Birds build nests and migrate as winter approaches. Infants suckle at their mother’s breast. Dogs shake the water off wet fur. Salmon swim upstream to spawn, and spiders spin intricate webs. What do these seemingly unrelated behaviors have in common? They all are unlearned behaviors. Both instincts and reflexes are innate behaviors that organisms are born with. They help animals and people adapt.
Learning also helps people adapt and survive. Learning in a psychological sense is an internal, as well as external, process that results in a change in a person's behavior. Learned behaviors involve change and experience: learning is a relatively permanent change in behavior or knowledge that results from experience.
There are two aspects of learning under psychology. The first is cognitive learning, which comprises the internal mental processes that result in understanding and the construction of knowledge.
EXAMPLECognitive learning is what we normally think of as learning in relation to things like school, which involves compiling a variety of ideas and knowledge to build a greater understanding of the world.
Problem Solving: Why Employers Care
In a more basic sense, though, learning is also the connection of external stimuli--things in the environment--to the responses of the individual to those things. In other words, when we see something, we do something, which is called associative learning. Underlying associative learning is the theory of behaviorism, which explains how this works.
Now, associative learning starts with the idea that some responses are not learned, such as reflexes. Reflexes are involuntary automatic reactions to stimuli around an individual.
EXAMPLEFor example, if you bump your knee, your leg moves--it's a reflex to the bumping of the knee.
Infants start off with only these reflexes within their body, reactions like sucking or grasping. They can essentially only respond to the environment in these ways because they haven't learned anything yet.
Next, these infants begin to associate certain actions that they do with other responses from their environment. A reinforcement is anything that follows an action and makes it more likely to occur later on.
EXAMPLEFor example, if a baby cries, then it receives a reinforcement of milk, which makes the baby more likely to cry when it wants milk in the future. The reinforcement--milk, in this case--causes an action--crying--to become more likely to occur.
These types of interactions with the outside world and the internal workings of a person start to build increasingly more complex networks of what are called antecedents and consequences. An antecedent is any kind of event that comes before a response or an action, otherwise known as a stimulus.
EXAMPLEFor example, if you hear an explosion, or if you see a bear, or if you see your mother, even--all of these are antecedents.
There are also consequences, which are any events that come after a response or action. This includes reinforcements, those things that make it more or less likely for an action to occur.
EXAMPLEFor example, if you get burned, or if you get to safety, or even if you get a bar of chocolate--these are all consequences or events that result from an action.
Eventually, by building up all these ideas of antecedents, actions, and consequences, we start to develop a framework to explain all human behavior, even complex actions. There are two specific realms in behavioralism and associative learning that explain human behavior, which are classical conditioning and operant conditioning. These will be covered in more detail in later lessons.