Conditioned Learning: A Review of Key Findings and Their Implications

1. Introduction

The study of conditioned learning has been an important focus within the psychological literature for over a century. A large body of theoretical work and a practical framework underlie the contributions of conditioned learning to our understanding of basic learning processes and human behaviour. In this essay, I will review some of the key findings from research on conditioned learning, with a particular focus on those studies that have investigated the effect of different variables on learning and its retention. I will also discuss the implications of these findings for our understanding of how conditioning may influence behaviour in different situations.

2. A Brief Look Back: The Problem of Forgetting and Applying Conditioned Learning

One of the earliest and most influential researchers in the area of conditioned learning was Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov (1849-1936). Pavlov’s work on dogs led him to formulate one of the best-known principles of conditioning: that a conditioned stimulus (CS; e.g., a bell) which is regularly paired with an unconditioned stimulus (UCS; e.g., food) will come to elicit a conditioned response (CR; e.g., salivation), even in the absence of the UCS (Pavlov, 1927). In other words, through classical conditioning, an animal or person can learn to respond to a previously neutral stimulus as if it were itself a form of reinforcer or reward.

Pavlov’s bell has been rung many times in the century since his work was first published, with numerous researchers investigating different aspects of conditioning using a variety of animals and humans as subjects (see Rescorla, 2001 for a review). Although there is still much disagreement within the field about the precise mechanisms underlying conditioning, there is general agreement that classical conditioning occurs when an animal or person learns to associate a particular stimulus with another stimulus that has an invariant relationship with reinforcement or punishment (e.g., Watson & Rayner, 1920/1970). That is, the relationship between the CS and UCS must be such that the CS always predicts the occurrence of the UCS. If this relationship is not reliable, then conditioning will not occur (see Holland & Rescorla, 1988 for a discussion).

One problem that has received considerable attention within the conditioning literature is that of forgetting. That is, once an animal or person has learned to associate a particular CS with reinforcement or punishment, how long will this association be retained? And what factors might affect how quickly association is lost? A number of studies have investigated forgetting in conditioning by measuring how well animals or people can recall associations they have previously learned after varying periods of time have elapsed (see Rescorla, 2001 for a review). The finding that forgetting often occurs relatively quickly has led some researchers to conclude that classical conditioning may not be as important for explaining behaviour as was once thought (e.g., Sousa & Mikulic-Petkovsek, 2001).
However, it is important to note that the forgetting of associations learned through conditioning is often context-specific, such that an animal or person may remember an association in one situation but not another (see Rescorla,2001 for a review). For example, an animal that has been conditioned to fear a particular stimulus in one situation (e.g., a rat that has been conditioned to fear a particular cage) may not show this fear when placed in a different situation (e.g., a different cage). This finding suggests that the forgetting of conditioned associations is often specific to the particular context in which the original learning took place.

The context-specificity of forgetting has important implications for our understanding of how conditioning may influence behaviour in real-world situations. That is, although an animal or person may forget an association they have learned in one situation, this does not mean that they will also forget the association in other situations. This point is illustrated nicely by a study conducted by Rescorla and Solomon (1967), who found that dogs who had been conditioned to fear a particular stimulus in one room did not show this fear when they were subsequently placed in another room. The finding that conditioning can result in context-specific forgetting underscores the importance of considering the particular circumstances under which learning takes place when investigating the influence of conditioning on behaviour.

3. Theoretical Frameworks for Conditioned Learning

There are a number of theoretical frameworks that have been proposed to explain how conditioning may influence behaviour. One of the best-known theories is that of classical conditioning, which was first proposed by Ivan Pavlov and subsequently elaborated upon by John Watson and B. F. Skinner (see Rescorla, 2001 for a review). According to this theory, conditioning occurs when an animal or person learns to associate a particular stimulus with another stimulus that has an invariant relationship with reinforcement or punishment. That is, the relationship between the CS and UCS must be such that the CS always predicts the occurrence of the UCS. If this relationship is not reliable, then conditioning will not occur.

Although classical conditioning is often thought of as a simple process involving the mere association of two stimuli, there is evidence to suggest that more complex forms of learning also take place during conditioning (see Rescorla, 2001 for a review). For example, research has shown that animals and people can learn to associate a particular stimulus with reinforcement or punishment even when the relationship between the CS and UCS is not perfectly predictable (e.g., Holland & Rescorla, 1988). This finding suggests that classical conditioning may involve more than simply linking two stimuli together; it may also involve learning about the probability or contingency between the CS and UCS.

