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Psychology Learning Essay


     The following account should probably come under the heading “Strange but True.” It describes a psychologist’s use of self-administered punishment to change a socially unacceptable behavior.

     A person once knew a psychologist who, for reasons which will be discovered shortly, shall remain anonymous. For the sake of the study, this person is named Richard. Richard had a bad habit. He chewed his nails. Well, that’s not actually correct; he chewed his nails off and then spit them out, usually while he was lecturing. Once in a great while, this practice was called to his attention, and it always embarrassed him. He said that he wasn’t aware that he was doing it. It had become such an ingrained habit that he could chew off all ten nails, spit in all directions, and still be totally unconscious of what he was doing.

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     Richard was a respected learning theorist, and he decided that if anyone could devise a behavior-modification technique to eliminate his habit, he would. The next day he arrived, all smiles, and said he had a request: If any of those around see him biting his nails, this should be brought to his attention. It wasn’t long that before someone said, “Uh, Richard, you’re doing it.”

He stopped and looked at his nails and said, “So I am.” Then as everyone was watched, pulled up his shirtsleeve, grabbed hold of a heavy-duty rubber band that had wrapped around his wrist, stretched it out a distance of about ten inches, and let is go. There was a vicious snap. He yelled, cursed, and shook his hand. Everyone looked on amazement. Surely learning theorist were all a little insane. “Punishment,” he said. “Punishment is the answer!”

     What happened to the people around Richard was interesting. Some took relish in pointing out that he was biting his snails, just to see him snap the huge rubber band around his wrist; others preferred to ignore his habit, because they couldn’t stand to see him in that much pain. Happily, after two days, Richard’s habit had been broken.

     One person asked him how he thought his program worked. He said, “Well, if I unconsciously unlearn it. Whenever I was chewing my nails, I administered this punishment. Pretty soon my brain learned that nail chewing resulted in something very unpleasant.” He said that the last time he reached his hand up to his mouth (quite unconsciously), he got a terrible sinking feeling that something awful was about to happen. “It made me aware.” he said. “I looked at my hand and saw it was approaching my mouth. Somewhere deep in my brain the little gray cells were screaming, “Don’t do it!”

     It was reported that some days later Richard was wearing rubber bands around his ankles, but nobody wanted want to ask why (Dworetzky, 1994).


     Learning pervades people’s lives. It is involved not only in mastering a new skill or academic subject but also in emotional development, social interaction, and even personality development. People learn what they fear, what to love, how to be polite, hoe to be intimate, and so on. Given the pervasiveness of learning in lives of people, it is not surprising that there have been instances of it – how, for example, children to perceive the world around them, to identify with their own sex, and to control their behavior according to adult standards (Atkinson, 1993). However, there is a more systematic analysis of learning.

     Learning may be defined as a relatively permanent change in behavior that results from practice; behavior change that are due to maturation (rather than practice)or temporary conditions of the organism (such as fatigue or drug-induced states) are not included. All cases of learning are not the same though.

     Psychology is the study of behavior. Psychologists study learning because among most animals, especially humans, the vast majority of behavior is learned. Learning may also be defined as a relatively permanent change in behavior resulting from experience (Dworetzky, 1988).  Experts, however, tell that when somebody says “relatively permanent change,” this excludes the effects of such factors as fatigue. Fatigue, which occurs because of experience, may change behavior, but only temporary, whereas learning implies a more lasting change.

     Learning is defined by Craig et al., as a process through which one’s capacity or disposition is changed as a result of experience. Whitaker (1972) defines it also as the process by which behavior originates or is altered through experience, while Wittig (in Bernstein et al., 1991) and Hilgard (1975) view it as behavior that occurs as a result of experience.

     Apparently while learning can be defined as a process and as a product, more definitions stress learning more as a process. This idea suggests that it is not the product but the process that is important since the products of learning both what one is capable of and what one is predisposed to. Changes resulting from development and experience are emphasized; changes resulting from maturation such as growing older, innate tendencies like reflexes and conditions caused by fatigue, drugs, and diseases are strictly not considered as learned behavior.

Adaptive value of Learning (Classical Conditioning)

~Overeating: Taste-Aversion Learning

     Taste-aversion learning involves associating particular sensory cues (smells, tastes, sounds or sights), with an unpleasant response, such as nausea or vomiting. Taste-aversion learning can also occur from overindulgence. For example, children report taste aversions to food after overeating and becoming sick. Similarly, the majority of college students’ report taste versions after drinking too much alcohol and getting sick. In these examples, taste aversions to food or drink developed after a single trial and lasted an average of four to five years (Logue et al., 1981).

~Conditioned Emotional Response: Why a certain Christmas song elicits pleasant childhood memories.

     In the conditioned emotional response, one feels some positive or negative emotion, such as happiness, fear, or anxiety, when experiencing a stimulus that initially accompanied a painful or pleasant event.

     For example, many couples have a special song that becomes emotionally associated with their relationship. When one in the absence of the other hears this song, it can elicit strong emotional and romantic feelings.

