The brain is infinitely complicated, and one of the most fascinating abilities it holds is the ability to adapt and learn. From the tiniest of animals to humans, we all share an innate ability to adapt through different types of learning. All learned behavior could be categorized as classical, operant, insight, latent, or observational, according to the psychologists who studied these behaviors.
Classical conditioning is learning by associating an environmental stimulus with a natural stimulus. An example of classical conditioning I’ve experienced would be when somebody sees a police officer when they’re in a car. Normally, you wouldn’t mind seeing a police officer, but when you’re in the car and driving and see a cop car parked on the side of the road looking to hand out tickets like free candy, your body develops a fear or panic response. If you weren’t in the car and instead just walking, or saw the officer anywhere else, you wouldn’t be worried. This classical learning involves involuntary behavior such as panic.
Operant learning is conditioning involving voluntary behaviors that are strengthened or weakened by consequences. An example of this would be when you’re speeding on the highway and pass another police officer. Since you’ve gotten so many tickets, the automatic response is to slam on the brakes to avoid getting another. Since then, you’ll have invested in a radar detector, so now when the radar goes off you know by learned consequences that you have to slow down or else you’ll receive a ticket. This is categorized as operant conditioning because you had to learn by consequence to change your behavior (ex. Getting the radar and slowing down when it beeps).
Insight learning is a spontaneous understanding of how to solve a problem, etc. An example of insight learning in my life would be during a difficult anatomy test (on the nervous system!). After forgetting the functions of certain spinal pathways, I had to sit and stare at the multiple choice answer choices for a few minutes until spontaneously I remembered my professor mentioning that some physical sense was tied to a certain pathway, and I knew the answer. Another example would be when I got stuck in the snow with my car; my car’s feeble rear-wheel drive set up was incapable of overcoming the smallest of snow mounds, and I was going to be late for class. After thinking about it, I decided that the power was being cut from the wheels and it was preventing motion. I turned off traction control and viola, I was on my way to school.
Latent learning is hidden learned behavior without showing signs of the knowledge. An example of latent learning in my life would be learning the roads in my neighborhood. After being driven around my neighborhood in a bus all of high school, I sort of picked up the roads and how to get to and from my house. Once I got my first car, I suddenly had a reason to want to know the roads, and I found it very easy to navigate my way around town even though I hardly paid any attention to the geography prior to getting my car.
Observational learning is learning through observing others. An example of observational learning in my life would be my father (a huge car guy, like father like son) driving me around with my mother. When my father would drive aggressively and fast, my mom would always yell at him and get upset. Once I grew up, even though my mother yelled at my father for it (and now, myself) I still drive fast because it’s something I experienced and observed when growing up.
Oftentimes these different learning behaviors are studied using infants or toddlers or rats, which leaves us to wonder if learned behaviors in adult humans with more complicated brains would fall under these clear cut descriptions of how we learn in different ways. Perhaps there are other underlying methods by which we develop new behaviors that we aren’t capable of studying yet.
Huffman, K. (1991). Learning. In Psychology in action (10nd ed., pp. 205-220). New York: