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Classical Conditioning and Observational Learning

Classical Conditioning and Observational Learning

Most Psychologists agree that the process of learning is usually permanent and is credited to past experience. However, they differ greatly in their belief as to what mechanisms are actually involved in learning to make changes occur and what kinds of past experiences are involved (Gross, (1992) p.165). It is the author’s intention, within the body of this essay to examine and evaluate the theory of learning from a behaviourist viewpoint, focusing on classical conditioning and the social learning theory, concentrating on observational learning.


The behaviourism approach sees every individual born a ‘blank book’. An individual’s personality and the kind of person they become are wholly attributed their environment and their learning experiences; no biological or instinctive causes come in to the equation (Class notes, (2001/2002). Watson, (1930) stated:

“Give me a dozen healthy infants, well-formed and my own specified world to bring them up and I’ll guarantee to take any one at random and train him to become any type of specialist I might select - doctor, lawyer, artist, merchant-chief and yes, even beggar man and thief, regardless of his talents, penchants, tendencies, abilities, vocations, and race of his ancestors” (Cardwell et al, (1996) p.544).

The approach focuses solely on observational experiments, mainly with animals, so therefore it can be objectively measured and controlled (Class notes, (2001/2002) and whereas for example, some psychologists would study the mental experience of ‘hunger’, behaviourists would observe the ‘eating’ process (Sdorow, (1990) p.13). The ultimate goal of behaviourist therapists is to control behaviour, however the approach denies the existence of a ‘mind’, overlooking any form of freewill on the part of the individual, who is seen as passive and acceptant (Holden et al, (1996) p.113). Behaviourists concentrate mainly on the process of learning, with the key processes being classical and operant conditioning. It is classical conditioning that the author will look at in more depth.


Classical conditioning is basically learning through simple association and reinforcement (Class notes, (2001/2002), with the leading theorist being Ivan Pavlov, (1927) who studied how animals responded to conditioning.

In Pavlov's best-known experiment, he rang a bell as he fed some dogs several meals. Each time the dogs heard the bell they knew that a meal was coming, and they would begin to salivate. Pavlov then rang the bell without bringing food, but the...

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Category:   Psychology

Length:   8 pages (1,725 words)

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