aqa  Learning approaches: the behaviourist approach, including classical conditioning and Pavlov’s research, operant conditioning, types of reinforcement and Skinner’s research; social learning theory including imitation, identification, modelling, vicarious reinforcement, the role of mediational processes and Bandura’s research.

An introduction to the approach

The Learning Approach is, if you like, the counterargument to the Biological Approach. It focuses on that which is learned from interaction with the environment. The approach studies how nurture shapes and develops an individual (see The Nature-Nurture Debate)


Key assumptions of the learning approach

There are three key assumptions of this approach:
1. Behaviour is determined by learning experiences
2. The focus of the approach is on observable behaviours, investigation of mental processes and unconscious forces is seen as unscientific and untestable
3. There are three learning mechanisms: conditioning, reinforcement and social learning

You will meet each of the three mechanisms over the approach, where they are covered in more detail
Research methods used in the approach The approach uses laboratory experiments on humans and animals in order to investigate behaviour. These experiments are used in because only lab experiments have the strong controls necessary to draw the cause-and-effect conclusions which have to be made to observe behaviour. For strengths and weaknesses of using animal experiments, see Animal Experiments, and for strengths and weaknesses of lab experiments see Experimental Designs.

The term classical conditioning refers to the association of a response to its stimulus. Research into classical conditioning started with Ivan Pavlov. Classical conditioning works by building up an association between two stimuli, one which produces a certain response, and another which initially does not cause a response. Pavlov investigated classical conditioning in his dogs, when he noticed that they would salivate even when they just heard his footsteps, even though at the time he would not be carrying food, it was the association of him coming and him coming and carrying food that caused the salivating. The storyboard below outlines the steps involved in this conditioning:


In the final stage there, classical conditioning has been achieved: an association between the ringing of the bell and the presentation of the food was made, so the dog would salivate each time at the ringing of the bell, even if there was no food presented to him.


Sometimes, the association between the conditioned stimulus and the condition response might be lost. This process is called extinction. However, the conditioned response may reappear again in the future if it is recovered by the reintroduction of the conditioned stimulus: this is known as spontaneous recovery. An example of this using Pavlov’s dogs would be that eventually, the bell ring along would not cause the dogs to salivate. However, bringing back the bell ring alongside the food being presented would cause the conditioned response to be recovered.

Operant Conditioning

Classical conditioning is only concerned with involuntary, reflex behaviour. However, operant conditioning looks at  voluntary behaviour. It is a type of learning in which future behaviour is determined by the consequences of past  behaviour. In classical conditioning, the stimulus comes before the behaviour; in operant conditioning the behaviour  comes before the consequence. The central component of operant conditioning is reinforcement. Behaviours are learned by reinforcement:



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  • A positive reinforcement involves being given a reward for showing a certain desired behaviour (e.g. a child tidies his room as his mother asks him to, and so receives additional pocket money that week)
  • negative reinforcement involves having something negative taken away for showing a certain behaviour (e.g. a mother not shouting at her child for behaving well whilst on a car journey)

Also to consider are punishments. A punishment is not the same as reinforcement. A reinforcement encourages desired  behaviour (as it has pleasant effects); and a punishment discourages undesired behaviour (as it has unpleasant  consequences). An example of a punishment therefore might be a naughty child not being allowed to play with his toys.

Operant conditioning has mainly been studied through animal experimentation. There are two researchers in the field  which you should know about. Edward Thorndike (1911) used a puzzle box to which the exit could only be opened when the cat inside pressed the levels which would open the door. Thorndike’s experiment placed a cat inside a box, and a dish of cat food just outside the box. The cat would want to reach the food, but could not. As the cat moved around inside the box, it accidentally pressed the levers, and eventually learned by trial and error how to get the food.

