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Behavioral Learning Theory and Associated Therapies

Matthew D. Jacofsky, Psy.D., Melanie T. Santos, Psy.D., Sony Khemlani-Patel, Ph.D. & Fugen Neziroglu, Ph.D. of the Bio Behavioral Institute, edited by C.E. Zupanick, Psy.D. and Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.

As the name implies, behavioral learning theory concerns itself with the way behaviors are learned, and subsequently "unlearned." Since the word "learning" is often used throughout this article, it is important to understand what psychologists mean by this term. According to behavioral psychologists, "learning" is indicated by a relatively permanent change in behavior or knowledge, as a result of a "learning" experience. Thus, "learning" is not limited to the most common usage of the word referencing academic learning (school). In psychological terms, learning can occur without any intention to learn, and without a conscious awareness that something has been learned. Any change in behavior suggests the person has learned a new response to a particular situation. The term will become clearer as we examine the two primary ways that organisms learn: classical conditioning and operant conditioning.

Classical Conditioning

classroom itemsClassical conditioning was the first type of learning behavior to be demonstrated a laboratory setting. Under ordinary circumstances, certain types of environmental stimuli will produce a reflexive, behavioral response. For instance, if a puff of smoke is blown toward your face, your behavioral response is to blink your eyes. You never have to "learn" to blink your eyes. It is just an automatic reflex. Therefore, in classical conditioning terminology, an unconditioned stimulus, or UCS (e.g., smoke) spontaneously produces a physiologic, reflexive unconditioned response or UCR (e.g., an eye blink). Thus, without training, a puff of smoke (unconditioned stimulus; UCS) causes one to reflexively blink (unconditioned response; UCR).

Classical conditioning demonstrated that people can be trained to produce these same reflexive, responses to a neutral stimulus, called a "conditioned stimulus" or CS. The CS is a stimulus that would not ordinarily cause the reflexive response. This learning occurs through a process called paired association. A reflexive behavioral response can be elicited by pairing an unconditioned stimulus (UCS) with a conditioned stimulus (CS). Thus, when a UCS and a CS repeatedly occur together, they form a paired association.

With training, a person will reflexively blink to a neutral stimulus, such as bell, when repeatedly paired with a puff of smoke. Obviously, the sound of a bell does not ordinarily cause someone to reflexively blink their eyes. However, if the bell (CS) is paired numerous times with a puff of smoke (UCS), then eventually the bell alone will cause someone to blink their eyes. This will occur even though smoke is no longer presented. Through paired association, the person has learned that the sound of the bell is synonymous with smoke. Therefore, they reflexively blink. Here is a diagram of the process. Note that once the unconditioned response (UCR) becomes conditioned (learned), it is then called a conditioned response (CR). Thus, prior to conditioning an eye blink is the UCR, but after conditioning, the eye blink becomes the CR.


Puff of smoke-->eye blink UCS-->UCR


Bell + puff of smoke-->eye blink CS + UCS-->UCR



According to classical learning theory, anxiety disorders may be learned via paired association. A scientist in the 1920's, named John B. Watson, demonstrated this with his famous "Little Albert" experiment. Watson demonstrated that humans can learn to be afraid of neutral objects through the process of classical conditioning. Watson and his assistant, Rosalie Rayner, presented Little Albert (an 11-month-old baby) with a white rat. Initially, Albert was not afraid of the rat. In fact, he reached out to touch it. Then they struck a steel bar right behind Albert every time they presented him with the rat. The loud noise frightened Albert and he began to cry. A week later, they presented Albert the rat alone, and he attempted to stay away from it. Watson and Rayner later demonstrated that Albert also reacted the same way to similar, white, furry objects (a fur coat, a rabbit, and a Santa Claus mask). Thus, the fear had generalized to other similar objects. It is important to bear in mind these experiments were conducted in the 1920s. It is quite unlikely they would be permitted by today's standards of ethical research.

Here is a diagram of this process:


Loud noise-->fear UCS-->UCR


White rat + loud noise-->fear CS + UCS-->UCR


White rat alone -' fear CS-->CR

Classical conditioning provides important insight into the process by which humans may develop a fearful response to previously neutral objects and neutral situations. Classical conditioning also demonstrates how the fear response generalizes to similar and related stimuli. Imagine a child walks by a Golden Retriever dog at a park who barks loudly at her. As a result, she becomes fearful of not only Golden Retrievers, but also all dogs (similar stimuli), parks with dogs in it (related stimuli), as well as large brown furry animals (similar and related stimuli). This is the process of "generalization."

Now let us review another type of behavioral learning called "operant conditioning." These principles are a bit more familiar since we encounter them in our daily lives.