2 minute read


Current Research/future Developments

How findings from conditioning studies relate to learning is an important question. But first we must define learning. Psychologists use the term learning in a slightly different way than it is used in everyday language. For most psychologists, learning at its most general is evidenced by changes in behavior due to experience. In traditional theories of conditioning learning is seen in the strengthening of a conditional reflex, and the creation of a new association between a stimulus and a response. Yet more recent and complex conditioning experiments indicate that conditioning involves more than the strengthening of stimulus-response connections or new reflexes. It seems conditioning may be more accurately described as a process through which the relationship between events or stimuli and the environment are learned about and behavior is then adjusted.

In addition, research comparing normal and retarded children, and older children and adults, suggests that people have language- or rule-based learning forms that are more efficient than associative learning, and these types of learning can easily override the conditioning process. In sum, conditioning and associative learning seem to explain only certain aspects of human learning, and are now seen as simply another type of learning task. So, while conditioning had a central place in American experimental psychology from approximately the 1940s through the 1960s, its theoretical importance for learning has diminished. On the other hand, practical applications of conditioning procedures and findings continue to grow.



Hearst, E. "Fundamentals of Learning and Conditioning." Stevens' Handbook of Experimental Psychology. 2nd ed. Edited by R.C. Atkinson, R.J. Herrnstein, G. Lindzey, and R. D. Luce. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1988.

Mackintosh, N.J. "Classical and Operant Conditioning." In Companion Encyclopedia of Psychology, ed. A. W. Colman. New York: Routledge, 1994.

Schwartz, B. Psychology of Learning and Behavior. 3rd ed. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., Inc., 1988.

Marie Doorey


. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .


—A philosophical doctrine which holds that simple associations between ideas are the basis of all human thought and knowledge, and complex ideas are built upon combinations of the simple.


—A highly influential school of thought in psychology, it holds that observable behaviors are the only appropriate subject matter for psychological research.

Classical conditioning

—A procedure involving pairing a stimulus that naturally elicits a response with one that does not until the second stimulus elicits a response like the first.


—Term used in classical conditioning to describe responses that have been conditioned to elicit certain responses. It also describes the stimuli that elicit such responses


—A general philosophical position holding that all knowledge comes from experience, and that humans are not born with any ideas or concepts independent of personal experience.

Operant conditioning

—A procedure involving administering or withholding reinforcements based on the performance, or partial performance, of a targeted response.


—Term used in classical conditioning to describe responses that are naturally or unconditionally elicited, they do not need to be conditioned. It also describes the stimuli that elicit such responses.

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Condensation to CoshConditioning - Historical Roots, Classical And Operant Conditioning, Comparison, Current Research/future Developments