INTRODUCTION TO LEARNING

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Recent research clarifies earlier learning concepts

 For 100 years, classical and operant conditioning--behaviorism--have been a major part of psychology. However, recent research has uncovered many misconceptions about these learning procedures. I will not burden you with all these interesting studies (Leahey & Harris, 1989) because they would not be personally useful to you. I will, however, summarize the more interesting results. If it bores you, skip it.

 First of all, while classical and operant conditioning sound like very different methods applied to very different responses (reflexes vs. voluntary action), the fact is that both are involved in almost every real life activity. You are responding classically to many stimuli in your environment all the time, and many operant response tendencies (serving many purposes) are constantly pushing you in different directions. As illustrated in 7 & 8 in Table 4.1, a feared or distressing object (rat or whining child) classically arouses an emotional reaction prompting you to avoid the stressful stimulus. Thus, you may operantly escape the fear or placate the irritating child, which is followed by relief (negative reinforcement). Unfortunately, also because of the reinforcement, the fear grows (7), the child cries a lot, and you learn to slavishly cater to the child (8). Emotional-reflexive responses are all mixed up with behavioral-voluntary responses. They are just two parts of our bodies.

 If classical and operant responding are so intermixed, why are these two conditioning methods always separated in the psychology textbooks and described as being very different? Well, remember who discovered the methods and how. These experimenters--Pavlov, Thorndike, Skinner, etc.--were looking for the basic elements and laws of learning (changing or adapting) that might explain all behavior. But, they observed in detail very limited parts of behavior. In fact, Pavlov strapped his dogs into his apparatus excluding operant behavior, so he wasn't likely to learn much about the reinforcement of voluntary action. Likewise, Skinner was just as restrictive; he only looked at automatic recordings of bar pressing; he didn't even note how the animal pressed the bar (e.g. left paw, both paws, nose, or body block). Clearly, the rats in the Skinner box were salivating just like Pavlov's dogs, but it wasn't measured and, in general, neither was any other emotional, physiological, brain function, or reflexive reactions (e.g. frustration, urination, blood pressure, muscle potential, EEG, licking the bar, etc.). Like therapists, experimentalists find what they are looking for--what their biases direct their attention towards. They found very minuscule parts of life, and they failed to observe the interactions with other parts of the organism. As a knowledgeable self-helper, try to do better. Guard against over-simplification and seeing only what you want to see or what is right in front of you. It isn't easy. Always look for classical, operant, and observational or social learning when you are trying to understand any of your behavior. Always look at the five parts of any human problem (chapter 2).

 There are other important factors that were grossly neglected by the early investigators of learning: cognitive processes (the mind), the genes and biological influences, and, in humans, such things as values, purposes, and intrinsic satisfactions. A brief summary of these neglected factors will be given here.

 From 1900 to 1975 the most serious omission from learning was probably thinking or the mind. Before that time, the mind was thought to control behavior. During this time, learning was seen as simple S-R connections, i.e. the environment controlled behavior. Now, since 1980 or so, the mind is back in control of behavior. Psychologists tried to make things simple but it didn't work. Granted, the human mind is complex and behavior would be easier to understand if we could disregard the mind, but that isn't reality. It is just common-sense to include the mind in psychology. In our daily lives it certainly seems to us as though we mentally control our actions. We plan to call a friend or go to the store...and we do. We decide to watch our diet...and we eat less. Fishbein (1980) contends that we act according to our intentions, if we rationally decide to do so and if significant others approve (or won't find out). If plans, self-instructions, and other thoughts do affect our actions, then we need to know how to control our thoughts too (see chapters 13 and 14).

 Contrary to the 1900-1975 theorists who thought conditioning was a mechanical, blind, automatic, unthinking process, there is growing evidence that thinking is very much involved in conditioning. In fact, the connection between the conditioned stimulus or CS (tone or rat) and the unconditioned stimulus or UCS (food or loud noise) must make sense and be useful, otherwise an animal or human won't learn that connection. Example: An adult would certainly start to salivate to a bell (or smell of a bakery) signaling food is near by. But an adult (or a 4-year-old) probably wouldn't develop a fear of a little kitten under the same conditions as Little Albert with the rat. Adults know kittens don't make banging noises. Even "lower organisms" have an idea about what is most likely to make them sick, so rats, for instance, associate eating or drinking something with nausea much faster than a tone with nausea. Thus, a mass of research demonstrates that animals (and humans) aren't stupid; they are thinking and adapting; they don't learn just any useless pairing of two stimuli together, but where it is very useful, one-trial learning can occur. The classically conditioned stimuli (tone) must truly predict the unconditioned stimuli (food), thus helping the animal be forewarned and to adapt, before the animal will learn the connection. Similarly, the reinforcement must truly be contingent on the behavior before operant learning occurs. The learner--animal or human--is involved in a complex cognitive process of calculating the relationships between stimuli in the environment and behavioral reactions. The organism is figuring out what is going on--what causes what or what leads to what (called cognitive maps)--and then acts to get the reinforcer (reward).

 Note: do not assume that our thoughts affecting what we learn are always correct and just. There is impressive evidence (see The Class Divided on PBS or Zimbardo's film about the Prison Experiment) that humans have a remarkable propensity to quickly learn to be prejudiced and mean towards people who are seen as different. Some of the easy things to learn are very wrong. Degrading others, however, can be self-serving (rewarding). So, different parts of our brain have to check the rationality of other parts.

