AP Psych Chapter 05: Learning


What is Learning?

Learning is any relatively permanent change in behavior brought about by experience or practice.

  • When people learn anything, some part of their brain is physically changed to record what they have learned.
  • Any kind of change in the way an organism behaves is learning.
  • Learning is most directly connected to the behaviorist approach to psychology.
  • Habituation is the learning that occurs when repeated exposure to a stimulus decreases an organism’s responsiveness to the stimulus.  The simply definition is getting used to something.  An example includes people that don’t even hear all the horns honking after living in the city for years.

The three main types of learning in psychology are:

  • Classical conditioning which is an association made between two stimuli.
  • Operant conditioning which is an association made between a behavior and a consequence
  • Observation/Social learning which is a behavior that is a result of imitation or experience


Classical Conditioning

Pavlov and Classical Conditioning

Ivan Pavlov was a Russian physiologist (a person who studies the workings of the body) who discovered classical conditioning through his work on digestion in dogs.  He noticed that dogs being studied would salivate when they perceived situations that usually happen before being fed.

Classical conditioning is learning to make a reflex response to a stimulus other than the original, natural stimulus that normally produces the reflex.


Classical Conditioning Concepts

Unconditioned means “unlearned” or “naturally occurring.”

Conditioned means “learned.”

Unconditioned stimulus (UCS) is a naturally occurring stimulus that leads to an involuntary/automatic response.

Unconditioned response (UCR) is an involuntary/automatic response to a naturally occurring or unconditioned stimulus.

Conditioned stimulus (CS) is a  stimulus that becomes able to produce a learned reflex response by being paired with the original unconditioned stimulus.

Conditioned response (CR) – learned reflex response to a conditioned stimulus.  Sometimes called a conditioned reflex.

A neutral stimulus can become a conditioned stimulus when paired with an unconditioned stimulus.

Although classical conditioning happens quite easily, there are a few basic principles that researchers have discovered:

  • The CS MUST come BEFORE the UCS.
  • The CS and UCS must come very close together in time — ideally, only several seconds apart.
  • The neutral stimulus must be paired with the UCS several times, often many times, before conditioning can take place.
  • The CS is usually some stimulus that is distinctive or stands out from other competing stimuli.


Post-Classical Conditioning

Stimulus generalization is the tendency to respond to a stimulus that is only similar to the original conditioned stimulus with the conditioned response.

Stimulus discrimination is the tendency to stop making a generalized response to a stimulus that is similar to the original conditioned stimulus because the similar stimulus is never paired with the unconditioned stimulus.

Extinction is the disappearance or weakening of a learned response following the removal or absence of the unconditioned stimulus (in classical conditioning) or the removal of a reinforcer (in operant conditioning).

Spontaneous recovery is the reappearance of a learned response after extinction has occurred.

Higher-order conditioning occurs when a strong conditioned stimulus is paired with a neutral stimulus, causing the neutral stimulus to become a second conditioned stimulus.

Classical conditioning will usually disappear after time if the conditioning is not continued on a regular basis


Conditioned Emotional Response

Conditioned emotional response (CER) is an emotional response that has become classically conditioned to occur to learned stimuli, such as a fear of dogs or the emotional reaction that occurs when seeing an attractive person.

CERs may lead to phobias is an irrational fear responses.


Taste Aversion

Vicarious conditioning is classical conditioning of a reflex response or emotion by watching the reaction of another person.

Conditioned taste aversion is the development of a nausea or aversive response to a particular taste because that taste was followed by a nausea reaction, occurring after only one association.

Biological preparedness is the tendency of animals to learn certain associations, such as taste and nausea, with only one or few pairings due to the survival value of the learning.


Why Classical Conditioning Works

Stimulus substitution is an original theory in which Pavlov stated that classical conditioning occurred because the conditioned stimulus became a substitute for the unconditioned stimulus by being paired closely together.

Cognitive perspective is a modern theory in which classical conditioning is seen to occur because the conditioned stimulus provides information or an expectancy about the coming of the unconditioned stimulus.

Operant Conditioning

Operant Conditioning

Operant conditioning is the learning of voluntary behavior through the effects of pleasant and unpleasant consequences to responses.

Thorndike’s Law of Effect is a law stating that if a response is followed by a pleasurable consequence, it will tend to be repeated, and if followed by an unpleasant consequence, it will tend not to be repeated.


Skinner’s Contribution

B.F. Skinner was a behaviorist and therefore wanted to study ONLY observable, measurable behavior.

He gave “operant conditioning” its name.

Operant is any behavior that is voluntary.

Learning depends on what happens after the response what becomes known as the consequence.


John Watson and Albert

Watson did a test on an 11-month old boy named Albert.

This child had no fear of white rats at first.  His assistant stood behind Albert with large symbols and banged them together every time the rat approached the child.  This in turn caused the child to cry.

Soon afterwards the symbols were no longer needed and all the rat had to do was approach Albert to cause him to cry.  Albert also generalized the white rat to other animals such as a white rabbit.

Today this experiment would be considered unethical.


Reinforcement (Positive and Negative)

Reinforcement is any event or stimulus, that when following a response, increases the probability that the response will occur again.  It can be a reward.  Opposite is punishment.

Primary reinforcer is any reinforcer that is naturally reinforcing by meeting a basic biological need, such as hunger, thirst, or touch.

Secondary reinforcer is any reinforcer that becomes reinforcing after being paired with a primary reinforcer, such as praise, tokens, gold stars, or money.

Positive reinforcement is the reinforcement of a response by the addition or experiencing of a pleasurable stimulus.

Negative reinforcement is the reinforcement of a response by the removal, escape from, or avoidance of an unpleasant stimulus.



