Learning Theory

Learning Theory is rooted in the work of Ivan Pavlov, the famous scientist who discovered and documented the principles governing how animals (humans included) learn. Two basic kinds of learning or conditioning occur:

  • Classical conditioning happens when an animal learns to associate a neutral stimulus (signal) with a stimulus that has intrinsic meaning based on how closely in time the two stimuli are presented. The classic example of classic conditioning is a dog's ability to associate the sound of a bell (something that originally has no meaning to the dog) with the presentation of food (something that has a lot of meaning for the dog) a few moments later. Dogs are able to learn the association between bell and food, and will salivate immediately after hearing the bell once this connection has been made.
  • Instrumental conditioning happens when an animal learns to perform particular behaviors in order to obtain an intrinsically rewarding stimulus. Instrumental conditioning has occurred when a trained dolphin leaps out of the water in order to obtain a fish reward, and when a human employee shows up at work in exchange for a paycheck.

Years of learning research have lead to the creation of a highly precise learning theory that can be used to understand and predict how and under what circumstances most any animal will learn, including human beings. Because most behavior is learned according to the principles of instrumental conditioning, learning theory can be used to help people figure out how to change their behaviors.

Though there is only one learning theory, there are several flavors of behaviorism, which is the school of psychology that developed around learning theory. Strict behaviorism ignores the importance of mental events in shaping behavior. According to this view, the same principles that are used to train dogs are also useful for training or educating human beings. As backwards as this sounds, there is much merit in this position. Strict behaviorist approaches to human education have flourished as a guiding philosophy for educating autistic and mentally retarded individuals.

Cognitive behaviorism is a newer approach that applies learning theory to mental events like thoughts and feelings. Cognitive behavioral therapists teach people new ways of thinking, and in so doing, help them to overcome various problems that stem from dysfunctional thinking, including depression and anxiety problems (Depression and anxiety can be seen and successfully treated as just another variety of learned behavior, according to this approach). We'll talk more about cognitive therapy later on in the Methods section.

The key insight to take home from learning theory is that most behavior is learned behavior, for animals as well as human beings. If behavior can be learned, it can also be unlearned, so long as the right steps are followed (as described by the learning theory), and the right reinforcements or punishments are applied. If your problem has to do with a bad habit you'd like to change, learning more about learning theory is a good idea for you.

  • Maram

    thx alot for these information i really needed it & waiting 4 more

  • tosin

    thanks for the explanation on this topic but i will appreciate if u can discuss widely or elaborate on classical,operant and social learning theory.thanks

  • bob

    this helps so much dood

  • Anonymous-1

    Tosin, why don't you do your own homework? It's obvious you are writing a paper and you want someone else (this site?) to write it for you. And it only takes two extra letters to spell "you" correctly. Really, are you so busy that you can't type two whole letters?

  • Muse

    To those who would criticize others for their apparent lack of spelling and grammar skills - the modern school systems are APPROVING this behaviour. Our children are now taught (much to my chagrin and protest) that if it "sounds right" it "is right" even if it is spelled wrong.

    I have never been one to make excuses, (and believe me, I correct the child when she spells this way) but sometimes it helps to understand others when you understand the factors that influence how they behave.

    This is an excellent article, and a very nice resource. Thank you to the authors!

  • Anonymous-2

    why is this about dogs ithought it was a bout kids.

    Editor's Note: It is often easiest to give examples of learning theory in terms of animal behavior. This is becuase the theory was originally based upon observations of animal behavior (and thus the early famous examples involve animals). However, the "laws" of behavior that are described in learning theory apply to human beings as well as to animals (adjusting for species differences, of course).

  • Fifi

    thanks for the info. I was quite stumped on how Pavlov's theroy had anything to do with growing viloence in teens. now i can relate this theory to this topic to achieve an A. Thanks

  • Claudia Hananya

    Hai..your articles really help me to solve out my tutorial question. before this i'm think that i can't answer the question...the questions is "there is one boy who immitate the episode of violent of his father during the play in the counselling session".. How is that happened?

    Editor's Note: Usually, events like you describe are referenced to psychologist Albert Bandura's social learning theory, and a process called vicarious learning where one person models his behavior after another person's behavior they have observed.

  • Praveen

    Very stimulus website i have ever found. A complete guide for Mental and Emotional wellbeing. Thanks for all information.

  • Sarah

    I am doing a project in psychology about theories of learning and how to apply the schedule of reinforcement in the workplace. Could you explain this topic? I need to know if biofeedback, systematic desensitization, flooding, spontaneous recovery and extinction are types of learning theories. And what part they play in the topic. Your assistance will be greatly appreciated. Thanks.

