Types of conditioning

Types of conditioning

Conditioning is the process by which animals learn their behaviour patterns, according to the perspective of behaviourism (founded by John B. Watson, 1913).

This approach believes that only quantifiable evidence obtained through direct observation can be used to support psychological theories. Studies tend to use non-human animals and the conclusions are generalised to humans.

Ivan Pavlov discovered the concept of classical conditioning whilst investigating the salivation reflex of dogs. He observed that the dogs salivated in response to stimuli associated with food (for example, the bowl) as well as the food itself. This led him to design his experiment involving the pairing of a bell with the food to produce a salivation response to the bell alone (Pavlov, 1927).

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Here is an outline of Pavlov's experiment:

Stimulus: Response:
Before conditioning Food (unconditioned stimulus, UCS). Salivation (unconditioned response, UCR).
Before conditioning Bell (neutral stimulus, NS). None.
During conditioning Bell (conditioned stimulus, NS) + Food (unconditioned stimulus, UCS). Salivation (unconditioned response, UCR).
After conditioning Bell (conditioned stimulus, CS). Salivation (conditioned response, CR).

A range of features are associated with classical conditioning. These include the timing of the stimuli:

  1. Forward conditioning: Occurs when the neutral stimulus (NS) appears just before and during the presentation of the unconditioned stimulus (UCS).
  2. Delayed conditioning: Involves a delay between the presentation of the NS and the arrival of the UCS.
  3. Trace conditioning: Relies on the animal's memory - it is when the presentation of the NS ceases before the arrival of the UCS.
  4. Backward conditioning: Involves the presentation of the NS after the UCS and usually results in no learning at all!

The effectiveness of learning associated with these timings follow the 'Law of contiguity' - stimuli need to occur close together in time in order to be associated.

Here is a summary of the timings of conditioning:

Types of conditioning

Other features of classical conditioning are outlined in the table below:

Term: Feature:
Extinction The CS no longer predicts the arrival of the UCS, so the CR is lost.
Stimulus generalisation A stimulus similar to the CS (for example, a bell of a higher pitch) produces a CR.
Spontaneous recovery A previously extinct CR reappears upon the presentation of the CS.
Stimulus discrimination A stimulus significantly dissimilar to the CS (for example, a bell of a much higher pitch) does not produce a CR.
Higher order conditioning A NS is paired with a CS resulting in a new CS that induces the CR.

There is evidence that classical conditioning can explain how some human behaviours are learned.

The case of 'Little Albert' is an example of a boy learning to fear white rats with a significant stimulus generalisation to include cotton wool and a Father Christmas mask! (Watson & Rayner, 1920). This was achieved through the pairing of the rat with a UCS (in this case, a loud bang).

The theory of biological preparedness (Seligman, 1970) explains why a fear response to snakes can be conditioned more easily than one to cars.

For example: It states that the process of evolution has predisposed organisms to readily learn to be afraid of things that might have caused our ancestors harm (hence snakes and not cars, even though cars are far more dangerous).

Although conditioning can explain the rise of phobias, it is not clear to what extent it can explain the learning of more complex human behaviour patterns. Evidence suggests a more sophisticated language-based form of learning is available to humans (Dugdale & Lowe, 1990).

Operant conditioning: This was first described by Torndike's (1898) 'Law of effect' - a behaviour resulting in a pleasant outcome tends to be repeated, whereas behaviours followed by bad consequences are not.

This came about following a number of studies involving hungry cats learning to escape from puzzle boxes and thereby achieving the reward of some food. Over successive trials the cats got faster and faster at escaping from the boxes.

This expression of operant conditioning was refined by Skinner, who performed experiments using a different type of box. This is known as the Skinner box.

The animal inside the box had to perform some kind of behaviour or operant (lever pressing for rats and disc pecking for pigeons) resulting in a consequence - a positive or negative reinforcement or punishment. According to Skinner, these consequences shape and maintain the behaviours (Skinner, 1938).

Can you remember the consequences of the behaviours and their effects?

Drag the correct consequence (pink) onto the blue text and then mark your answer:

  1. Positive reinforcers (for example, food).
  2. Negative reinforcers (for example, electric shock).
  3. Punishers (for example, electric shock).
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In the real world, not all reinforcers are reinforcing in themselves.

Those that are reinforcing themselves, we call primary reinforcers, for example, water, food and sex. These are natural reinforcers, which result in a strengthening of the behaviours leading to them.

Secondary reinforcers only strengthen behaviours because the animal has learned that they are reinforcing, for example; we learn that money leads to positive consequences.

The predictability of the reinforcement also has an influence on the behaviour of animals. Different schedules of reinforcement, which vary the regularity of reinforcements, can be applied and an assessment of the consequent patterns and rates of responses can be made.

It seems that a continuous schedule, when every response is reinforced, is good for learning new responses, but a partial schedule would be better at maintaining the behaviour and avoiding extinction.

So far, we have looked at the mechanisms of operant conditioning but how do these lead to the learning of new behaviours?

Shaping: The animal learns a new behaviour by the reinforcement of responses that are a step closer to the desired behaviour. This is the method used to train animals. A form of shaping is used to teach people with learning difficulties to carry out tasks for themselves, for example, feeding, using the toilet, for example. This is called behaviour modification.

Negative reinforcement: Can be used to escape or avoid an unpleasant stimulus.

Punishments can only weaken existing behaviours, so do not lead to the learning of new ones. Although they can be used to suppress undesirable behaviours whilst new ones are being reinforced.

Test your understanding of operant conditioning by identifying whether positive or negative reinforcement or punishment are being used in each example:

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