Psychology 101 – Learning


By the 1960s, many researchers and theorists had begun to wonder whether a psychological science could be built strictly on observable behaviours without reference to thoughts. Most agreed that learning is the basis of much of human behaviour, but were not convinced that classical and operant conditioning could explain everything people do. From behaviourist learning principles emerged social cognitive theory, which incorporated concepts of conditioning but added two new features: a focus on cognition (thinking) and a focus on social learning.

Cognitive maps are mental representations that we create to reflect our environment, it is a map that we refer to, to help us navigate ourselves in any environment we have happened to be in, or have expectations of. For example, our ability to conjure up an image in our mind’s eye of a house we used to live in, and be able to navigate this house without physically being there is an example of a cognitive map.
bird mapThe concept was discovered by the behaviourist Edward Tolman (1948) who had found that rats who were left to navigate mazes without any reinforcement (no food pellets leading to the end) would run around aimlessly and not reach the end of the maze very quickly compared to rats who had been trained to. However, after a few sessions of directionless running around, Tolman put food at the end of the maze and the rats were able to find the exit at surprisingly quick speeds. This, Tolman decided, was because the rats had drawn their own cognitive map of the maze and could therefore navigate it efficiently if it were necessary to.

Once the rats were reinforced, their learning became observable. Tolman called learning that has occured but is not currently manifest in behaviour, latent learning. To social cognitive theorists, latent learning is evidence that knolwedge or beliefs about the environment are crucial to the way humans and animals behave.

Expectancies – Social cognitive theory proposes that an individual’s expectations, or expectancies, about the consequences of a behaviour are what render the behaviour more or less likely to occur. If a person expects a behaviour to produce a reinforcing consequence, she is likely to perform it as long as she has the competence or skill to do so. Likewise, a person is less likely to do something, if he expects a negative outcome to result. For example, a worker is less likely to ask for a raise if he assumes his boss will not be happy with him for asking. Or a boy might not start a conversation with an attractive girl at a bar, because he believes she would turn him down and embarrass him.

Julian Rotter (1954), one of the earliest social cognitive theorists, distinguished between specific expectancies such as ‘if I ask this lecturer for an extension, he will refuse’ to more generalised expectancies such as ‘you can’t ask people for anything in life – they’ll always turn you down’. These are called generalised expectancies, because they influence a broad spectrum of behaviour. Rotter used the term locus of control to refer to the genreralised expectancies people hold about whether or not their own behaviour can bring about the outcomes they seek. Individuals with an internal locus of control believe they are the masters of their own fate. While people with an external locus of control believe their lives are determined by forces outside themselves.

Learned helplessness consists of the expectancy that one cannot escape aversive pessimismevents and the motivational and learning deficits that result from this belief; it is a form of expectancy that is central to human depression. Researchers have found that the explanatory style of an individual (how they make sense of bad situations) plays a crucial role in whether or not they become and remain depressed. Individuals with a pessimistic explanatory style blame themselves for the bad things that happen to them, for example they might say that the reason they failed an exam was because they were dumb, and not because the test was hard, or they didn’t study enough.

cat lion mirrorSeveral studies suggest that pessimistic people are actually more accurate than optimists in recognising when they lack control over outcomes. According to this view, people who maintain positive illusions about themselves and their ability to control their environment are less accurate but tend to be happier and report fewer psychological symptoms such as depression and anxiety. However, optimistic people benefit from the self fulfilling prophecy, which is where if they believe they are confident for example, they will actually appear to be more confident in front of others. While pessimistic people, suffer from the self fulfilling prophecy, as if they believe they are deficient in certain areas, then they will most likely reinforce that image and others will see it as well.

Social Learning – Social cognitive theory proposes that individuals learn many things from the people around them, without reinforcement, through social learning mechanisms other than classical and operant conditioning. A major form of social learning is observational learning – learning by observing the behaviour of others. The impact of observational learning is huge – from learning how to feel and act when someone tells an inappropriate joke, to what kinds of foods, clothes and drugs are fashionable. Modelling (not, not that modelling) is when a person learns to reproduce a behaviour that is observed by someone they see to be a model (role model). Examples of this behaviour would be little girls playing with baby dolls to imitate their mothers nursing a new baby. Whether an individual actually performed modelled behaviour also depends on the behaviour’s likely outcome. This outcome expectancy is itself often learned through an observational learning mechanism known as vicarious conditioning. In vicarious conditioning, a person learns the consequences of an action by observing its consequences for someone else. For example, a boy would know not to touch a tray of food in the oven if he had just seen his brother touch it and receive a burn.

Well that about wraps it up, I hope you learnt something today!


Check Out Part 3 of Psychology 101: Thinking and Reasoning!

Other guides in the Psychology 101 series:

9 thoughts on “Psychology 101 – Learning

  1. Pingback: Psychology 101 – Memory | END OF THE GAME

  2. Very nice reading! I really like the whole concept of learning and it’s quite useful as well.. Have you ever heard about Pavlov’s children?
    Some quite disturbing experiments done on children in the same manner as on the dogs..
    Check it out.


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