Learning is a change in behaviour based on previous experience. It may involve processing different types of information. Learning functions can be performed by different brain learning processes, which depend on the mental capacities (of which are dynamic) of learning subject/agent, the type of knowledge which has to be acquitted, as well as on socio-cognitive and environmental circumstances. In this post we look at three different types of learning: classical conditioning, operant conditioning, and social learning.

Classical Conditioning

A simple learning process whereby a neutral stimulus is able to evoke a response because it has been paired with another stimulus (that originally elicited a response).


Ivan Pavlov (1849 — 1936). Pavlov’s contributions to behaviour therapy were accidental. He was originally studying the digestive process of dogs when he discovered that associations develop when pairing a stimulus (food) that has a response (dog salivates) with a stimulus that has no response (bell).

The stimulus with no response (bell) eventually develops the same response (dog salivates) as the stimuli that has the response (food). This type of learning is known as classical conditioning (Seligman, 2006).


Sally feels comforted by the smell of a certain perfume. It’s the perfume her Grandma used to wear. Sally has paired the feeling of comfort she experienced around her Grandma, with the perfume she used to smell whenever they spent time together.

Operant Conditioning

A learning process whereby the consequence of any given behaviour modifies the degree to which that behaviour is likely to occur (also known as instrumental conditioning).


Edward Lee Thorndike (1874 — 1939): Thorndike developed the general procedures for studying operant conditioning (also referred to as instrumental conditioning) in the late 1800s. Thorndike’s experimental procedure typically involved placing cats inside specially designed boxes from which they could escape and obtain food located outside only by performing a specific behavior such as pulling on a string.

Thorndike timed how long it took individual cats to gain release from the box over a number of experimental trials and observed that the cats behaved aimlessly at first until they seemed to discover the correct response as if by accident. Over repeated trials the cats began to quickly and economically execute the correct response within just seconds. It seemed the initially random behaviours leading to release had become strengthened or reinforced by their positive consequences. It was also found that responses decreased and might eventually cease altogether when the food reward or reinforcement was no longer given. This is called extinction.

John B. Watson (1878 — 1958): Watson has been described as the “father” of behaviourism (McLeod, n.d.a.). He used Pavlov’s principles of classical conditioning as well as emphasising that all behaviour could be understood as a result of learning. Watson’s research involved the study of a young child called “Albert”. “Albert” was initially not scared of rats. However, Watson paired the rat with a loud noise and this frightened “Albert”. After this was repeated numerous times, “Albert” developed a fear of rats. He also developed a fear of things similar to a rat such as men with beards, dogs, and fur coats. This fear was extinguished after a month of not repeating the experiment (McLeod, n.d.a).

B.F. Skinner (1904 — 1958): Skinner developed the theory of operant reinforcement theory which is the notion that how often a behaviour is executed depends on the events that follow the behaviour (Seligman, 2006). For example, if the behaviour is reinforced, the behaviour is more likely to be repeated. He emphasised observable behaviour and rejected the notion of “inner causes” for behaviour (McLeod, n.d.a).


Ralf, the family dog learns to “roll over” after being rewarded with doggie treats (positive reinforcement) each time he performs the trick correctly.

Social Learning

A type of learning that occurs when a behaviour is observed and subsequently mimicked.


Albert Bandura (1925): Bandura applied the principles of classical and operant conditioning to social learning. Basically, people learn behaviours through observation of other’s behaviour, also known as modelling (Seligman, 2006).


A young child attempts to throw a ball after observing his older sister having fun, playing catch with her friends.