     In other cases, conditioned emotional responses may develop into irrational fears that are called phobias.

     A phobia is an anxiety disorder characterized by an intense and irrational fear that is out of all proportion to the danger elicited by the object or situation. In comparison, a fear is a realistic response to a threatening situation (Bernstein, 1991).

     About 73 percent of people with phobias were able to trace the start of their phobias to fearful, painful, or traumatic situations that involved classical conditioning (Atkinson et al., 1993 in Kleinknecht, 1994 and Kuch et al., 1994). For example, about 5 victims involved in moving car accidents had developed fears of sitting or riding in cars, and another third developed the corresponding phobias (Kuch et al., 1994). Just as classical conditioning can result in fears and phobias, however, it can also be used to reduce them.


     In the mid-1940s, psychologist Kenneth Clark held a black doll and a white doll in his hands and asked the following questions of young white children living in the South:

     “Which doll looks like you?”

     “Now tell me which doll is the good doll?”

     “Which doll is the bad doll?”

These children knew that the white doll looked like them. most children also indicated that the white doll was the “good doll” and the black doll was “dirty” or “ugly” ( Clark and Clark, 1947). How had these southern white children learned to make such association? During the decades of racial prejudices that had come before, darer skins had become associated with poverty and with being “inferior,” not just in the South, but generally throughout the United States. The white children had learned to attribute these characteristics to black people.

     The racist attitude is what the white children had been taught; it is also what the black children had been taught. The black had been raised in the same general environment, the same country. They, too, had seen that the whites had better and they had worse. And, as the Clarks discovered in further research, a majority of black children also chose the white doll as the good one and the black doll as the bad one.

     A conditioning experiment conducted by researcher Staats (1958 in Atkinson et al., 1993) helped to show how association process could be responsible for the prejudice, Dr. Clark observed. In their experiment, college students were asked to look at one word while pronouncing another. Without being aware of the purpose of the experiment, the students were manoeuvred into pairing pleasant words or unpleasant words with a particular name (Tom or Bill) or a certain nationality (Swedish or Dutch). In short, subjects revealed obvious differences in attitudes towards these names and nationalities, simply because those words had been paired with positive or negative words.

Advertisers, politicians, movie makers, and just about everyone else try to use this kind of conditioning to affect people’s emotions. Then a politician associates himself with a positive symbol such as the flag, or when a movie maker uses dramatic music, or when someone dresses well for a job interview, each is invoking the same process: Each is attempting to render something – the politician, the movie maker, or the job seeker – more appealing through association with positive stimuli.

     What appears to be occurring in the instances of association, like those just described, is a kind of higher order conditioning (Dworetzky, 1998).


     In classical conditioning, the conditioned response often resembles the normal response to the unconditioned stimulus: salivation, for example,  is a dog’s normal response to food. But when you want to teach an organism something novel – such as teaching a dog new trick – you cannot use classical conditioning. What unconditioned stimulus would make a dog sit up or roll over? To train the dog, you must first persuade it to do the trick (Bernstein et al., 1991).

     Much of the real-life behavior is like this: responses are learned because they operate on, or effect the environment. Referred to as an operant conditioning, this kind of learning occurs in human individuals, as well as in animals. Alone in a crib, a baby may kick and twist and coo spontaneously. When left by itself, a dog may pad back and forth, sniff, or perhaps pick up a ball, drop it, and play with it.

     Neither organism is responding to the onset or offset of a specific external stimulus. Rather, they are operating on their environment. Once the organism performs a certain behavior, however, the likelihood that the action will be repeated depends on its consequences. The baby will coo more often if each such occurrence is followed by parental attention, and the dog will pick up the ball more often if petting or a food reward follows this action. If we think of the baby as having a gaol of parental attention, and the dog as having the goal of food, then operant conditioning amounts to learning that a particular behavior leads to attaining a particular goal (Rescorla, 1987).


Atkinson, R.L., R.C. Atkinson, E.E. Smith, D.J. Bem, and S.     Nolen-Hoeksema, 1993. Introduction to Psychology, 13th ed.   New York: Harcourt College Publishers.

Bernstein, D.A., E.J. Roy, T.K. Srull, and C.D. Wickens, 1991.      Psychology. New Jersey: Houghton Mifflin Company.

Bootzin, R.R. 1991. Psychology.  New York: Gilford Press.

Clark, L., A.D. Watson, and S. Reynolds, 1995. Diagnosis and      classification of psychopathology: Challenges to the current system and future directions. Annual review of     Psychology 46: 121-53.

Dworetzky, J.P. 1988. Psychology.3rd Ed. Mew York: West     Publishing Company.

Logue, A.W., I.Ophir, and K.E. Strauss. 1981. The Acquisition   of taste aversions in humans. Behavior Research and Therapy,19:3:19-35.

Morgan, Clifford T. 1977. A Brief Introduction to Psychology.   2nd ed. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company.

Rescorla, R.A. 1987. A Pavlovian analysis of goal-directed      behavior. American Psychologist 42:119-129, 265.


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