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Behavior Learning: Theories & Concept

Instructor: Theresa Spanella

Theresa has taught college Writing for 15 years and is two classes from completing a doctorate in Education

Most of us have been rewarded for the good things we have done but have been punished for the not-so-good things we have done. This lesson will explore behavior learning, highlighting the most common behavior learning theories and providing some real-world examples of behavior learning.

What Is Behavior?

Imagine seeing a television commercial for your favorite steakhouse. You just ate dinner; you're not at all hungry. But suddenly, your mouth begins to water. You want a steak, but you're not hungry! Why is that?

Behavior is a person's (or any other living organism's) response to stimuli. In this case, the stimulus is steak. The response, salivation, is a behavior. Unlike what happens in the brain, behavior is physical and observable. Behaviorism is a form of social psychology that studies behavior. Behaviorists believe that behavior is shaped by our environment - that our actions are driven by our desires to gain rewards and avoid punishments.

Behavior learning is the theory that behavior can be changed or learned through reinforcement, either positive or negative, by the introduction of a stimulus. Positive reinforcement is giving someone what they want (like a steak) to reward them for good behavior. Negative reinforcement is taking something away that a person wants to punish them for not-so-good behavior.

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Behaviorist Theories

Several social psychologists studied behavior and identified different theories on how behaviors can be learned and/or changed through reinforcement. They called this conditioning.

John B. Watson, an American psychologist, is known for establishing the first theory on behaviorism. He believed that organisms could be trained to do anything their trainer wanted them to do; their behavior was dependent on the type of reinforcement they experienced. He said, 'Give me a dozen healthy infants, well-formed, and my own specified world to bring them up in and I'll guarantee to take any one at random and train him to become any type of specialist I might select - doctor, lawyer, artist, merchant-chief and, yes, even beggar-man and thief, regardless of his talents, penchants, tendencies, abilities, vocations, and race of his ancestors.'

Watson proved his theory through his 'Little Albert Experiment.' Through this experiment, he conditioned a little boy to fear a white rat by repeatedly showing the boy the rat, then introducing a scary, loud, clanking sound. In time, the young boy feared all white furry objects because he associated them with a scary, loud noise.

Although Watson is known as establishing the first theory on behaviorism, he modeled his work after work that Russian psychologist Ivan Pavlov was conducting. Pavlov initially set out to study the digestive system of dogs and realized he could condition the dogs to salivate (the first step in digestion) by associating a ringing bell with the presentation of food.

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Pavlov was awarded the 1904 Nobel Prize in Psychology for his work on the theory of Classical Conditioning. Classical Conditioning is a technique used in behavioral training in which organisms can be trained to evoke a learned behavior in the presence of a stimulus. In Watson's case, Little Albert became afraid of furry, white objects because he associated them with a scary noise. In Pavlov's case, dogs drooled when they heard a ringing bell because they associated the sound with food.

The theory of classical conditioning can be seen in daily life. Advertisements are a prime example of classical conditioning. Food advertisements are a great example of classical conditioning. We are conditioned to desire foods that look good. That's why we salivate when we see a commercial for our favorite steakhouse!

Operant Conditioning

Operant Conditioning is another form of conditioning and is a method of learning that occurs through reinforcement of behavior through rewards and punishments.

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