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Learning Theory

Imprinting - Non-associative learning - Classical conditioning - Operant conditioning

Extinction - Positive reinforcement - Negative reinforcement - Punishment - Shaping



Classical Conditioning


Classical conditioning is the acquisition of a response to a new stimulus by association with an old stimulus. It involves coupling a stimulus with an innate behaviour or physiological response. Most laboratory based classical conditioning studies focus on physiological responses. The most famous, of course, involved Pavlov and his dogs. Ivan Pavlov was a Russian physiologist who trained dogs to salivate at the sound of a bell ringing. Indeed he went on to win the Nobel prize in 1904 for research in which he measured the saliva production of dogs in response to a variety of stimuli and many workers in this field still refer to this sort of learning as Pavlovian conditioning.

Pavlov had spotted his experimental dogs salivating when they heard his technician tinkling a bell as he approached the kennels to feed them. To determine how accurately a dog could build such associations, he decided to replace the sound of the bell with more easily varied sounds made by a buzzer and then a metronome. He surgically implanted a tube to collect saliva and measure its rate of production using the apparatus shown. A second hole in the dog's cheek was used blast meat powder into its mouth.

Pavlov coupled a novel external stimulus to a physiological stimulus and response. The dog learned to respond to a new stimulus, the buzzer, which had previously been irrelevant or neutral. Because its effect was the product of learning, Pavlov called the buzzer a conditioned stimulus. The salivation response to the conditioned stimulus is called the conditioned response. Before the learning experience, only meat powder, the unconditioned stimulus, produced salivation as an unconditioned response. Crucially, in classical conditioning, the sound of a buzzer was followed by the delivery of food to the mouth, regardless of what the dog might have done when it heard the buzzer. Classical conditioning enables the animal to associate events over which it has no control. This increases the predictability of an environment.


The classical conditioning procedure is as follows:





So that




Learning about sex seems especially likely as a consequence of classical conditioning. Stallions get aroused when they hear the sound of the bridle used to control them in the service pen. Dog breeders capitalise on a similar effect to ensure reliable performance of stud dogs. If they observe the same routine before taking the dog to the same room prior to every mating, these stimuli condition a response that supersedes the attractiveness of a particular bitch.

Another useful example of this sort of learning is seen in cows that let release milk when they hear calves calling because they have formed an association between this sound and subsequent suckling of teats. On dairy farms an analogous phenomenon arises when the unconditioned stimulus of being milked by a human, linked to a milk-let down response, is replaced by simply being in the milking parlour or sometimes even the collecting yard. The involuntary milk let down shown by dairy cows when they hear the milking apparatus becomes a conditioned physiological response.

The interesting footnote to Pavlov's study was that he recorded that his dogs would race ahead of their handlers to get to the experimental area. They wouldn't just hang around waiting for a stimulus that made their mouths water, they would try actively to put themselves into situations and perform activities that led to rewards. This was a result of trial and error learning and brings us neatly to the other important category: operant conditioning.


Context specificity

Pavlov's dogs knew that the lab was where they received meat powder. The ropes that held them in place may well have caused great resentment in a different context such as a park. Their effect was context specific in the same way that some cats seem to know that white coats represent danger, but only at the veterinary clinic. Household visitors can wear white coats without provoking a panic response. Because these animals learn to expect individual cues with specific outcomes in certain places, their learning is said to be context specific. Learning to behave in different ways that are entirely dependent on the context is what accounts for a puppy giving appropriate responses to cues in a training school and yet apparently forgetting everything when out on a walk. Good trainers do their best to break down context specificity. This is why, for instance, one of the most time consuming elements of guide dog training, after a dog has been taken through basic training with artificial obstacles, is the process of repetition in other contexts to eliminate any dependence on the training ground's environmental cues.


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 Cow running milk having been classically conditioned to associate the sound of the milking machine with being milked

  OLIVER Image Library:

contributor P. McGreevy











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