The psychologist Descartes believed animals are in essence a hard wired reflex machine. When one touches a hot pan and moves ones hand away this is due to a neural message being sent to the brain therefore relaying messages to our muscles to respond in the appropriate manner. Although biological explanations are important in understanding behaviour it is also important to study how experiences affect the phenomena’s of learning.
Much of what we learn is due to links that we make between associated ideas for example lightning and thunder. Since ancient Greek philosophers this learning through associations has been acknowledged and emphasised. However, more recently work on conditioning was started by the scientist Ivan Petrovich Pavlov (1849-1936) who experimented with the study of association. Classical conditioning is the name given to the process of managing information through a link between stimuli or events. Pavlov proved this through his salivation of dogs experiment. When a dog eats food (an unconditional stimuli: US) it salivates, this is an unconditional response (UR) which is part of a dog’s biological make-up and therefore a reflex. Pavlov explored this concept further by ringing a bell, a conditional stimulus (CS) before the food is brought out to the dog. Due to the concept of classical conditioning the dog would eventually make a link between the bell ringing and the food being brought to it. This was proved when after a few times the dog would start to salivate when the bell was rung, as the ringing of the bell had now been associated with food. Pavlov believed classical conditioning was a way of extending the reflex concept into the sphere of learning. However recent research on classical conditioning has neutralised this theory to less of a reflex and more a response.
Animal experts on instrumental conditioning also have important implications for human behaviour. Instrumental conditioning is when an organism learns that certain environmental events, for example punishments, depend on their own behaviour. Just as Classical conditioning is responsible for our instinctive emotional responses to objects and events, instrumental conditioning underlies most voluntary behaviours performed for incentives. For example a seal in a zoo learns that if it does a somersault it will earn a reward for its trick, such as a fish. Although there are many other things the seal could do over a course of time the seal learns what act will earn it a reward. It is through instrumental conditioning that organisms learn to control events and learn instrumental responses that avoid punishment and can result in rewards. This can also be seen in everyday human activities, for example a salesperson on commission knows that the better they work the greater their reward will be, in the form of money. The theory that learning is a result of the application of consequences was first explained by Thorndike who named this type of learning as instrumental although it was later renamed by Skinner as operant because the essence of this type of learning is when one is being operated on or influenced by external stimuli.
Thorndike researched the mechanical problem solving ability of animals by using a cat. He invented a problem for the cat by placing it in a ‘puzzle box’. The cat could only escape the box by performing a simple trick, for example pulling a loop wire which would open the door. The cat was not only rewarded by getting out of the box but by receiving a small portion of food. Initially the cat struggled and clawed around until it accidentally pulled the loop. The results of the experiment proved that the more the cat tried the less time it took for the cat to figure out how to get out of the box, until the box was opened by the cat immediately. Thorndike plotted these results on a learning curve which showed a gradual decrease in latency with an increase in trials. This would prove that the cat was actually learning as opposed to creating an understanding of the system which has been argued by other scientists. Therefore the cat’s learning was not through a sudden insight but a mechanical development of actions and when the correct response was made this was followed by reinforcement in the form of a reward (the food) and the process us gradually ‘stamped in’ to the cat’s brain.
Classical and instrumental conditionings do have some similar features. Possibly reinforcement can be attributed as a basic feature to both classical and instrumental conditioning, although reinforcement is certainly a fundamental factor where instrumental conditioning is concerned. Thorndike cited that the law of effect is “the greater the satisfaction or discomfort the greater the strengthening or weakening of the bond”. Therefore the likelihood of an instrumental response increases if the satisfaction or discomfort factor is greater. The likelihood of an instrumental response is also increased with the number of reinforcements. Therefore the law of effect is essential to the stimulus-response association. However reinforcement is also an important factor in the case of classical conditioning in that when a conditional stimulus (CS) has not been reinforced with an unconditional stimulus (US) the response won’t be so significant. Therefore the connection between CS and US creates a significant response and it is therefore a fundamental part of classical conditioning.
Similarly, the phenomena of extinction and spontaneity are both vital to classical and instrumental conditioning. If the reinforcement was to cease to be the conditioned response, whether instrumental or classical, would gradually become extinct. For example if a student raises their hand to answer a question they will attract attention and praise from the teacher, which will in turn encourage them to answer questions in the future. On the other hand if the teacher ignores the student and no praise is received then this will discourage the student from answering questions in the future. This is evident in Pavlov’s dog experiment for if neither the food bowl nor the ring of the bell no longer represent food, then over a period of time, the dog will loose the association of food with the bowl and ring and therefore stop salivating at the sight of the food bowl or the ring of the bell. However extinction doesn’t mean that initial learning is erased as some memory of what has been learnt will always remain in the brain.
What we can see is that both classical and instrumental conditioning does share similarities. Yet there are also obvious differences between the two: whilst instrumental conditioning is based upon voluntary behaviour classical conditioning is mostly based on involuntary reflex behaviour. However, their similarities and differences aside, instrumental and classical conditioning together help us to understand the challenging processes behind learning and are both essential to the process of learning.