 As Tolman insisted 50 years ago, the organism's purposes and expectations seem to be important (although not always commendable). One related issue is why avoidance conditioning doesn't extinguish. Consider this example: suppose a dog has learned to jump out of a shock box at the sound of a tone to avoid the shock. But now the shock is turned off. After many, many jumps to the tone without receiving any shock (this is an extinction procedure--the dog gets no punishment), the animal should stop jumping, but it doesn't. Why not? Perhaps because the animal expects to avoid shock by jumping, which happens every time and this, in turn, confirms and reinforces the expectation. So, the jumping doesn't extinguish even though, unknown to the animal, there would be no shock. That makes sense. Similar expectations may be involved in useless human compulsions, obsessions, and worries (chapter 5). For instance, if you avoid talking to black men, then, like the dog in a shock box, you will never learn to interact with and trust black men. In fact, the paranoid expectations may grow.

 The study of cognition (thinking) has become a major part of psychology in the last 15 years. It is another important, complex part of life, along side behavior. In this book you will learn about several cognitive theories and therapies: Social Learning Theory (see next section), Problem-solving Therapy, Reality Therapy, Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy, Rational-Emotive Therapy and others.

 The early behaviorists also neglected biology and genes (of course we can't expect them to have known everything discovered in the last 50 years). It has only been in the last 10 years that fascinating research with identical twins raised apart has shown that talents, interests, temperament, personality (e.g. altruism, empathy, and nurturance), habits (smoking, drinking, and eating), physical health, speech patterns, and even nervous mannerisms are probably genetic to a considerable extent. We can't alter these influences (although we can usually over-ride them); we certainly shouldn't deny them. Neubauer and Neubauer (1990) describe identical twins raised apart from birth who were almost identically obsessed with order and cleanliness. Both had dressed immaculately, arrived exactly on time, and scrubbed their hands until they were red and raw. When asked why, one convincingly explained, "because my mother was a demanding perfectionist" and the other said with assurance, "because my mother was a total slob." Our genes work in secret (even more so now that our grandparents and great-grandparents are often strangers to us). There is so much we do not know: How do neurons and glial cells influence each other? How do life experiences change brain structure? Why are more schizophrenics born in late winter and early spring?

 There is also evidence that each species has evolved differently in terms of how quickly certain things are learned, e.g. rats quickly learn to fear a rubber hedgehog (a natural enemy), birds instinctively fear large predator birds, humans tend to fear speaking in front of groups, etc. Other examples of quick conditioning are given above. Perhaps one of the most important species differences to realize is that reinforcements affect rats differently than humans. Most psychology books go into great detail about how different "schedules of reinforcement" produce very different behavior. THIS IS BASED ON RATS AND PIGEONS. In fact, HUMANS don't seem to be very sensitive to the schedule of reinforcement (variable ratio, fixed interval, etc.). Psychology textbooks, like early learning theorists, oversimplify things.

 Biology seems to have some amazing effects in certain unusual conditioning situations, such as using drugs (which may help us understand addiction). Suppose you pair repeatedly a certain stimulus or S (perhaps a specific environment) with taking heroin. After a while, the S (being in that situation) will produce physiological reactions similar to taking heroin, i.e. fast heart rate and feeling high. Conditioning has occurred. But this conditioned physiological reaction to the environment gradually starts to change on its own. The same S (being in the drug-taking situation) starts to produce the opposite physiological reactions, namely, low heart rate, feeling very down, and craving more heroin. Why does the CR, conditioned response, mysteriously change to a physiological reaction totally opposite to the UCR, the unconditioned response to heroin? The best explanation is biological: perhaps the body learns to prepare in advance for the anticipated shock of a drug injection by lowering the heart rate and making other adjustments which reverse the original conditioned response. Again, conditioning is not a blind, mechanical pairing process, it is a very adaptive response of the body for survival (Leahey & Harris, 1989). We have a fantastic brain...and a wise body. Yet, some mistakes are made.

 Finally, the early behaviorists neglected to pass along valuable knowledge to the ordinary person. Experimentalists, first of all, tend to publish in obscure journals, obscure because they cater only to theorists who are haggling over fine points of a theory that will soon be replaced by another theory. Secondly, notwithstanding Skinner's utopian and teaching machine ideas, experimental psychologists seem to have little interest in informing ordinary people. They say they are seeking "basic knowledge." Maybe that focus explains why there was a 40 year delay between Watson's work with Little Albert and the use of a classical procedure called desensitization with fearful clients in therapy. As we will see, the very limited applied research has been directed almost exclusively towards helping the professional therapist (behavior modifier) or human efficiency expert or ad agency or educational researcher. It was as though the ordinary person was seen, like the rat or pigeon, as mechanical and unthinking--mindless! Skinner, although the not-too-excited "father" of behavior modification, openly expressed serious doubts about self-reinforcement; yet, he didn't research self-reinforcement or self-help at all; he apparently believed that individuals and society could only be changed by ingeniously clever operant conditioners. The point is that psychology, both the experimentalists and the therapists, has taken decades to get started trying to "giving psychology away" and still generally has little apparent interest in doing so. There's not much money or professional status in it.


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