Exploring Behavior

Learning Outcomes

  • Describe the principles of classical conditioning
  • Describe the principles of operant conditioning
  • Describe social learning theory

The Behavioral Perspective: A Focus on Observable Behavior

The behavioral perspective is the psychological approach that suggests that the keys to understanding development are observable behavior and external stimuli in the environment. Behaviorism is a theory of learning, and learning theories focus on how we respond to events or stimuli rather than emphasizing internal factors that motivate our actions. These theories provide an explanation of how experience can change what we do.

Behaviorism emerged early in the 20th century and became a major force in American psychology. Championed by psychologists such as John B. Watson (1878–1958) and B. F. Skinner (1904–1990), behaviorism rejected any reference to mind and viewed overt and observable behavior as the proper subject matter of psychology. Through the scientific study of behavior, it was hoped that laws of learning could be derived that would promote the prediction and control of behavior. Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov (1849–1936) influenced early behaviorism in America. His work on conditioned learning, popularly referred to as classical conditioning, provided support for the notion that learning and behavior were controlled by events in the environment and could be explained with no reference to mind or consciousness (Fancher, 1987).

Classical Conditioning and Emotional Responses

Classical conditioning theory helps us to understand how our responses to one situation become attached to new situations. For example, a smell might remind us of a time when we were a kid. If you went to a new cafe with the same smell as your elementary cafeteria, it might evoke the feelings you had when you were in school. Or a song on the radio might remind you of a memorable evening you spent with your first true love. Or, if you hear your entire name (Isaiah Wilmington Brewer, for instance) called as you walk across the stage to get your diploma and it makes you tense because it reminds you of how your father used to use your full name when he was mad at you, then you’ve been classically conditioned.

Ivan Pavlov in his older years, with a white beard, wearing a suit and tie.

Figure 1. Ivan Pavlov

Classical conditioning explains how we develop many of our emotional responses to people or events or our “gut level” reactions to situations. New situations may bring about an old response because the two have become connected. Attachments form in this way. Addictions are affected by classical conditioning, as anyone who’s tried to quit smoking can tell you. When you try to quit, everything that was associated with smoking makes you crave a cigarette.

Pavlov and Classical Conditioning

Ivan Pavlov (1849–1936) was a Russian physiologist interested in studying digestion. As he recorded the amount of salivation his laboratory dogs produced as they ate, he noticed that they actually began to salivate before the food arrived as the researcher walked down the hall and toward the cage. “This,” he thought, “is not natural!” One would expect a dog to automatically salivate when the food hit their palate, but before the food comes? Of course, what happened is that the dogs knew that the food was coming because they had learned to associate the footsteps with the food. The keyword here is “learned.”

A learned response is called a “conditioned” response. Pavlov began to experiment with this “psychic” reflex. He began to ring a bell, for instance, prior to introducing the food. Sure enough, after making this connection several times, the dogs could be made to salivate to the sound of a bell. Once the bell had become an event to which the dogs had learned to salivate, it was called a conditioned stimulus. The act of salivating to a bell was a response that had also been learned, now termed in Pavlov’s jargon, a conditioned response. Notice that the response, salivation, is the same whether it is conditioned or unconditioned (unlearned or natural). What changed is the stimulus to which the dog salivates. One is natural (unconditioned) and one is learned (conditioned).

Before conditioning: a dog salivates over a bowl of food. A dog does not salivate when a bell is rung. During conditioning: a dog salivates over a bowl of food while a bell is rung. After conditioning: a dog salivates when a bell is rung but there is no food present.

Figure 2. Before conditioning, an unconditioned stimulus (food) produces an unconditioned response (salivation), and a neutral stimulus (bell) does not produce a response. During conditioning, the unconditioned stimulus (food) is presented repeatedly just after the presentation of the neutral stimulus (bell). After conditioning, the neutral stimulus alone produces a conditioned response (salivation), thus becoming a conditioned stimulus.

Watch It

View the following video to learn more about Pavlov and his dogs:

You can view the transcript for “Classical Conditioning – Ivan Pavlov” here (opens in new window).

Watson and Behaviorism

Let’s think about how classical conditioning is used on people, and not just with dogs. One of the most widespread applications of classical conditioning principles was brought to us by the psychologist, John B. Watson. Watson proposed that the process of classical conditioning (based on Pavlov’s observations) was able to explain all aspects of human psychology. He established the psychological school of behaviorism, after doing research on animal behavior. This school was extremely influential in the middle of the 20th century when B.F. Skinner developed it further.

Watson believed that most of our fears and other emotional responses are classically conditioned. He gained a good deal of popularity in the 1920s with his expert advice on parenting offered to the public. He believed that parents could be taught to help shape their children’s behavior and tried to demonstrate the power of classical conditioning with his famous experiment with an 18-month-old boy named “Little Albert.” Watson sat Albert down and introduced a variety of seemingly scary objects to him: a burning piece of newspaper, a white rat, etc. But Albert remained curious and reached for all of these things. Watson knew that one of our only inborn fears is the fear of loud noises so he proceeded to make a loud noise each time he introduced one of Albert’s favorites, a white rat. After hearing the loud noise several times paired with the rat, Albert soon came to fear the rat and began to cry when it was introduced.