Thorndike2 B.F. Skinner (1935) was a leading researcher into operant conditioning, who was responsible for developing the theory to what it is today. He used much animal experimentation. The most famous example is his use of rats, and food pellets as reinforcement (because the rats are hungry, the pellets are a reward). A Skinner box was used in these experiments (named after B.F. Skinner), where the rat is inside, with a light, lever and food dispenser. Skinner controlled the experiment so that if the rat pulled the lever when the light was red, a food pellet would be dispensed, and if the rat pulled the lever when the light was green, it would not dispense food. The rat would soon learn to pull the lever only when the light was red.

skinner box

It is important that you know and understand the strengths and weaknesses of using animals in experiments for research. For more information on the topic, refer to Animal Experiments.

Primary & Secondary Reinforcement

Not only is there positive and negative reinforcement, but also primary reinforcement and secondary reinforcement. Primary reinforcement occurs when the reward is a basic need (i.e. food, drink, warmth or shelter). For example, a rat learning how to correctly dispense food pellets is primary reinforcement. Secondary reinforcement provides a reward that can satisfy a basic need, but is not a basic need itself. For example, if a child behaves well and is given pocket money – this is not a basic need, but could be used to buy food – a basic need. One important aspect of operant conditioning is that the complete desired behaviour may not be exhibited immediately so that it can be reinforced. The process of shaping involves reinforcing each stage towards the completed behaviour. With shaping, there is a reward for moving towards the desired behaviour; then a wait for an action that is closer to the desired behaviour; and finally, the wait for the actual behaviour, before offering the reinforcement.

Social Learning Theory

Observational Learning

In this approach, there are three types of learning which are covered: classical conditioning and operant conditioning are two of them. The third type of learning is social learning, put forward by social learning theory which explains how learning can occur via observation, imitation and modelling. It was Bandura who developed the model. He noticed that clearly there were some behaviours that weren’t conditioned but appeared without conditioning. So social learning theory (alongside operant conditioning, not in the place of) suggests people learn by observing others – this is called observational learning. This is where people watch what others do and copy their actions, learning new behaviours. Observational learning includes:

  1. The behaviour is modelled by a role model (this person could be a parent, peer or celebrity), who will always have some significance in the eyes of the observer
  2. The observer identifies with the role model
  3. The behaviour is observed and noticed
  4. The behaviour is learned and imitated (whether or not it is repeated depends upon reinforcement)

Whether or not behaviour of a role model is imitated depends on how that is reinforced. For example, if they are rewarded for displaying that behaviour, it is likely to be repeated by the observer. But if they have been punished for showing that behaviour, it is less likely that they will imitate the role model, although not impossible.

Cognitive processes involved in observational learning  There are four cognitive processes which have been identified with social learning. When observing it is important that the behaviour is observed, and also attended to, and then that it is stored in memory, also that the behaviour is rewarded so that there is sufficient motivation to reproduce the action.

Vicarious Learning

The term vicarious learning is used to describe the process of vicarious reinforcement. This suggests that learning can occur from being reinforced through other people being reinforced. Social learning theory puts forward the idea that learning occurs from both direct reinforcement (operant conditioning) and indirect reinforcement (vicarious learning). Examples of vicarious reinforcement include:

  • Vicarious reinforcement – a person works hard because a colleague has been rewarded for hard work
  • Vicarious punishment – someone does not park in a particular place because they have seen someone else receive a parking ticket for parking in that same place
  • Vicarious extinction – people stop doing something because they have seen that people are not rewarded for it

There are certain factors which can influence the likelihood of a role model being imitated by an observer via vicarious learning. One such factor is gender (observers are more likely to imitate same-sex models) and also age is another (observers are more likely to imitate those role models from the same age group). Also, it may depend on whether the observer can relate to the role model, this will depend on if they find themselves to be similar to that person. Similarly, behaviour is more likely to be copied if the role model is seen as important, powerful or prestigious.

Evaluation of Social Learning Theory
  • There is a lot of evidence from research which supports the theory and its suggestions, such as that of Bandura, Ross and Ross (1961)
  • The theory is a good explanation which can be applied as a therapy, such as the treatments for OCD
  • It is difficult to test for observational learning, because the behaviour is often not exhibited immediately – it may be imitated a while after the learning has taken place
  • Some of the research was has been conducted are on animals (see Animal Experiments)


Extension Resources