Learning Theories - Classical Conditioning

Classical Conditioning

The learning theories believe all behaviour occurs after birth. Therefore, the theories suggest that behaviour could be explained due to environmental factors. This is also known as nurture. All three theories are based upon scientific research which used the experimental method to try and establish cause and effect. By using experiments this provides the learning theories with scientific credibility and therefore the theories support psychology as a science. This in turn means the theories have many practical applications and can develop therapies, enhance educational practices, prevent crime and can develop social policies which can be helpful in society.

Classical conditioning was the first of the learning theories to be discovered and like many scientific discoveries this theory was developed accidentally. The theory was developed by Ivan Pavlov, a Russian physiologist who was carrying out scientific tests into how dogs digest their food. To investigate the dog’s digestion, Pavlov had externalised the saliva of the dogs which was how he was able to measure precisely the digestion of the dogs. This was achieved through the dogs undergoing a small operation which involved securing a tube from the dog’s salivation gland which therefore externalised the flow of saliva to the outside of their mouths. This procedure for the dogs was fairly unpleasant, but this research took place many years ago and ethical considerations were not a serious issue then. By carrying out this procedure on the dogs Pavlov was able to measure specifically how much saliva the dogs were actually giving off in numerical form (quantitative data) since he measured the amount of saliva in millilitres.Whilst carrying out this research into digestion Pavlov had a strange discovery where he found that the dogs began to salivate each time he entered the room even when he was not bringing them food. At first this was a nuisance as Pavlov was continually therefore clearing up after the dogs saliva which was on the floor. Yuk!! It was from then that Pavlov hypothesised that the dogs had learnt a new behaviour which they previously did not have each time he walked through the door.  With this in mind Pavlov started to work on a new set of experiments to see if you can teach a dog a new behaviour. Therefore to carry this out in a scientific manner he developed an experimental test conditions (see diagram below) to measure quantitatively if behaviour could be learnt. Pavlov proposed that the dogs will salivate (unconditioned response) when they see food (unconditioned response) could this therefore be paired with another stimulus in order to determine whether a new behaviour (conditioned response) could be learnt.

Stimulus: An external factor/event which is interpreted through the senses and can bring about a behaviour.

Unconditioned stimulus: A stimulus which elicits an unconditioned response.

Conditioned stimulus: A previously neutral stimulus that, after repeated association with an unconditioned stimulus, elicits the response produced by the unconditioned stimulus itself.

Unconditioned response: An unconditioned response is behaviour that occurs naturally due to


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