Watson filmed this experiment for posterity and used it to demonstrate that he could help parents achieve any outcomes they desired if they would only follow his advice. Watson wrote columns in newspapers and in magazines and gained a lot of popularity among parents eager to apply science to household order. Parenting advice was not the legacy Watson left us, however; where he really made his impact was in advertising. After Watson left academia, he went into the world of business and showed companies how to tie something that brings about a natural positive feeling to their products to enhance sales. Thus the union of sex and advertising!

Link to Learning: Little Albert

View scenes from John Watson’s experiment in which Little Albert was conditioned to respond in fear to furry objects. As you watch the video, look closely at Little Albert’s reactions and the manner in which Watson and Rayner present the stimuli before and after conditioning. In the experiment with Little Albert, check to see if you can identify the conditioned and unconditioned stimuli and responses: identify the unconditioned stimulus, the unconditioned response, and, after conditioning, the conditioned stimulus and the conditioned response.

You can view the transcript for “Baby Albert Experiments” here (opens in new window).

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Operant Conditioning

Now we turn to the second type of associative learning, operant conditioning. In operant conditioning, organisms learn to associate a behavior and its consequence (Table 1). A pleasant consequence makes that behavior more likely to be repeated in the future. For example, Spirit, a dolphin at the National Aquarium in Baltimore, does a flip in the air when her trainer blows a whistle. The consequence is that she gets a fish.

Psychologist B. F. Skinner saw that classical conditioning is limited to existing behaviors that are reflexively elicited, and it doesn’t account for new behaviors such as riding a bike. He proposed a theory about how such behaviors come about. Skinner believed that behavior is motivated by the consequences we receive for the behavior: the reinforcements and punishments. His idea that learning is the result of consequences is based on the law of effect, which was first proposed by psychologist Edward Thorndike. According to the law of effect, behaviors that are followed by consequences that are satisfying to the organism are more likely to be repeated, and behaviors that are followed by unpleasant consequences are less likely to be repeated (Thorndike, 1911). Essentially, if an organism does something that brings about a desired result, the organism is more likely to do it again. If an organism does something that does not bring about a desired result, the organism is less likely to do it again. An example of the law of effect is in employment. One of the reasons (and often the main reason) we show up for work is because we get paid to do so. If we stop getting paid, we will likely stop showing up—even if we love our job.

Working with Thorndike’s law of effect as his foundation, Skinner began conducting scientific experiments on animals (mainly rats and pigeons) to determine how organisms learn through operant conditioning (Skinner, 1938). He placed these animals inside an operant conditioning chamber, which has come to be known as a “Skinner box” (Figure 1). A Skinner box contains a lever (for rats) or disk (for pigeons) that the animal can press or peck for a food reward via the dispenser. Speakers and lights can be associated with certain behaviors. A recorder counts the number of responses made by the animal.

A photo of B.F. Skinner next to an illustration of a rat in a Skinner box. The Skinner box is a chamber with a speaker, lights, a lever, and a food dispenser.

Figure 3. (a) B. F. Skinner developed operant conditioning for the systematic study of how behaviors are strengthened or weakened according to their consequences. (b) In a Skinner box, a rat presses a lever in an operant conditioning chamber to receive a food reward. (credit a: modification of work by “Silly rabbit”/Wikimedia Commons)

Skinner believed that we learn best when our actions are reinforced. For example, a child who cleans his room and is reinforced (rewarded) with a big hug and words of praise is more likely to clean it again than a child whose deed goes unnoticed. Skinner believed that almost anything could be reinforcing. A reinforcer is anything following a behavior that makes it more likely to occur again. It can be something intrinsically rewarding (called intrinsic or primary reinforcers), such as food or praise, or it can be something that is rewarding because it can be exchanged for what one really wants (such as receiving money and using it to buy a cookie). Such reinforcers are referred to as secondary reinforcers.

Link to Learning

Watch the following clip to learn more about operant conditioning and to watch an interview with Skinner as he talks about conditioning pigeons.

You can view the transcript for “Operant conditioning” here (opens in new window).

Comparing Classical and Operant Conditioning

Table 1. Classical and Operant Conditioning Compared
Classical Conditioning Operant Conditioning
Conditioning approach An unconditioned stimulus (such as food) is paired with a neutral stimulus (such as a bell). The neutral stimulus eventually becomes the conditioned stimulus, which brings about the conditioned response (salivation). The target behavior is followed by reinforcement or punishment to either strengthen or weaken it so that the learner is more likely to exhibit the desired behavior in the future.
Stimulus timing The stimulus occurs immediately before the response. The stimulus (either reinforcement or punishment) occurs soon after the response.

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Social Cognitive (Learning) Theory: Observational Learning

Man playing chess while children gather around to learn.

