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The independent variable Essay

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“Learning is a relatively permanent change in behavior or in behavioral potentiality that results from experience and cannot be attributed to temporary body states such as those induced by illness, fatigue, or drugs.” (Hergenhahn & Olson, 2005, pg 8) Learning can occur from experience, classical conditioning or operant conditioning. (Hergenhahn & Olson, 2005) Aristotle theorized through his laws of association that information can be recalled through contiguity, similarity or contrast. (Hergenhahn & Olson, 2005) Using the frontal lobes of our brain the information can be manipulated to form ideas or thoughts both directly or abstractly from the knowledge that is stored in longterm memory.

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Learning is studied by the potential change or observable change in behavior. Studying the change in behavior provides researchers with an observable, measureable subject matter that is necessary in behavioral science. (Hergenhahn & Olson, 2005) The behavior is studied by identifying the variables. The relationship between the stimuli and the responses is the theoretical process called the intervening variable. (Hergenhahn & Olson, 2005) The dependent variable is the behavior. (Hergenhahn & Olson, 2005) The independent variable is what causes the change in behavior. (Hergenhahn & Olson, 2005) The complexity of human thought behavior makes it difficult to study learning.

Because of this most learning studies are performed on animals. (Hergenhahn & Olson, 2005) One exception would be Ebbinghaus who studied the relationship between learning irrelevant information like nonsense syllables and relevant information like Byron’s Don Juan. (Hergenhahn & Olson, 2005) Ebbinghaus studied himself and methodically recorded the amount of times it took to master nonsense syllables and syllables that were familiar to theorize the associative process in learning. (Hergenhahn & Olson, 2005) Psychologists like Skinner and Pavlov used animals to study the learning process.

Pavlov studied learning in dogs through classical conditioning. Classical conditioning is where a conditioned response is used to cause a change in behavior. Pavlov documented a dog’s unconditioned response to food which is an unconditioned stimulus. Dogs have a predisposition naturally to start salivating when food is introduced. This condition is innate and similar to a person’s reflex of pulling his or her hand away from a hot stove. Pavlov also showed that a condition stimulus like the sound of a bell alone will not cause a dog to salivate. Pavlov added a conditioned stimulus, the sound of a bell, to the unconditioned stimulus of introducing food. After repeating the conditioned stimulus several times the dogs learned that when the bell sounded that food was going to follow so the dogs would start salivating as soon as they heard the sound of the bell even if no food was presented. (Willingham, 2007)Skinner studied learning through operant conditioning.

Operant conditioning is different than classical conditioning because a choice is involved. The dog’s did not have a choice but to salivate to the sound of the bell, but in operant conditioning a person would make a choice such as not eat fish if it has made them sick on a prior experience. Skinner used a skinner box made of Plexiglas with a grid floor that can be electrified and a lever that can be pressed that will deliver food to the animal, usually a rat, inside the box. (Hergenhahn & Olson, 2005) The box was used to test escape conditioning or avoidance conditioning.

Escape conditioning occurs when the animal inside the Skinner box is given a negative stimulus, an electoral shock from the floor of the box, and the animal has to perform a behavior such as climbing onto a small shelf to turn off the shock stimulus. (Hergenhahn & Olson, 2005) Avoidance conditioning is a signal is activated just before the electric shock to get the animal to jump onto the shelf to avoid being shocked. (Hergenhahn & Olson, 2005) In both of these scenarios the animal makes a choice as a result of the conditioned stimulus.

Learning is the process in which knowledge is stored in memory. Aristotle first formulated the law of association to show a correlation between retrieval of nonfunctional knowledge. The law of similarity is the recalling of similar experiences or objects. (Hergenhahn & Olson, 2005) The law of similarity would be when a person learns something during training and later comes across a similar event or interaction. He or she would reinvent what was learned and apply it to the task or interaction based on his or her similar knowledge. (Fenwick, 2000). The law of contrast is recalling the opposite of something. (Hergenhahn & Olson, 2005) The law of contiguity is recalling something that was experienced at the same time as something else. (Hergenhahn & Olson, 2005)

These laws of association give a basis of cognition. A person goes to a fine dining restaurant and orders a tray of signature cheese spreads for the fresh baked bread. When the waiter brings the spreads the person hears the waiter express the imported quality, sees the display of the variety of spreads and the texture, smells the aroma, and taste the spread to be all that the waiter described. A year later the same person see’s the cheese spread on the menu and recalls the contiguity of memories being stored about the smell, taste, texture and quality of the cheese and uses the knowledge to make a decision if he or she wants to order it again or not.


Fenwick, T. (2000). Expanding Conceptions of Experiential Learning: A Review of the Five Contemporary Perspectives on Cognition. Retrieved from http://aeq.sagepub.com at Apollo Group Inc.

Hergenhahn, B., & Olson, M. (2005). An Introduction to Theories of Learning (7th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice HallWillingham, D. T. (2007). Cognition: The thinking animal (3rd ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson/Allyn4 Bacon.

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