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« Ozodi Osuji Weekly Series on Psychology 2006, #22 of 52: Memory: Past and Present | Main | Ozodi Osuji Weekly Series on Psychology 2006, #24 of 52: Social Psychology »

March 29, 2006

Ozodi Osuji Weekly Series on Psychology 2006, #23 of 52: Learning Theory

by Ozodi Thomas Osuji, Ph.D. (Seatle, Washington) --- Learning theory is the idea that most things we, as human beings, know are learned rather than inherent in us. Learning begins from the moment of birth, if not before in the womb. The child learns from every person around him.

The child’s learning takes place in an informal manner, that is, he is not being formally taught by a teacher. In every minute of his life, the human child is learning about how to cope with the exigencies of his world.

There are different modes of learning, including observational learning, role modeling, direct instruction, teaching, classical and operant (conditioning) learning.

Much of the child’s learning consists of observation. The child observes what his parents, siblings, peers and significant others, in general, do and copy them. He does things the way those round him does them without them formally teaching him to do those things in a certain manner. A child comes into the bathroom and observes the parents brush their teeth and learns to brush his teeth exactly as they do; indeed, holds the brush as they do. Perhaps, up to 90% of the child’s learning takes place through observational learning?

The adults in a child’s life are role models. They are always modeling socially accepted behavior patterns for him, so he learns from them. The child observes what his parents say and do and tries to do the same. Indeed, he observes how they wear their clothing and tries to do the same. The adults, particularly the significant ones like parents, ministers, extended family members etc are always modeling socially accepted behavior for children to learn. (It is, unfortunately, also true that they can model socially inappropriate and unproductive behaviors for children to learn. Parents who are thieves may model that behavior for their children and approve it in them and of course that then brings them into trouble with the larger society that does not approve of thievery.)

Children are sometimes taught in a formal manner by their parents. Some parents teach their children how to read and write and do their mathematics. Formal teaching continues at school. Elementary, secondary and college education are part of the formal learning process.

Behaviorist psychologists, those who emphasize learning in how human beings becoming who they are, generally divide learning into two main categories: classical conditioning and operant conditioning.

In classical conditioning, people around a person informally teach him to continue doing something by rewarding him when he does something they like. Parents may say thank you, praise the child and even give him some material rewards when he does what they like. Teachers give good grades to students who did their school work as the teachers approve. The peer group and society, in general, rewards the individual when he does what they approve. Reward could be praise (such as saying to a person, that was a good job you did there) or social status (such as promotion on the job, social attainments etc), money (wealth) and fame (being known all over the place).

In operant conditioning, psychologists consciously undertake to teach people certain behavior and or change certain behaviors. They employ the whole armament of social engineering (behavior technology, such as behavior modification, extinguishment, punishment, positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement, reward, ignoring etc) in these efforts.

Consider anti social persons. These people engage in behavior that society does not approve and behaviors that might be hurtful to other persons. Obviously, no society that wants to survive would tolerate anti social behaviors in its people. Thus, society attempts to extinguish those behaviors where they already exist. It might do so by arresting and incarcerating criminals, punishing them, systematically positively reinforcing socially appropriate behaviors when criminals do the right thing (such as engage in socially helpful behaviors).

I once worked with sex offenders, and pedophiles. The sex offenders were systematically taught appropriate sexual behaviors. The pedophiles, adult men who said that they were sexually aroused by only children under age twelve, were taught to be aroused by adults through many means and where those failed punished every time they were aroused by children. (If the pedophile is shown a child’s picture and he felt sexually aroused, he is electrically shocked, for example.)

The success rate of these treatments is very marginal, for there is an element of choice in what adults do. Adults who prefer sex with children choose to do so and ought to be put away in prisons for the rest of their lives, for they are a threat to children.

For our present purposes, there are many ways psychologists attempt to change people’s behaviors through operant conditioning. B.F. Skinner wrote that human beings are essentially organisms that respond to stimulus from their environment.

Stimulus-Organism-Response is Skinner’s model. We are boxes that are being impinged upon by environmental stimuli, stimulated by factors emanating from our world and we respond to them. Our own responses become stimuli to other people, who then respond to us, and that way there really is no beginning and ending to stimulus-response continuum.

It does not matter where the stimulus originates, we respond to it and our response becomes a stimulus for other people to respond to, ad infinitum. We live in general systems where everything is affecting every thing else, everything is a stimulus to which others responds to and in turn are responded to. We are all adjusting to stimuli emanating from our environment and our environment is adjusting to stimulus emanating from us.

The environment is always changing as a result of these mutual responses and adjustments.

Skinner and other behaviorists somewhere along the line boasted that the entire human begins behaviors are learned, that there is no such thing as inherent propensities in us, and that we lack freedom and dignity.

If you want a child to be a certain type of person, for example, to develop a certain type of personality, teach him to be so through classical and operant conditioning, reward his behaviors that tend in that way and punish behaviors that tend not that way. This is all it takes to produce the type of human being you desire, nothing else is needed.

Clearly, we learn most of our behaviors but man is also a cognitive creature and through ratiocination does come to know many things and decide what to do or not to do. Indeed, our inherited nervous system plays a role in our behavior.

Behaviorism over played its hands, just as psychoanalysis did. There is truth in everything, but no particular thing is the entire truth. Man does learn things and also is more than his ability to learn.

In the meantime, learning is that branch of psychology that attempts to figure out the best way to teach people to do what society wants them to do and reinforce the learned behavior until it becomes habitual and automatic in people.

Posted by Administrator at March 29, 2006 01:11 PM


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