In psychology, learning is defined as a process by which a relatively lasting change in behavior is introduced through practice and experience.
Learning differs from other behavioral changes due to maturing and illness, however, some neurotic symptoms and patterns of mental illness are also learned behavior. Learning comprises:
motor skills, for example when driving a car
intellectual skills, such as reading
attitudes and values, such as prejudice
Not only humans can learn. Animals also learn behavior through life and experience.
At the beginning of the 20th century psychological studies put a major emphasis on learning along with the emergence of behaviorism as one of the main schools of thought. Behaviorism was founded by John B. Watson and it was aimed at measuring only observable behaviors. Behaviorism is based on the concept that psychology is an experimental and objective science, while internal mental processes are not relevant to psychology as they cannot be observed and measured.
Yet in the 21st century learning remains a central topic in various areas of psychology, such as:
social psychology and
Research into learning was launched at the end of the 19th century by Russian physiologist and Nobel Prize Laureate Ivan Pavlov and American psychologist Edward Thorndike. Later, in the 20th century, scientific studies into the psychology of learning were developed by American behaviorist B.F. Skinner and Canada-born psychologist Albert Bandura.
Studies in psychology of learning have led to the establishment of three models used to explain learned behavior:
Operant conditioning and
The classical conditioning model was introduced by Pavlov while examining the salivation reflex of dogs. Classical conditioning represents a learning process where an association is made between a previously neutral stimulus and a so called "unconditioned stimulus," a stimulus that usually evokes a response.
Salivation, as an innate reflex, is an unconditioned response to an unconditioned stimulus, the presentation of food. Salivation is triggered automatically in response to the smell or sight of food and it is not a controlled process. While experimenting, Pavlov proved that dogs can be conditioned to salivate even to a certain sound after the sound was repeatedly presented together with food. Pavlov concluded that salivation is a learned response, as he observed that dogs were reacting to various neutral stimuli such as the white lab coats of his co-workers.
The operant conditioning model was initially developed by Thorndike and later expanded by Skinner. In operant conditioning, learning occurs as the individual acts upon the environment. Unlike classical conditioning where the process is uncontrolled, this model is based on voluntary behavior.
Thorndike is famous for his theory dubbed "the law of effect". He formulated the theory after examining the behavior of cats trying to escape from puzzle boxes. In order to escape, the animals had to initiate certain response. Thorndike observed that animals learn responses that are rewarded, whereas they easily forget responses left unrewarded. From the experiment Thorndike concluded that animals learn by trial-and-error or by the model of reward and punishment.
Thorndike's theory was further developed by Skinner, who created the so called Skinner box, a chamber containing some kind of instrument an animal can manipulate in order to get food or water as a type of reinforcement. Skinner demonstrated that animals eventually learn to handle the tool to obtain food. Reinforcement and punishment lead to the avoidance of certain behavior that may weaken learning without suspending it. The intensity and frequency of reinforced behavior can actually have a great impact on the strength and rate of the response. Therefore reinforcement schedules play a central role in the learning process under the operant conditioning model.
Both classical and operant conditioning require the existence of certain stimuli that should trigger a response. The application of stimuli allows learning of behaviors in different environments. Such conditioning is applied in a type of treatment known as "behavior modification", as it is considered that behavior can be both learned and unlearned.
The cognitive learning theory rests on the concept that learning occurs through observations. Wolfgang Kohler demonstrated that the trial-and-error learning method in animals can develop into a sudden understanding called insight. Such process resembles puzzle solving rather than a stimulus response.
Albert Bandura's works mostly contributed to the development of the observational learning model. In his famous Bobo doll experiment Bandura showed how people imitate certain behavior without reinforcement. Effective observational learning is based on four elements:
Bandura's social learning theory became the most influential theory in learning psychology. Later he developed a social cognitive theory, according to which learning is acquired through observations within social interactions and experience.