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Behavioural and Cognitive Approaches to Learning Comparison

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Psychology
Wordcount: 1278 words Published: 18th Apr 2018

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Compare and contrast two perspectives in psychology and the ways in which they study learning.

The two perspectives chosen to be compared in this essay were the behavioural approach to learning and the cognitive approach. The behavioural approach to learning involves the observation of identifiable behavioural characteristics and rejects anything to do with thought processes or consciousness as it regards these features unrecognisable (Miell et al, 2002). Contrastingly, the cognitive approach focuses entirely upon thought processes and the faculties associated with the conceptual mind to understand the concept learning. In this assignment we will look at the ways in which these two fields have provided support for the concept of learning, whilst appreciating the similarities and differences of either approach.

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The behavioural perspective was established by Watson. Concerned with the principles of objective scientific research, Watson rejected the notion of internal psychological mechanics as he believed that this could not be empirically measured (Miell et al, 2002). All Watson was interested in was observable external phenomena, which meant behaviour. The emphasis that Watson and behaviourism put on the concept of learning was that of the association made by the organism to its external environment. This places the individual as a learning vessel reacting to the environment. However, the extent and nature of this relationship has been argued across the field of behaviourist research. A fundamental distinction between the two approaches to learning within the field of behaviourism is within the notion of conditioning – classical conditioning and operant conditioning. Research into classical conditioning was defined in principle by physiologist Pavlov (Miell et al, 2002). Pavlov observed that in relation to certain stimuli dog’s behaviour could be conditioned through association. Using the dogs’ biological response to hunger, Pavlov revealed in his experiments the basic principle relationship between an observable stimulus and its learned response as an outcome. His work indicated that a dogs’ natural reflex to hunger could be conditioned through the contrived association of a manipulated neutral stimulus. Essentially, he showed that pairing the noise of a bell with the introduction of food the dog would salivate eventually learning through association that the bell signified food. This response was labelled the conditional response and the bell was labelled the conditional stimulus. In classical conditioning, we can see that learning is defined as a modification of behaviour caused by association and manipulation of environmental stimuli. However, the extent of intelligence involved in this form of learning is very limited.

The second distinction in the behavioural approach is operant conditioning. Research conducted by Skinner gave insight into the notion of developmental or figurative learning in the form of reward and positive regard (Skinner, 1948/1990). This approach assumed that animals were primarily interactive within the role of learning behaviours. Given a variety of different consequences for each potential behaviour, it was believed that animals could decide what behaviour was best to adopt in any particular environment as it had learned and could apply through relevant schemas. In Skinner’s experiment, he used rats and manipulated their environment through reinforcement to see to what extent their behaviour could be shaped through conditioned learning (Skinner, 1948/1990). Essentially, the rats in this experiment changed their behaviours through positive reinforcement, which provided evidence of learning. From these findings the role of discrimination between stimuli was believed to be understood in the form of shaping. What had been established in both forms of behavioural models is that learning could be shaped through the manipulation of specific stimuli in any environment. However, what underlines these behavioural models of learning is the idea that learning is no more than a response to certain stimuli under manipulative environmental conditioning. This is where we can see a significant difference between that of the behavioural approach and that of the cognitive.

The cognitive approach addresses the human capacity to categorise, generalise and conceptualise certain phenomena (Miell, 2002). Primarily concerned with the functioning of the mind within learning with the mind this approach, concerns itself primarily with notions such as memory, perception and categorisation (Miell, 2002). Interested in the role of perception and memory within the role of category learning, the psychologist Bruner et al, devised a test to see how we constructed categories. Unlike conditioning, Bruner suggested that this was an engaging intelligent procedure performed by way of hypothesis testing – stages of acceptance and rejection based upon trial (Bruner et al, 1956). A variety of shapes were used in a variety of conditions. Some of these shared the same number of shapes, some the same colour of shape and others the same number of borders. No two varieties were identical. From the results of this experiment, Bruner et al surmised that there were two forms of learning that had been present. Firstly, successive scanning, which entertained one hypothesis at a time and secondly, conservative scanning, which sought to eliminate classes of hypotheses such as border, number of shapes, colour (Bruner et al, 1956). Unlike the behavioural approach, we can see from these experiments that an attempt is being made to understand the operation of the intelligent mind with regards to learning through categorisation. However, categorisation as a learning process is not accepted by everyone in the field of cognitive psychology. Although much of the research that had gone to indicate that attributes revealed that a prior knowledge or experience was active and influential in category learning (Kaplan & Murphy, 2000), many argue that the categories are innate (Fodor & Chomsky, 1980). This argument does strengthen the behavioural notion that the conceptual structure of the mind is open to interpretation, and so cannot be as valuable as the observable findings of the behaviourist approach.

In each approach we have seen an emphasis on the nature of learning. We have seen that this emphasis on learning is different in each approach. One approach is essentially concerned with the extent to which behaviour can be shaped by the environment and how this relationship can be observed through association and shaping. Whilst the other approach seems to be only concerned with how the environment is categorised by the organism and how it subsequently applies that to a concept of structural framework. However, both agree on the fundamental principle that learning is done in conjunction with the environment.


Bruner, J, S., Goodnow, J, J., and Austin, G, A., (1956) A Study of Thinking New York: John Wiley and Sons.

Chomsky, N., and Fodor, J, A., (1980) Statement of the Paradox, in Piatelli – Palmarini, M. (ed.).

Miell, D., Phoenix, A. and Thomas, K. (2002) Mapping Psychology 1. Milton Keynes, Open University.

Kaplan, A, S., and Murphy, G, L., (2000) Category Learning with Minimal Prior Knowledge, Journal of Experimental Psychology, 26, 4, 829-846.

Skinner, B, F., (1946/1990) Walden Two London: Collier Macmillan.


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