There are two main explanations of how organisms learn. The
first explanation is known as classical conditioning. The second
explanation is known as operant conditioning. These two types of
learning are exhibited in our everyday lives through our home,
school, and school.
Classical conditioning was discovered by Iran Petrovich
Pavlov. He was originally a physiologist whose main focus was
the digestive system (Gazzaniga 230). His discovery was made
during a study on the salivation of dogs when given food. Pavlov
observed that the dogs began salivating at the sound of the
scientists footsteps and at their appearance into the room (231).
This led Pavlov to study the phenomenon further.
The experiments that Pavlov was originally observing were
based on the set of unconditioned stimulus and its unconditioned
response. What is meant by conditioned is that the response is
automatic and based on instinct. To compliment this name the
stimulus is known as the unconditioned stimulus (Myers 260).
With Pavlov's new observations a new set of stimulus and response
was found. This new set is known as the conditioned stimulus and
the conditioned response. What is meant by conditioned response
here is that the response was learned. The stimulus begins as
neutral and causes no conditioned response. However, if the
neutral stimulus can be associated with another stimulus, then it
becomes a conditioned stimulus.
Classical conditioning can be exemplified in the home,
school, and school. In the home a child could smell brownies
baking in the kitchen which makes her mouth water. The brownies
are the unconditioned stimulus, the smell is the conditioned
stimulus, and the watering of the mouth is the conditioned
response (Myers 267-68). In work a man may be waiting to be
fired. When he sees his boss he begins to sweat. The
unconditioned stimulus is getting fired, the conditioned stimulus
is the sight of the boss, the conditioned response is the
sweating. In school a boy may be in class when suddenly the fire
alarm goes off at which time the boy walks to exit the building.
The unconditioned stimulus is fear of a fire, the conditioned
stimulus is the sound of the alarm, and the conditioned response
is the exiting of the building.
Operant conditioning is an organism's learning an
association between how it behaves and what happens as a result
of that behavior (Gazzaniga 244). There are some differences
between classical and operant conditioning. First, the operant
response has to occur completely spontaneously. In classical
conditioning the conditioned response is drawn from an organism.
In operant conditioning the response is delivered by the organism
which then awaits the consequences. Second, in classical
conditioning the conditioned response is usually a "very well-
defined muscular movement or glandular response" (244). In
operant conditioning the response is a set of actions that bring
about an essentially equal result. Third, in classical
conditioning reinforcement is dictated by the scientist or
instructor. In operant conditioning reinforcement is dictated by
the organism (245).
Edward L. Thorndike was the first person to formally address
the affects of reward and punishment in learning. He came up
with the positive law of effect which stated that when a behavior
is rewarded that behavior will be more likely to be repeated
(Myers 269). F. B. Skinner later elaborated on this theory.
Skinner observed there are different types of operant
conditioning. There is punishment which decreases the
probability of a behavior being repeated. There is positive
reinforcement which the giving of a reward for a behavior (Myers
270). An example of this in the home would be the giving of a
cookie to a child for picking up all his toys. There is negative
reinforcement which is the taking away of something undesirable
(Myers 270). An example of this in work would be a man at work
who is allergic to flowers, but must sit near them since his boss
likes them. The boss says that she will take away the flowers if
he gets his report done early.
This reinforcement can be divided into two categories;
primary and secondary. Primary reinforcers are things that are
required by an organism such as food, warmth, water, sleep, and
sex (Gazzaniga 252). Secondary reinforcers are things that are
associated with primary reinforcers and therefore have their own
reinforcing properties. An excellent example of this today is
money which can be used to obtain many primary reinforcers (252).
Reinforcement fits into one of five main schedules. There
is partial reinforcement or the irregularity of reinforcement.
Continuous reinforcement is the repetitive reinforcement given
after completing a task. Fixed ratio reinforcement is when a
certain number of responses must be given to obtain a reward.
Fixed interval reinforcement is when a response must be given for
a certain amount of time to obtain a reward. Finally, variable
ratio reinforcement is when a certain number of responses are
required for the first reward, but different numbers of responses
are required for different rewards.
In closing, classical and operant conditioning are two
explanations of an organisms learning. These two explanations
are valid and existent. This can be seen through our experiences
in the home, work, and school.
Gazzaniga, Michael S. Psychology. Philadelphia: Harper & Row
Myers, David G. Psychology. New York: Worth Publishers, 1995.