Handbook of Contemporary Learning Theories

By Robert R. Mowrer; Stephen B. Klein | Go to book overview

Watson was born in 1878 in Traveler's Rest, South Carolina. He received his bachelor's and master's degrees from Furman University, graduating in 1899. He received the first doctorate offered in psychology from the University of Chicago in 1903 working primarily under James Angell. He remained at the University of Chicago as a faculty member until 1908. From 1908 until 1920, Watson was a member of the faculty at Johns Hopkins University. In 1920 he left Johns Hopkins and joined the J. Walter Thompson advertising agency, becoming vice president in 1924 and finally retiring in 1945. His last psychology publication was his revision of "Behaviorism" in 1930.

According to Watson and the behaviorist perspective, although we possess instinctive behavior and motives, the more important determinants of our behavior are learned. Traditionally, behaviors are considered to be learned through either classical conditioning (also known as Pavlovian or respondent conditioning) or instrumental or operant conditioning.

In the typical classical conditioning paradigm, an innocuous stimulus such as a tone is paired with a biologically significant stimulus such as a weak electric shock to the paraorbital region of a rabbit's eye. The electric shock or unconditioned stimulus (UCS) elicits an inherent or unconditioned response (UR), closure of the nictitating membrane. As tone-shock pairings continue, the tone or conditioned stimulus (CS) becomes capable of eliciting the nictitating membrane response in the absence of the UCS. The previous "UR" has now become a conditioned response (CR). (Note that not all CRs are the same as the corresponding UR.)

Classical conditioning is an involuntary or mechanistic type of learning that serves an adaptive purpose. It is important that an organism learn about signals in the environment (CSs) that predict biologically significant events (UCSs) and allow the organism to prepare for them (CRs).

Instrumental or operant conditioning is somewhat different than classical conditioning. The primary distinction can be summarized by the terms elicited and emitted. In classical conditioning, the behavior (response) is elicited by the UCS, automatically and involuntarily, whereas in instrumental or operant conditioning the behavior (response) is emitted voluntarily, and the organism experiences some consequence to that behavior. For example, a hungry rat in a T-maze voluntarily leaves the start chamber and after turning left (behavior) finds food in the goal box (consequence). The rat will subsequently learn that its behavior (turning left) will result in reward (consequence).

These two types of learning are not necessarily isolated in terms of governing behavior. In many learning situations, such as avoidance conditioning, both classical and instrumental conditioning are likely involved (see Levis & Brewer, chap. 14, this volume).

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