    Editor's Note: There is only one learning theory. Extinction and spontaneous recovery are learning-related phenomena. Biofeedback, systematic desensitization and flooding are therapeutic applications of learning theory typically applied with the intention of reducing anxiety responses.

  • Bananan

    I didn't know we only have one learning theory, like what u had stated above. What bout constructivist learing theory? behaviorist? social learning? (based on ZPD)?

    Editor's Note: Good point. There are lots of names for different versions of learning theories, but at their root, they mostly boil down to the same basic observations of how learning proceeds. My statement that there is 'one learning theory' is talking about that set of commonalities. As long as researchers need to come up with something that seems groundbreaking to make careers, what would otherwise be presented as developments of a single tree will be described as new trees.

  • Anonymous-3


  • Jeanette

    How can some principles of Learning Theory be applied to reduce violence with children?

  • Flic

    You need to look at social learning theory - Bandura, A. also look at self efficacy. The main focus of Bandura is on observational learning.

  • Sarah

    How do you think operate conditioning and classical conditioning refers to the novel Brave New World? Does it have anything to do with the novel or not?

  • les

    I hate reading!!!

  • Jenny

    i have to do a project explaining how observational learning relates to classical and operant Conditioning

  • Anonymous-4

    i am doing a project in my sychology class about the classical conditioned. I have to find a example of it and i need to invent a classical conditioned experiment.

  • Katy

    I was wondering if you could help me, I'm doing a psychology topic on OCD. I'm having trouble applying these 2 theories (humanistic and social learning) to OCD behaviour. I'd be very grateful if you could help me out

  • percy

    hi,im doing an assignment about the learnig theory and how its linked to criminal behaviour.please help and i will apreciate it.

  • Lyn

    I have a homework on teaching-learning styles for pre-schooers. Can anyone help me find good articles on that? thanks!

  • Anonymous-5

    I cannot believe that students can study psychology yet they can bearly spell. I make errors on occasion myself due to the fact that SpellCheck is everywhere, but oh my goodness, is this how students communicate these days? It is not only the spelling, but some of these questions do not even make sense. The phrase 'think before you speak' applies on-line as well.

  • JR

    Was that a deliberate error? Must be, either that or a most unusual zoological phenomenon ...

    Just kidding,


  • Chris

    To the writer of comment: "Wow" ... you spelled "barely" incorrectly, next time you are trying to harsh on others' spelling, might want to double check your own.

  • Anonymous-6

    I can't believe someone would call people on their spelling when they can "bearly" spell. Who are you, Yogi Bear? It's barely.

  • Anonymous-7

    Did I say I was perfect, No. I DID say I also make errors, obviously. Spelling the word you as U is more what I am trying to point out. *sigh*

  • ethan

    i believed that this was a very well made article. despite the criticism from some people that love to criticize when they can "bearly" spell themselves. It provided good information on a report that i am doing on classical conditioning. thank you for the article and the time that it took to make it.

  • Anonymous-8

    The critism was not aimed toward the artical in any way, it is well written and informative indeed. The comment was directed toward the communication used by some of those asking questions. At least students are asking questions.

  • yempha

    Thanks for this web site -very helpful information

    how we could use classical conditioning in the treatment of any psychological disorder?



  • kharivha khathutshelo

    i'm a student from the university of limpopo thnks a lot to all the authors who make us have a brief understanding about what learning is . thanx

  • Raz

    I'm not sure, but while studying for my psych exam, one way that conditioning can help is with insomnia. By not eating, typing or reading in bed, the bed then becomes the conditioned stimulus to bring about sleep (a reflex). :)

  • Anonymous-9

    i need to ask a question what is my IQ?

    Editor's Note: Please see the information in our Psychological Testing topic center.

  • Will

    I think Wow's spelling is irrelevant in light of their criticism - which is valid, if not slightly one-sighted.

    Though, what can we expect from a description of a theory that only exceeds about 500 words? Or, in fact, descriptions of several theories? We should be thankful that such material can be easily found online, just as long as we don't rely on it for factual evidence. --> Just like free encyclopedias.

    I found the information helpful.

    My regards to the author/s! :)

  • anj

    thanks a lot for the info's..

    keep it up! :)

  • ramil

    vey good..

  • Anonymous-10

    I've heard that after a dog is exposed to a dead person, they will put the animal to sleep. Why? Exposure causes the animal to behave how...violently, nervous, skiddish?

