Upon completion of this unit, the student should:
• Describe the basic premises of the learning model.
• Define concepts of classical and operant conditioning, and behavior modification.
• Recall the leading theorists and scientists in the learning domain.
The underlying premise of learning theories is that behavior occurs as a reaction to environmental influences. It began with the work of Nobel Prize recipient, Ivan Pavlov, who noticed that dogs salivated not only when food touched their tongues, but at the sight of the food, or even when they heard the footsteps of the person who usually fed them. Since Pavlov’s first experiments with dogs, we know that innate reflexes or biological responses (e.g., salivating, perspiring, increased heart rate, etc.) can be elicited by environmental stimuli. For example, people who are afraid of dogs may experience increased heart rate, rapid respirations, grow pale, etc. simply at the sight or sound of any dog. This is an example of classical conditioning.
John Watson is the person primarily responsible for bringing Pavlovian principles into the field of psychology. However, rather than focusing on feelings, introspection, and consciousness, he asserted that the goal of psychology should be predicting and controlling overt behavior. His most famous statement, perhaps, was that he could take any infant and train them to be anything he chose. In sum, Watson was a behaviorist, in that he believed that innate responses could be elicited or desensitized by manipulating environmental stimuli.
B. F. Skinner, like Watson, was a strict behaviorist, and believed that psychology should be limited to the study of overt (observable) behavior. In contrast to Pavlov and Watson, Skinner was interested in operant behavior in which an organism “operates” in its natural environment (e.g., pigeons peck, cats claw, etc.). When these operant behaviors occur in a specific way (e.g., pecking on a lever) and are then rewarded, it stands to reason that the behavior will occur again. Skinner concluded that behavior is determined by its consequences. Further, Skinner showed that such behaviors can be reinforced, extinguished, or shaped by using various stimuli. These concepts provide the foundation for behavior modification that continues to receive a great deal of attention. Behavior modification has been used with varying degrees of success with developmentally disabled individuals, autistic children, adolescent and adult sex offenders, in classrooms across the country, and in other populations as a means of shaping behavior. Many therapists and other specialists classify themselves as behaviorists.
We use behavior modification in our own lives as we try to influence or change other people’s behaviors–or perhaps the behaviors of our pets. We are all familiar with the idea of using small treats or gifts to reinforce a child’s behaviors–for example, using M & Ms to reward the child who is being potty trained; or withdrawing telephone privileges from a teen who has been disobedient.
1. To what extent do you feel that learning theories explain human behavior?
2. Do you think behavior modification is an effective way to change or shape behaviors?
3. Conditioning can be both positive and negative. Consider the following:
a. Think now of your own fears and apprehensions – fear of dogs, fear of spiders, fear of flying, certain sounds or odors, etc. Can you see how you were conditioned by things that were going on in your environment? Share one example with your classmates.
b. On the other hand, think of the things that bring back pleasant memories – the smell of cookies baking, the smell of a certain perfume, the sight of something in nature – can you see how these environmental influences elicit a specific response? Again, please share an example with your peers.
4. Besides parents and teachers, think of another professional who could benefit by using the principles of behavior modification. Support your answer with details of how they could use behavior modification and how it would help them/ those they work with.