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Learning Theory

Learning Theory

Author: Erick Taggart

Identify the main components of learning theory.

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Behavioral Learning Theory

Source: brown bear: public domain;

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Hello class. So today's lesson will be talking about behavioral learning theory, which is a little bit different from a lot of the other theories that we've been talking about in regards to personality. So behavioral theories, if you recall, stress the importance of learning and external forces on behavior.

So learning theory in particular describes personality not as traits or these internal constructs within our mind but rather the interaction of external forces on our internal responses. So under learning theory, what we call personality is considered rather a collection of learned patterns of behaviors or habits, as we would call them.

And this is how a habit is formed, so you can see how this relates to personality. So first, within the environment, there is some kind of drive, which is to say a desire that motivates a person to act. For example, the person might be hungry, and that motivates them to go get something to eat.

They might be angry, or they might feel fear, and those motivate them to act in response to things that are going on in their environment. Now, besides the drive, we have our cue. And a cue is something that a person notices within the environment that influences and encourages some kind of action.

So the presence or absence of something in the environment may lead to these kinds of actions by the person. The third thing is our response, which is the person's behavior or action, which is caused by the drive and the cue working together. And the final thing is the reward.

And the reward is something positive that a person gets because of the response they have. For example, they might get candy or attention, and these things might encourage further responses of the same time. So let's take a look at an example of how all these work together.

So let's say a person sees a bear within the environment, and they feel some kind of fear. So fear is our drive in this situation. Now, they can run, they can fight, or they could play dead as different kinds of responses. So these are all the different things they can do.

Now, the cues within the environment will help the person to navigate and to decide which response to choose. So if a child is present, for example, then the person can't run anymore because they don't want to leave the kid behind.

Or maybe the type of bear within the environment might cause them to choose different kinds of responses. For example, they might run or play dead because of the bear. And the reward in regards to the response in this situation would be they get to live, which is a pretty good reward, as you'd probably imagine.

So if the person chooses right and they get the reward, they're more likely to choose that response later on. If they choose wrong, then they would change their response the next time they're in a similar situation and hopefully get it right this time. Except in this situation, obviously, they would be in a lot of trouble because the bear would be right on top of them.

Now, behavioral learning theories are important because they stress how situation can affect our behaviors given different external cues. A lot of other theories focus on the internal processes more specifically, and they look less at how the environment can affect the display of personality.

So even if a person, let's say, is kind or compassionate, situations may cause this person not to act within those kinds of ways. As an example, let's take a look at a famous experiment, the Good Samaritan experiments, which were a series of experiments in 1973 done by psychologists Darley and Batson.

And these two psychologists asked a group of people to give a talk to a crowd within a different building. So they had to move from one building to the other. And while they were moving from one building to the other, there was a person that was laying on the ground that clearly needed some kind of help. And this person was part of the experiment.

Some of the people that were going to the other building were in a hurry. In other words, they only had a short period of time before their talk. And those people were far less likely to stop and help the person that was in trouble, even if they were sort of cued to be thinking in these compassionate kinds of ways.

They were actually giving talks on Good Samaritan story and on altruism. So even though they're being cued for the traits of compassion, they're still being affected by the hurriedness of the situation not to react in those kinds of ways.

So a good middle ground to think of behavioral theory and trait theory is what we call trait situation interaction, which is where our environment affects the expression of different personality traits. So both of them work in conjunction. For example, shyness may be a trait that a person has, meaning that they often act introverted in different kinds of ways.

But the social situations that make them feel anxiety towards these kinds of things are what cue the response to shyness as a trait. So shyness is the trait, but the social situations actually cause the person to express those.

If a person isn't in a social situation, we wouldn't necessarily say that they are shy. And social anxiety is the feeling of anxiety when a person is around other kinds of people. In other words, it's the drive that a person with shyness has for the expression or the response of shyness within those social situations.

Terms to Know

Environmental signals that direct different responses.


Any stimulus that impels a person into action.


Learned patterns of behavior coming from drives, cues, responses, and consequences (rewards and punishments).


Negative consequence that decreases the likelihood of a behavior occurring again.


Actions or behavior.


Positive consequence that increases the likelihood of a behavior occurring again.

Social Anxiety

Tend to be nervous around other people and more comfortable alone.

Trait Situation Interaction

Traits are not good predictors of behavior because the environment may have a bigger impact.