Another theory that has been proposed to explain how conditioning may influence behaviour is known as operant conditioning. This theory was first proposed by B. F. Skinner and suggests that conditioning occurs when an animal or person learns to associate a particular behaviour with reinforcement or punishment (see Rescorla, 2001 for a review). That is, operant conditioning involves learning about the consequences of our own actions. Unlike classical conditioning, operant conditioning does not require the presence of another stimulus; instead, it involves learning about the consequences of our own behaviour.

One key difference between classical and operant conditioning is that operant conditioning is often said to involve voluntary behaviour while classical conditioning does not (see Rescorla, 2001 for a discussion). That is, because operant conditioning involves learning about the consequences of our own behaviour, it is often said to involve voluntary behaviour. In contrast, because classical conditioning involves the association of two stimuli, it is often said to involve involuntary behaviour. However, it should be noted that this distinction is not always clear-cut, and there are many examples of conditioning paradigms that do not fit neatly into either category (see Rescorla, 2001 for a discussion).

4. Together but Separate: Properties of Conditioned Learning That Affect Its Transfer to New Situations

One of the key issues that has been investigated within the conditioning literature is how well conditioned associations are transferred from one situation to another. That is, once an animal or person has learned to associate a particular CS with reinforcement or punishment, how well does this association generalize to other situations? A large body of research has investigated this question, with many studies finding evidence for context-specific forgetting (e.g., Rescorla & Solomon, 1967). That is, although an animal or person may remember an association they have learned in one situation, they may not show this memory in another situation. This finding suggests that conditioning may not be as important for explaining behaviour as was once thought.

However, it is important to note that context-specific forgetting is not the only form of forgetting that has been observed in conditioning research. A number of studies have also found evidence for conditional forgetting; that is, forgetting that is specific to the particular type of conditioned stimulus that was used to learn the association (see Rescorla, 2001 for a review). For example, research has shown that animals and people can forget an association they have learned when the CS is changed (e.g., from a bell to a light) but not when the UCS is changed (e.g., from food to a shock; see Rescorla, 1968). This finding suggests that conditional forgetting may play an important role in determining how well conditioned associations are transferred to new situations.

The finding that conditioning can result in both context-specific and conditional forgetting has important implications for our understanding of how conditioning may influence behaviour in different situations. That is, although an animal or person may forget an association they have learned in one situation, this does not mean that they will also forget the association in other situations. This point is illustrated nicely by a study conducted by Rescorla and Solomon (1967), who found that dogs who had been conditioned to fear a particular stimulus in one room did not show this fear when they were subsequently placed in another room. The finding that conditioning can result in context-specific forgetting underscores the importance of considering the particular circumstances under which learning takes place when investigating the influence of conditioning on behaviour.

5. ‘One size does not fit all’: How Variables Within the Conditioning Situation May Also Bring About Different Learning

In addition to the variables that determine how well conditioned associations are transferred from one situation to another, there are also a number of variables that affect learning within the conditioning situation itself. That is, different variables within the conditioning situation can lead to different forms of learning. For example, research has shown that the type of unconditioned stimulus used can affect both the magnitude and direction of conditioning (see Rescorla, 2001 for a review). For example, animals and people often show stronger conditioning

FAQ

The blocking paradigm is a research design used to study classical conditioning. In this paradigm, subjects are exposed to two different stimuli (e.g., two different tones) in close succession. The first stimulus is called the "conditioned stimulus" (CS) and the second stimulus is called the "unconditioned stimulus" (US). The US always produces some kind of reflexive response (e.g., salivation), while the CS does not. After repeated pairings of the CS and US, the subject will begin to respond to the CS as if it were the US

The conditioned learning variables associated with the blocking paradigm are: -The conditioned stimulus (CS) -The unconditioned stimulus (US) -The conditioned response (CR)

The blocking paradigm impacts conditioning and learning by showing that when two stimuli are presented in close succession, only the first one will be associated with the reflexive response. This occurs because the brain has a limited capacity to process information and so can only associate one stimulus with a particular response.4

The implications of the blocking paradigm for real-world applications are that it can help us understand how people learn best. For example, if we want someone to learn a new skill quickly, it would be more effective to present them with just one new thing at a time rather than overwhelming them with too much information all at once