Recent research clarifies earlier learning concepts
For 100 years, classical and operant conditioning--behaviorism--
have been a major part of psychology. However, recent research has
uncovered many misconceptions about these learning procedures. I
will not burden you with all these interesting studies (Leahey & Harris,
1989) because they would not be personally useful to you. I will,
however, summarize the more interesting results. If it bores you, skip
First of all, while classical and operant conditioning sound like very
different methods applied to very different responses (reflexes vs.
voluntary action), the fact is that both are involved in almost every
real life activity. You are responding classically to many stimuli in your
environment all the time, and many operant response tendencies
(serving many purposes) are constantly pushing you in different
directions. As illustrated in 7 & 8 in Table 4.1, a feared or distressing
object (rat or whining child) classically arouses an emotional reaction
prompting you to avoid the stressful stimulus. Thus, you may
operantly escape the fear or placate the irritating child, which is
followed by relief (negative reinforcement). Unfortunately, also
because of the reinforcement, the fear grows (7), the child cries a lot,
and you learn to slavishly cater to the child (8). Emotional-reflexive
responses are all mixed up with behavioral-voluntary responses. They
are just two parts of our bodies.
If classical and operant responding are so intermixed, why are
these two conditioning methods always separated in the psychology
textbooks and described as being very different? Well, remember who
discovered the methods and how. These experimenters--Pavlov,
Thorndike, Skinner, etc.--were looking for the basic elements and laws
of learning (changing or adapting) that might explain all behavior. But,
they observed in detail very limited parts of behavior. In fact, Pavlov
strapped his dogs into his apparatus excluding operant behavior, so he
wasn't likely to learn much about the reinforcement of voluntary
action. Likewise, Skinner was just as restrictive; he only looked at
automatic recordings of bar pressing; he didn't even note how the
animal pressed the bar (e.g. left paw, both paws, nose, or body block).
Clearly, the rats in the Skinner box were salivating just like Pavlov's
dogs, but it wasn't measured and, in general, neither was any other
emotional, physiological, brain function, or reflexive reactions (e.g.
frustration, urination, blood pressure, muscle potential, EEG, licking
the bar, etc.). Like therapists, experimentalists find what they are
looking for--what their biases direct their attention towards. They
found very minuscule parts of life, and they failed to observe the
interactions with other parts of the organism. As a knowledgeable self-
helper, try to do better. Guard against over-simplification and seeing
only what you want to see or what is right in front of you. It isn't easy.
Always look for classical, operant, and observational or social learning
when you are trying to understand any of your behavior. Always look
at the five parts of any human problem (chapter 2).