This is a form of behavior modification involving the association of two or more events such as between two stimuli or between a stimulus and a response. In associative learning, the participant does learn to do something new or better. Associative learning differs from non-associative learning by the number and kind of events that are learned and how the events are learned. Another difference between the two forms of learning is that non-associative learning is considered to be a more fundamental mechanism for behavior modification than those mechanisms in associative learning. This is easily seen in the animal kingdom. Habituation and sensitization are present in all animal groups, but classical and operant conditioning is not. In addition, the available evidence suggests that the behavioral and cellular mechanisms uncovered for non-associative learning may serve as the building blocks for the type of complex behavior characteristic of associative learning. The term associative learning is reserved for a wide variety of classical, instrumental, and operant procedures in which responses are associated with stimuli, consequences, and other responses.
Classical conditioning refers to the modification of behavior in which an originally neutral stimulus—known as a conditioned stimulus (CS)—is paired with a second stimulus that elicits a particular response—known as the unconditioned stimulus (US). The response that the US elicits is known as the unconditioned response (UR). A participant exposed to repeated pairings of the CS and the US will often respond to the originally neutral stimulus as it did to the US. Studies of classical conditioning show that it has several characteristics, including the following:
• In general, the more intense the CS is, the greater the effectiveness of the training.
• In general, the more intense the US is, the greater the effectiveness of the training.
• In general, the shorter the interval is between the CS and the US, the greater the effectiveness of the training.
• In general, the more pairings there are of the CS and the US, the greater the effectiveness of the training.
• When the US no longer follows the CS, the conditioned response gradually becomes weaker over time and eventually stops occurring.
• When a conditioned response has been established to a particular CS, stimuli similar to the CS may elicit the response.
Instrumental and operant conditioning refer to the modification of behavior involving an organism's responses and the consequences of those responses. It may be helpful to conceptualize an operant and instrumental conditioning experiment as a classical conditioning experiment in which the sequence of stimuli and reward is controlled by the behavior of the participant.
Studies of instrumental and operant conditioning show that they have several characteristics, including the following:
• In general, the greater the amount and quality of the reward are, the faster the acquisition is.
• In general, the greater the interval of time is between response and reward, the slower the acquisition is.
• In general, the greater the motivation is, the more vigorous the response is.
• In general, when reward no longer follows the response, the response gradually becomes weaker over time and eventually stops occurring.
Non-associative and/or associative learning has been demonstrated in all the protostomes in which it has been investigated, including planarians (for some scientists, turbellarians are not considered protostomes), polychaetes, earthworms, leeches, water fleas, acorn barnacles, crabs, crayfish, lobsters, cockroaches, fruit flies, ants, honey bees, pond snails, freshwater snails, land snails, slugs, sea hares, and octopuses. While there is no general agreement, most behavioral scientists familiar with the literature would suggest that the most sophisticated examples of learning occur in Crustacea, social insects, gastropod mollusks, and cephalopods. Many of the organisms in these groups can solve complex and simple discrimination tasks, learn to use an existing reflex in a new context, and learn to control their behavior by the consequences of their actions.
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Charles I. Abramson, PhD
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