relationship of learning and behavior, relationship of learning and cognition

Introduction to Learning

Learning is a lifelong process that begins at birth and continues throughout the entire life span.  It is one of the most widely studied human experiences consisting of several components that establish human behavior.  Behavior modification or learning  is possible through classical and instrumental conditioning.  In order for learning to occur, intricate cognitive processes must take place, or the behavior is considered innate and the potential of cognition remains blocked.


The acquisition of skill or knowledge is commonly referred to as learning, however psychologists delve deeper to understand exactly what learning is.  Learning is a relatively permanent behavior change in observable behavior resulting from practice or experience and achieved through reinforcement (Olsen, 2009).  According to Gregory A. Kimble, the behavioral change can be visible or hidden, may not occur immediately following the experience, and finally, reinforcement that strengthens the behavior must occur (Olsen, 2009).  Additionally, Kimble theorized that modified behavior attributed to learning cannot be also be attributed to temporary body states because experience may result in other behavior modifying processes (Olsen, 2009).

Learning and Behavior

Most researchers study behavior in order to identify the possible reasons that certain behavior modifications occur which is the learning that is taking place (Olsen, 2009). The downside is that theorists believe that learning can only be inferred by observing the behavior changes occurring making learning an intervening variable (Olsen, 2009).  Learning is thought to result from experience (independent variable) that causes learning (intervening variable) which in turn creates a behavior modification (dependant variable) in a person (Olsen, 2009).  Thus, in order for learning to occur, something must be experienced that causes an overt or covert behavioral change.  Additionally, in order for learning, the behavior must have relative permanency, meaning that the behavior exhibits sensitization or habituation (Olsen, 2009).  Sensitization is the process of learning that brings about an alertness in an individual who displays a reaction to a scenario.  Habituation is the desensitization of a response to an experience that is deemed unharmful or not alarming (Olsen, 2009).  There are two types of learning attributed behavior modification: Classical conditioning and instrumental conditioning.


Conditioning is the actual procedures identified that attribute to the cause of behavior modifications (Olsen, 2009).  Classical conditioning is the process by which a new behavior is via the process association in both humans and animals (McLeod, S.  A.  2008).  This process occurs in three stages.  First, an environmental stimulus produces a particular behavior that is  innate, or unlearned.  In this stage, the stimulus is not conditioned, or neutral (McLeod, 2008).  During the second stage, the neutral stimulus is repeatedly reintroduced  causing creating a conditioned stimulus that produces a strengthened association.  The strengthened association creates the third stage which produces a new response resulting in a behavior change (McLeod, 2008).  A child sees a curling iron and reaches for it even though he is told it is hot.  He touches it again.  He pulls his hand away as he feels a burning sensation.  Although the outcome is undesirable, he goes for a second, third, or even a fourth grab and each time gets burned.  Eventually, the child learns that if he touches that curling iron, it will burn him, which he does not like and stops grabbing it.  Behavior modification occurred through classical conditioning.

Instrumental conditioning is the process of using positive or negative reinforcement in order to increase or decrease the probability of a behavior reoccurring in the future (McLeod, S.  A., 2007).  Instrumental conditioning is also referred to as operant conditioning, and claims reinforced behavior increases the probability of recurring behavior, whereas unreinforced, or punished behavior decreases  the probability (McLeod, 2007).  For example, a child who has an exceptional day at school receives praise or a treat as reinforcement, in an effort to achieve repetitive positive behavior to.  On the other hand, a child who had a note sent home because the child was not following directions may receive consequences in an effort to deter the behavior.  Through classical and instrumental conditioning, learning is achieved which results in cognitive processes to occur.

Learning and Cognition

Cognition is the process of gaining skill and knowledge through mental processes such as thinking, problem-solving, and memory (Olsen, 2009).  The relationship linking learning to cognition is that learning occurs after cognitive processes occur in the brain that allow for an individual to process and retain new information that ultimately results in a particular behavior (Olsen, 2009).  Typically, at the point a child is introduced to an animal, he or she has no clue what that the animal is until he, or she is told.  With each exposure, the cognitive processes are reinforced through repetition of the child being told what the animal is.  Eventually, the information becomes learned and is now common knowledge for the child, who knows exactly what that animal is.  During the process, it is possible that additional cognitive processes were created that aid the child in linking other similar animals to the one of original exposure allowing the child to feel comfort as exposure to the other animals is repeated.


Researchers have studied behavior universally in humans and animals sin order to develop an explanation for the behavior.  Although controversial, learning is believed to be the process that leads to relatively permanent behavior through the use of conditioning reinforcements.  Learning occurs through intricate cognitive processes that allow for the processing and storage of new information that will potentially deviate a behavior modification through conditioning practices.


McLeod, S. A. (2007). Skinner – Operant Conditioning. Retrieved from

McLeod, S. A. (2008). Classical Conditioning. Retrieved from

Olsen, M.  H., & Hergenhahn, B.  R.  (2009).  An introduction to theories of learning (8th ed.).  Upper Saddle River, N.  J.:  Pearson/Prentice Hall.