How Behavior is Acquired

There are two main classifications in regards to identifying the origin of behaviors, 1) “innate” behavior, and 2) “learned” behavior. Innate behaviors are those behaviors that do not need to be taught in order for them to exist in an infant’s or a child’s behavior. For instance, blinking, sucking, swallowing, and crying are an example of an array of innate behaviors that are present from birth. Learned behaviors are those behaviors that must be acquired through experience: and for children and adults, this encompasses mental, emotional, as well as physical development.

Here’s a brief overview of some of the major theories in regards to how learned behavior takes place:

The classical conditioning theory: Classical conditioning as articulated and studied by Ivan Pavlov, a Russian Physiologist, in the early 1900s noted that dogs could be conditioned to salivate if they came to associate food with the ringing of a bell (i.e., if a bell was run whenever food was served to them). This same behavior could be extinguished over time if the association failed, and food was no longer brought to them when a bell rung.

The operant conditioning theory: Operant conditioning takes the approach that learning is a result of reinforcement. Edward Thorndike and B.F. Skinner were influential researchers in this area. Edward Thorndike said: “Of several responses made to the same situation, those which are accompanied or closely followed by satisfaction to the animal will, other things being equal, be more firmly connected with the situation, so that, when it recurs, they will be more likely to recur; those which are accompanied or closely followed by discomfort to the animal will, other things being equal, have their connections with that situation weakened, so that, when it recurs, they will be less likely to occur.”

In other words, the stimulus brings about the response if such actions have been followed by pleasure. The foundation of operant conditioning principles is that behavior which is reinforced (by pleasure) will tend to be repeated, and behavior which is not reinforced will be extinguished. Thorndike believed that this “law of effect” was valid for all areas of learning, as well as for many different species.

The social learning theory: Social learning theory attempts to explain individual character traits and how they are formed and learned. “Modeling” is a form of observational learning that is done by a child through merely observing others’ actions and the consequences of those actions. Social learning theorists emphasize the importance of environment (not only the physical surroundings, but people who surround a child in his or her formative years) in the forming of a child’s behaviors.

Each of these learning theories has their criticisms, however, and while one has yet to take precedence over another, they each attempt to explain an aspect of the way we learn and accumulate behaviors.