Shaping is the reinforcement of simple steps in behavior that lead to a desired, more complex behavior.

Successive approximations is the small steps in behavior, one after the other, that lead to a particular goal behavior.


Other Operant Conditioning Concepts

Extinction occurs if the behavior (response) is not reinforced.

Operantly conditioned responses also can be generalized to stimuli that are only similar to the original stimulus.

Spontaneous recovery (reoccurrence of a once extinguished response) also happens in classical conditioning.


Punishment (Positive and Negative)

Punishment is any event or object that, when following a response, makes that response less likely to happen again.  Opposite is reinforcement

Punishment by application/Positive punishment is the punishment of a response by the addition or experiencing of an unpleasant stimulus.

Punishment by removal/Negative Punishment is the punishment of a response by the removal of a pleasurable stimulus.


How to Make Punishment More Effective

Punishment should immediately follow the behavior it is meant to punish.

Punishment should be consistent.

Punishment of the wrong behavior should be paired, whenever possible, with reinforcement of the right behavior.


Schedules of Reinforcement

Partial reinforcement effect is the tendency for a response that is reinforced after some, but not all, correct responses to be very resistant to extinction.

Continuous reinforcement is the reinforcement of each and every correct response.

The four main schedules of reinforcement are:

  • Fixed ratio schedule of reinforcement is a schedule of reinforcement in which the number of responses required for reinforcement is always the same.
  • Variable interval schedule of reinforcement is a schedule of reinforcement in which the interval of time that must pass before reinforcement becomes possible is different for each trial or event.
  • Fixed interval schedule of reinforcement is a schedule of reinforcement in which the interval of time that must pass before reinforcement becomes possible is always the same.
  • Variable ratio schedule of reinforcement is a schedule of reinforcement in which the number of responses required for reinforcement is different for each trial or event.


Operant Stimuli and Stimulus Control

Discriminative stimulus is any stimulus, such as a stop sign or a doorknob, that provides the organism (human) with a cue for making a certain response in order to obtain reinforcement.


Behavior Resistant to Conditioning

Instinctive drift is a tendency for an animal’s behavior to revert to genetically controlled patterns.

Each animal comes into the world (and the laboratory) with certain genetically determined instinctive patterns of behavior already in place.

These instincts differ from species to species.

There are some responses that simply cannot be trained into an animal regardless of conditioning.


Behavior Modification

Behavior modification is the use of operant conditioning techniques to bring about desired changes in behavior.

Token economy is a type of behavior modification in which desired behavior is rewarded with tokens.

Time-out is a form of mild punishment by removal in which a misbehaving animal, child, or adult is placed in a special area away from the attention of others.  Essentially, the organism is being “removed” from any possibility of positive reinforcement in the form of attention.

Applied behavior analysis (ABA) is a modern term for a form of behavior modification that uses shaping to mold a desired behavior or response.

Observational/Social Learning

Observational/Social Learning

Observational learning is learning new behavior by watching a model perform that behavior.

Learning/performance distinction is referring to the observation that learning can take place without actual performance of the learned behavior.  Example, a child may learn a “bad” word from their parents but only use it in the presences of their friends and neighbors.


Albert Bandura

Albert Bandura’s study on learned aggressive behaviors in the field of cognitive learning are most famous.

Two groups of children were studied.  One group were given an art project to work on while the other viewed an adult male hit and kick an inflated clown.

Later, all the children were subject to a frustrating situation and placed in a room with all sorts of toys (the inflated clown included).

All the children that seen the assault on the inflated clown imitated the behavior and attacked it.  The art room students did not.

This is called observational learning or modeling.


Four Elements of Observational Learning

  1. Attention – To learn anything through observation, the learner must first pay attention to the model.
  2. Memory – The learner must also be able to retain the memory of what was done, such as remembering the steps in preparing a dish that was first seen on a cooking show.
  3. Imitation – The learner must be capable of reproducing, or imitating, the actions of the model.
  4. Motivation – Finally, the learner must have the desire to perform the action.

(An easy way to remember the four elements of modeling is to remember the letters AMIM, which stands for the first letters of each of the four elements).

Other Types of Learning/Learning Concepts

Biofeedback and Neurofeedback

Biofeedback is the use of feedback about biological conditions to bring involuntary responses such as blood pressure and relaxation under voluntary control.

Neurofeedback is a form of biofeedback using brain scanning devices to provide feedback about brain activity in an effort to modify behavior.


Cognitive Learning Theory

Early days of learning the focus was on behavior.

1950s and more intensely in the 1960s, many psychologists were becoming aware that cognition, the mental events that take place inside a person’s mind while behaving, could no longer be ignored.

Edward Tolman was an early cognitive scientist.


Latent Learning

Edward Tolman’s best-known experiments in learning involved teaching three groups of rats the same maze, one at a time.

  • Group 1 – rewarded each time at end of maze.  The result is they learned the maze quickly.
  • Group 2 – in maze every day; only rewarded on 10th day.  They demonstrated learning of maze almost immediately after receiving reward.
  • Group 3 – never rewarded.  They did not learn maze well.

Latent learning is learning that remains hidden until its application becomes useful.



Insight is the sudden perception of relationships among various parts of a problem, allowing the solution to the problem to come quickly.

It cannot be gained through trial-and-error learning alone.

Sometimes referred to as a “Aha” moment.  When a solution to a problem hits you suddenly.


Learned Helplessness

Learned helplessness is the tendency to fail to act to escape from a situation because of a history of repeated failures in the past.

Experiment with a dog in an electric cage.  The dog would be shocked and in pain but would be unable to escape the cage.  After a while the dog would come to accept the pain and when it finally had the chance to escape, it would not take it.

Explains why kidnapped victims don’t escape when they have a chance.