Associative Learning

left and right side of brain

Learning refers to the relatively permanent change in an organism’s behavior to a given situation due to repeated experiences in that situation, so long as the behavior change is not because of nature response tendencies, maturation, or a temporary state. One type of learning is associative learning, which is made up of classical conditioning and operant conditioning. 

Classical Conditioning

Classical conditioning refers to learning to link two stimuli in a way that helps us anticipate an event to which we have a reaction. Ivan Pavlov’s studies with the salvation response in dogs demonstrated this concept: Pavlov found that salvation from eating food was eventually triggered by what should have been a neutral stimulus, or a stimulus that does not normally trigger a response. Initially, food was the unconditioned stimulus, since it naturally triggered the unconditioned response of salivation before any conditioning took place. Prior to conditioning, the neutral stimulus was a bell, and during conditioning, the bell was paired with food. Eventually the neutral stimulus became the conditioned stimulus, which is learned to trigger a response. Thus, the dog developed a conditioned response of salivating when hearing the bell. 

Pavlov’s work led to greater insights about learning, science, and behavior. His studies established that learning occurs in all creatures, that learning is related to biological responses, and that learning can be scientifically measured. Most importantly, his research has great applications in modern medicine, such as in addiction and phobias. 

There are many processes involved in classical conditioning. For instance, acquisition refers to the initial stafe of learning. On the other hand, extinction is when the conditioned response goes away. Following extinction, spontaneous recovery may take place, where presenting the conditioned stimulus alone can sometimes lead to a return of the conditioned response. Furthermore, generalization is when the conditioned response can be triggered by related or similar stimuli. For instance, if one becomes ill from a specific meal at a restaurant, the feeling of nausea can be generalized to all food at the restaurant or just seeing the restaurant itself. In contrast, discrimination is when only specific stimuli elicit a response. 

Higher order conditioning demonstrates how multiple levels of conditioning can take place. This is when a conditioned stimulus from one learning procedure is paired with a new neutral stimulus, creating a second conditioned response. Oftentimes, this second response is weaker, yet it still demonstrates the brain’s ability to make greater associations. 

The concept of the association principle is often used in advertising so that consumers link something positive with the product being marketed. When two things are linked in some way, we assume that they are linked in others as well. Thus, advertisers utilize celebrity endorsements in their ads: if a product is linked with a well liked celebrity, more people would want to buy it. 

Operant Conditioning

Operant conditioning is a type of learning in which behavior is strengthened if followed by a reinforcer or diminished if followed by a punisher. One study that was particularly influential was conducted by B.F. Skinner. Using an operant chamber (also known as the Skinner box), Skinner tracked behavior change of animals in response to different rates of reinforcement or punishment. Skinner believed that all behavior was a result of external feedback and consequences. Although critics argue that his theories ignore human’s free will and conscientiousness, his research led to numerous applications. For instance, the way that students’ learning is reinforced in schools, how shaping is involved in sports performance, and how reinforcement is crucial to work productivity.  

One aspect of operant conditioning is the use of reinforcement in order to increase a behavior. Positive reinforcement involves adding something desirable to increase behavior, while negative reinforcement means ending something unpleasant. Among these types of reinforcements are levels, including primary, conditioned or secondary, and delayed. Primary reinforcers are stimuli that meet a basic need or are naturally desired, such as food, attention, and fun. Then, conditioned reinforcers are stimuli that have become associated with a primary reinforcer, like grades and money. Finally, delayed reinforcers allow humans to link a bahvior to a non-immediate consequence, also known as delayed gratification. 

Reinforcement schedules are crucial to establishing certain behaviors and being sure that they continue long term. For instance, continuous reinforcement is when one is given a reward every time they exhibit the desired behavior. While learning can happen quickly this way, it is not practical and must eventually be switched to partial reinforcement. 

One type of partial reinforcement is a fixed ratio schedule in which a reward is based on a specific amount of times a behavior is done. For instance, once one buys three coffees, they will get the fourth for free. A variable ratio schedule is when one is rewarded randomly after the targetted behaviot, such as winning the lottery. A fixed interval schedule is when a reward is granted after a specific amount of time, such as receiving a paycheck every two weeks. Finally, a variable interval schedule is a reward after a random amount of time. To determine which schedule is utilized, you would need to know whether the reward is based on repetition of behavior or time, as well as whether or not the number is consistent. 

In contrast from reinforcers, punishments are used to decrease a behavior. Positive punishment is adding something unpleasant, while negative punishment is taking away something pleasant. While punishments are effective in ending a specific behavior, signifying what not to do, they do not guide the person to a desired behavior. 

Cognition and Biology 

Cognitive processes and biological predispositions affect classical and operant conditioning. To begin with, motivation can greatly impact one’s ability to learn and perform certain behaviors. One type of motivation is called intrinsic motivation, in which one performs a behavior well for its own sake, rather than a reward. On the other hand, extrinsic motivation is doing a behavior to receive rewards from others. Sometimes, promising a reward for something one already likes to do can cause people to focus on the reward, rather than their intrinsic interest: this process is referred to as the overjustification effect. This concept greatly applies to learning in school. At a younger age, children want to learn because they enjoy it, but as they age, school becomes focused on secondary reinforcements like grades. Therefore, students no longer do well in school for the sake of learning but exterior rewards. Understanding this concept can allow for changes in the education system that allow students to enjoy intrinsic and extrinsic accomplishments.

In addition, biology affects conditioning since each species is biologically prepared to learn associations that enhance survival. More importantly, an animal’s abilities for conditioning can limit them to behaviors that are naturally adaptive. Therefore, instinctive drift may occur in which an animals’ natural behavior can interfere with conditioning. 

Overall, the process of conditioning is not definitive and instead many factors are involved as learning takes place. 


Classical and operant conditioning are both forms of associative learning that involve acquisition, extinction, spontaneous recovery, generalization, and discrimination, as well as the influences of biology and cognition. While classical conditioning focuses on the behavior as a respondent, operant conditioning operates on the environment by associating behavior and resulting events. 


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