Figure 4. Children observing a social model (an experienced chess player) to learn the rules and strategies of the game of chess. [Image: David R. Tribble, https://goo.gl/nWsgxI, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://goo.gl/uhHola]

Social Cognitive Theory (SCT), originally known as the Social Learning Theory (SLT), began in the 1960s through research done by Albert Bandura. The theory proposes that learning occurs in a social context. It takes into consideration the dynamic and reciprocal interaction of the person, environment, and their own behavior.[1]

Not all forms of learning are accounted for entirely by classical and operant conditioning. Imagine a child walking up to a group of children playing a game on the playground. The game looks fun, but it is new and unfamiliar. Rather than joining the game immediately, the child opts to sit back and watch the other children play a round or two. Observing the others, the child takes note of the ways in which they behave while playing the game. By watching the behavior of the other kids, the child can figure out the rules of the game and even some strategies for doing well at the game. This is called observational learning.

Observational learning is a component of Albert Bandura’s Social Learning Theory (Bandura, 1977), which posits that individuals can learn novel responses via observation of key others’ behaviors. Observational learning does not necessarily require reinforcement, but instead hinges on the presence of others, referred to as social models. Social models are normally of higher status or authority compared to the observer, examples of which include parents, teachers, and police officers. In the example above, the children who already know how to play the game could be thought of as being authorities—and are therefore social models—even though they are the same age as the observer. By observing how the social models behave, an individual is able to learn how to act in a certain situation. Other examples of observational learning might include a child learning to place her napkin in her lap by watching her parents at the dinner table, or a customer learning where to find the ketchup and mustard after observing other customers at a hot dog stand.

Bandura theorizes that the observational learning process consists of four parts. The first is attention—one must pay attention to what they are observing in order to learn. The second part is retention: to learn one must be able to retain the behavior they are observing in memory. The third part of observational learning, initiation, acknowledges that the learner must be able to execute (or initiate) the learned behavior. Lastly, the observer must possess the motivation to engage in observational learning. In our vignette, the child must want to learn how to play the game in order to properly engage in observational learning.

In this experiment, Bandura (Bandura, Ross, & Ross, 1961) had children individually observe an adult social model interact with a clown doll (Bobo). For one group of children, the adult interacted aggressively with Bobo: punching it, kicking it, throwing it, and even hitting it in the face with a toy mallet. Another group of children watched the adult interact with other toys, displaying no aggression toward Bobo. In both instances, the adult left and the children were allowed to interact with Bobo on their own. Bandura found that children exposed to the aggressive social model were significantly more likely to behave aggressively toward Bobo, hitting and kicking him, compared to those exposed to the non-aggressive model. The researchers concluded that the children in the aggressive group used their observations of the adult social model’s behavior to determine that aggressive behavior toward Bobo was acceptable.

While reinforcement was not required to elicit the children’s behavior in Bandura’s first experiment, it is important to acknowledge that consequences do play a role within observational learning. A future adaptation of this study (Bandura, Ross, & Ross, 1963) demonstrated that children in the aggression group showed less aggressive behavior if they witnessed the adult model receive punishment for aggressing against Bobo. Bandura referred to this process as vicarious reinforcement because the children did not experience the reinforcement or punishment directly yet were still influenced by observing it.

Do parents socialize children or do children socialize parents?

Bandura’s (1986) findings suggest that there is interplay between the environment and the individual. We are not just the product of our surroundings, rather we influence our surroundings. There is interplay between our personality and the way we interpret events and how they influence us. This concept is called reciprocal determinism. An example of this might be the interplay between parents and children. Parents not only influence their child’s environment, perhaps intentionally through the use of reinforcement, etc., but children influence parents as well. Parents may respond differently to their first child than with their fourth. Perhaps they try to be the perfect parents with their firstborn, but by the time their last child comes along, they have very different expectations of themselves and their child. Our environment creates us and we create our environment. Today there are numerous other social influences, from TV, games, the Internet, i-pads, phones, social media, influencers, advertisements, etc.

Watch

Watch this clip to better understand Bandura’s research on social learning.

You can view the transcript for “The Bandura Bobo Doll Experiment” here (opens in new window).

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Glossary

behavioral perspective:
the approach that suggests that the keys to understanding development are observable behavior and outside stimuli in the environment
classical conditioning:
a type of learning in which an organism responds in a particular way to a neutral stimulus that normally does not bring about that type of response
law of effect:
behavior that is followed by consequences satisfying to the organism will be repeated and behaviors that are followed by unpleasant consequences will be discouraged
operant conditioning:
a form of learning in which a voluntary response is strengthened or weakened by its association with positive or negative consequences
reciprocal determinism:
the interplay between our personality and the way we interpret events and how they influence us
social-cognitive learning theory:
learning by observing the behavior of another person, called a model

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  1. Behavioral Change Models. The Social Cognitive Theory. Retrieved from http://sphweb.bumc.bu.edu/otlt/MPH-Modules/SB/BehavioralChangeTheories/BehavioralChangeTheories5.html.