The learning and evoluntionary theory! Psychology Unit 1

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Behaviour is learned rather than inborn. Learning theory is put forward by behaviourists who prefer to focus their explanations solely on behaviour – what people do rather than what may or may not be going on in their minds. Behaviourists suggest that all behaviour (including attachment) is learned either through operant or classical conditioning.

Classical Conditioning

Classical conditioning is learning through association. It suggests that attachment is caused by the baby associating the mother with food. As the mother is presented frequently with food, the baby becomes to associate the feeling of satisfaction that it usually gets from being fed, with its mother. Therefore, an emotional link has been made between the baby and its mother, which is the definition of attachment.

Ivan Pavlov(1927): The food (unconditioned stimulus UCS) made the dogs salivate (unconditioned response UCR). When Pavlov rang the bel (Neutral Stimulus NS) there was no response (Neutral response NR). During the conditioning, where Pavlov was trying to create an association between to unrelated things, he rang the bell whilst presenting the food to the dogs (unconditioned stimulus UCS), the dogs then began to salivate (unconditioned response UCR). After conditioning, when the dogs had learnt to associate the bell with the food, when the bell (conditioned stimulus) was presented the dogs salivated (conditioned response).

Thorndike: Law of effect

If behaviour is followed by...

A pleasurable experience: the behaviour is more likely to be repeated

Something unpleasant: the behaviour is less likely to be repeated

Operant Conditioning

Learning through rewards/reinforcements and punishments

Two types of rewards..

Positive reinforcement/reward: Something nice happens, which increases the likelihood of repeat behaviour

Negative reinforcement/reward: Something horrible is removed, which increases the likelihood of repeat behaviour

Two types of punishment..

Positive punishment: Something horrible happens, which decreases the likelihood of repeat behaviour

Negative punishment: Something nice is removed, which decreases the likelihood of repeat behaviour

Evaluation of Learning Theory

+ Provides a clear explanation as to how attachments form. We do learn through association and reinforcement

- However, the learning theory says that mothers and babies form an attachment as babies learn to associate their mother with food (survival). So is food the main reinforcer for this relationship? What about the mother's attention and responsiveness and comfort? Are these not equally important rewards?

- Attachments are surely more complicated than just being formed on the basis of food, this is a reductionist theory

Harlow's Monkeys: The rhesus monkeys had a choice of two surrogate mothers, wire and food mother or a warm cloth mother. They became most attached to the cloth mother, but never formed a real attachment, suggesting that comfort was a much bigger factor in whether infants attach or not. This shows that food is not the biggest reinforcer as the learning theory suggested.


Attachment: An emotional bond between two people. It is a two-way process that endures over time. It leads to certain behaviours such as clinging and proximity-seeking and serves the function of protecting


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