It was noticed that the children who witnessed this, behaved much more aggressively towards the doll than the control group who had observed the adult behaving placidly.

The imitation and aggression were even more pronounced if the adult was observed by the children receiving a reward for his actions. However, Bandura noticed that in further experiments, children would not always imitate everyone, acknowledging that some people played a more significant role in being copied than others, thus leading on to identification (Davenport, (1988), p.140-142). Identification – Identification takes place unconsciously over a longer period than imitation. A child will often model himself or herself on another person so that the child identifies with that person and acts as they do, this occurs in such areas as sex-role learning. Social learning theorists consider that role-models, human or otherwise, are vital in a child’s development, providing guidelines for appropriate behavior in later life (Hayes et al, (1987) p.293).

This theory certainly explains why some people are more influential than others in a person’s life and children can learn from a model’s mistakes as well as successes. However, the approach doesn’t suggest why different children may interpret the same role model in a different way or that children may have some control in their own learning (Davenport, (1988) p.143). Therefore in recent years, social learning has started to incorporate some cognitive theories within its framework, recognizing issues such as self-control, expectancy, and motivation (Huitt et al, (1996) website). Furthermore, whilst the approach can be scientifically testable and is supported by research findings, it does lack in-depth case studies (Class notes (2001/2002).

ANALYSIS. On the surface, both approaches can appear to be very similar, with them both focusing on observational techniques and addressing elements of learning, however, both are limited in the type and the amount of research that can be done to objectively test the theories further, especially when it involves human experiments. Moreover, both approaches seem to ignore any biological factors by failing to take into account that genes can influence personalities. Social learning, like behaviorism, recognizes that learning can be an unconscious process, but unlike behaviorists, it stresses a lot of learning can be accidental and an individual can, even though a process has been learned, choose consciously not to display it. Behaviorists, on the other hand, emphasize the importance of reinforcement outlining that an individual has no control over the learning process and that an individual has to experience something in order to learn about it, conflicting with the social learning theory, that the process can merely be observed. Both theories can be productive in a therapy situation, especially in the treatment of phobias, where observing others in the situation along with repeated exposure to the cause, can help overcome the fear.

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CONCLUSION. In conclusion, it can be noted that the social learning approach is a lot more complex than the behaviorist view, which has very simple learning theories. The author is of the opinion that knowledge and skills are acquired in a variety of ways and humans themselves are a lot more complex than earlier psychologists such as Pavlov seem to suggest. At the end of the day, does human behavior amount to a theory of forced-choice? Animals may have one or two possible solutions i.e. to go left or right, but humans have many crossroads.


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  • Eberley College of Arts & Sciences (1996), Classical Conditioning,, West Virginia University
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  • Hayes N & Orrel S (1987), Psychology an Introduction, Longman, New York
  • Holden C, Meggitt C, Collard D & Rycroft C (1996), Further studies for Social Care, Hodder & Stoughton, London
  • Huitt W & Hummel J (1996), Valdosta State University, Observational (Social) Learning,, Georgia
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