How Do We Learn?

By Razel Grace San Ramon


We learn from the things that happen to us – our experiences. For example, we learned that lightning is followed by thunder, we learned not to tell lies because it can cause us to lose our credibility and to lose our friends, or that we learned how to dance by watching others demonstrate dance steps to us. We can say that we have learned these things because we have acquired appropriate responses for them – we cover our ears when lightning strikes, we try to avoid telling lies, and we dance. Learning is acquiring relatively permanent change in behavior through experience. We experience things and learn to modify our behaviors based on what we know.
Learning applies not just to humans, but also to animals. For us humans, learning extends beyond the scope of proper education. Prior schooling, we learned how to tie our shoes, how to write, and maybe, even how to read. For animals, learning could mean knowing how to hunt for food, how to climb trees, and when to avoid predators. Learning about the environment is important for adaptation and survival.

Psychological research in learning typically employs laboratory experiments, and consequently uses animals as participants. This is to allow extensive control over the environmental conditions that govern learning. After decades of research in learning, it is widely accepted today that many of the principles of learning demonstrated with animals also apply to humans.

Types of Learning

There are two different types of learning – observational and associative learning.

Observational Learning is learning by watching others engage in different behaviors. From the examples above, you probably have learned to dance by watching your teacher demonstrate some dance steps to you. You also probably have learned how to write by watching your mother demonstrate hand strokes for various letters and numbers.

Associative Learning is learning by establishing connections between events. Conditioning is the method for teaching associations, and there are two types of conditioning – classical and operant conditioning. Classical conditioning is the method teaching associations between two different stimuli. From the example above, we learned the connection between lightning and thunder because they almost always occur together. Because of this, whenever we see lightning, we cover our ears in anticipation of thunder. On the other hand, operant conditioning is the method of teaching associations between behaviors and consequences. Operant conditioning uses rewards and punishments to strengthen or weaken behaviors. From the example above, you might have learned the connection between telling lies and losing credibility and friends.

People on the Autism Spectrum tend to learn by association and neurotypical people tend to learn by observation.

Factors that Affect Learning

Despite the popularity of the use of experiments in uncovering the principles of learning, most of the time, learning occurs in not-so ideal situations. Have you ever witnessed, for example, a dog speaking fluent English, even if it seemingly demonstrates basic understanding of the language? Have you ever had problem remembering names when you went through zero sleep last night? And lastly, do you know how to tell if a plant is poisonous or not? Probably no. This is because there are biological, cognitive and cultural factors in learning.

Biological Factors in Learning

Preparedness is the species-specific biological predisposition to learn in certain ways. For example, chimpanzees cannot speak English because they lack the necessary vocal equipment to do so.

Instinctive Drift is the tendency to revert to instinctive behavior thereby interfering with learning. Keller and Marion Breland (1961), students of B.F. Skinner (proponent of operant conditioning), trained pigs and raccoons to do certain things. Instead of performing what they’ve learned, the pigs and raccoons rooted and food-washed. This is because their instinct to root and food-wash interfered with learning.

Lastly, Taste Aversion is distaste for substances that poison but do not kill. For example, Garcia, Ervin and Kelling (1966) paired radiation with eating a certain food, causing rats to feel nauseated and avoid the food for 32 days, a long-term effect that cannot be accounted to conditioning per se. This phenomenon is also observed in cancer patients undergoing radiation and chemical treatments. This principle is also used by ranchers to lessen the threat of pests and predators to their livestock. They feed these pests and predators poisoned meat of their prey.

Cognitive Factors in Learning

Learning occurs with the aid of memory. Latent Learning is unreinforced learning that is not immediately reflected in behavior. A good example is the cognitive map, or the mental representation of structures. Research shows that unreinforced group of rats demonstrate knowledge of the maze when given reinforcement.

With learning and memory comes the ability to gain insight to solve problems. According to the research of Wolfgang Kohler, a German gestalt psychologist, apes ponder to solve both the stick and box problem when instinct fails (1925).

Also, with learning comes expectations. For example, rats conditioned to hearing a tone and getting a shock ignored the contiguity of a third stimulus (light) because it seemed redundant. Therefore, the rats learned to expect getting a shock only when they hear the tone.

Lastly, with expectations come purpose and goals. In order to know why people engage in certain behaviors (or their motivation), it is thus important to understand first the consequences of their behavior. Goal-setting is an important application of this. Knowing how to reach expectations comes after knowing what to expect.

Fundamental behavioral psychologists typically ignore cognitive factors in associative learning. They maintain that such factors cannot be observed and can even interfere with understanding the extensive effect of environmental conditions. However, modern behavioral psychologists, like Albert Bandura in his Observational Learning, are increasingly focusing their attention to the cognitive factors in learning.

Cultural Factors in Learning

Culture affects the degree and content of learning. The importance of attitude in learning is demonstrated by the continuous shifting of parenting style in the 20th century – from authoritarian parenting (1910-1930), to permissive parenting (1930-1960), and then to authoritative parenting(1960 onwards). Authoritarian parenting in the early 1900s is due to the belief that infants can be shaped to any type of child. John Watson’s (1925) “Psychological Care of the Infant and Child” became an official government booklet for parents . The booklet suggests that thumb-suckers should be restrained from sucking by tying their hands to the crib at night, or by painting their fingers with foul-tasting liquids; that parents should let infants cry themselves out so as not to reinforce this kind of behavior. Permissive parenting in mid-1900s occurred in response to the supposed “coldness” of authoritarian parenting. Parents became concerned over the feelings and capacities of the child. For example, unlike authoritarian parenting that focuses on not reinforcing crying infants, permissive parenting underscores that crying is the only mode of communication available to infants. Lastly, authoritative parenting in the late 1900s advocates that parents should listen and adapt to the child’s point of view, to discipline in a non-hostile manner, to explain punishments and restrictions, and to limit decisions in areas in which the child is not capable of reasonable judgment.

Besides attitude, experience is also an important part of culture. For example, 4-year olds among the Bushmen in Kalahari Desert are skilled at tracking animals and finding water-bearing roots in desert, that 6-year old Balinese children are skilled dancers, and that 6-year old Norwegian children are good skiers and skaters.

Copyright Razel Grace San Ramon

Related Articles:

How People on the Autism Spectrum Learn

How to Encourage Observational Learning for a Person on the Autism Spectrum

People on the Autism Spectrum Have to Learn Information That Neurotypical People Already Understand Instinctively

Complete List of All Articles on Autism Spectrum Directory


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