    ( In this case, the dog seemed to have been locked in the house with the owner til family opened the door and dog ran out.)


  • iri

    i have friend. she had come from abroad so she a kind of different feeling

    like she is some special

    i have found a thing in her that she to be famous and so do any thing

    recently her boy friend (really it is not serious for her .she have a lot of boyfriend)

    he turned to me and she did not like it

    so she made another reason and and we became enemies

    now she is have drawn a heart in 2pieces 1her name and second one his name

    and at the centre a knife ie me

    what is her problem

    when she was frnd with me he turned to me was not a problem

    i knw it was i was able to see that

    what is her real problem

  • LovesLife








  • christle

    hi i learnt that behaviour cannot be "unlearned"

    so in principle what you do is replace a new behaviour that you want to see in place of the old behaviour and gradually fade out the old one.

  • Amanda Neal

    Classical Conditioning.

    Is a form of learning in wich reflex responses are associated with new stimuli.

    I been a bank employee for about four years now, I have experienced this method of learning in my place of work very often within the last four years.

    Last week we play trivia, the week before last was excanvenger hunt, the whole idea of this games at the workplace it is so we can learn differents products and services that the bank offer for a price or stimuli. Every time one of us respond accurately we received a prized. By creating this types of games in the workplace the desired behavior its priced with a reward(Classical conditioning), that facilitated our leaning process making it pleasent and stress free.

    The Bank Manager usually bring a board with some of the products the bank offer, every time we uncoverd a square, the product will show up for the employess to describe the features and benefits of this products, by answering this correctly the manager will prized the employee with a restaurant gift card or some other rewards already in place. In this particular example the Conditioned stimulus is the games that paired with a prize or reward (Unconditioned stimulus) causes the desire to respond correctly and accurately to the game been played.

    This its pretty much the essay that I'm writting for college but I,m having difficulties labeling the ucs, ucr, ns,cs,and cr can anybody help me ?

    Thanks Amanda

  • sim

    Hi I want to ask which theory of learning ( i.e classical conditioning, instrumental conditioning or cognitive learning) best explain the following consumption behaviour a) buying a pack of chewing gum b) preferring to fly on particular airline c) buying a personal computer for first time d) buying a new car . explain also why

  • Anonymous-11

    Those are all forms of classical conditioning. Your making decisions based on previously learned experiences. i mean, you wouldn't buy a computer that your daughter just bought that broke the first day she had it. They are classical conditioning because your learning by associating the stimuli with the response thus repeating the response to evoke the stimulus.

  • Anonymous-12

    i need to compare the two.

    one question im having problems with is..

    " rats were transported from thier home cages to a test box and were then shocked. the researchers then examined freezing behavior in response to both the test box and procedures used to transport the rats to it.

    i think its instrumental..?

  • art

    when did we start calling impulsion therapy flooding? why did it get this nickname? was it a very controversial when thid idea came out?

  • siri

    is it better to analyze someone by its E.Q ?

  • Anonymous-13

    I'm doing a presentation on Exposure/implosive therapy and theories, but I can't find any real information on WHO actually created or started using either. I realize that Dr. Aaron Becak and Dr. Albert Ellis both worked on Cognitive Behavioral therapy... but where did exposure come from? after them I'm sure. Any info would be greatly appreciated. Thanks.

  • Sam

    Hey, if anyone is looking for more information on Classical Conditioning, how it happens, extinction and stimulus generalization will benefit from the textbook Essentials of Understanding Pyschology by Robert S. Feldman and Andrea Dinardo. The book also explains how Operant Conditioing works through punishment, reinforcement and it explains when to give reinforcement to promote learning ex. after every time, only every 5th time or maybe every so often with an average schedule. It's a very useful resource for anyone studying psychology. There are many other topics it covers such as development, sensation and perception, emotions, motivation, personalities ect. Its probably in your high school/college/local library or its avaliable for purchase at Chapters. Hope this helps for anyone wondering:)

  • Donna Papin

    I was just looking up some theories that might help me with my team assignment in psychology. When I stumbled on "Sam's" post regarding "The Essentials of Understanding Psychology", I was a little excited because that is the book we are studying in my class! I highly recommend it because the author, Robert S. Feldman, makes it very easy to follow. Trust me, you will not get lost!

  • Julie

    Hi. I'm doing research on how and why classical conditioning plays a role in schools. Could someone please give me ideas where I can find literature review to support this. Thanks

  • Anonymous-14

    could you tell me about instrumental conditioning and behaviors in children?