On the Basics of the Psychology of Learning

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:

Economics Philosophy & Politics Science

Piaget, Vygotsky, and Political Economy

Piaget and Vygotskys’ theories of cognitive development are somewhat contrasting, and can be compared to one-another endlessly using anecdotal evidence from our lives. Piaget’s model implies that cognitive development occurs parallel to neurobiological development and the child’s interaction with their environment. It’s relatively individualistic by nature of its focus on how the individual’s sensory processing of information from their environment effectively leads to formulation of ideas, and furthers cognitive development (subconsciously attempting to master their environment). The concepts proposed by Vygotsky differ from Piaget conversely; he proposes that through the zone of proximal development and by use of scaffolding, the individual develops cognitively through social interaction. Vygotsky concludes that social interaction is crucial to the process of learning and cognitive development; I’d make the comparison between the two theories that one seems to be individualistic (Pieget), while the other, relativistic (Vygotsky) in nature.

After making this mental connection, I decided to do some digging. I found that Piaget was born in the turn of the 20th century in capitalist Switzerland, while Vygotsky was a Soviet psychologist, educated at the Imperial Moscow University. It’s fascinating to me that two psychologists who likely harbor some sentiment for ideologically opposing political-economic theories (Communism, which is culturally relativistic, and Capitalism, which is culturally individualistic) would propose two conversed theories of cognitive development. Not to discount the validity of the theories- but I truly wonder if this is evidence of human nature being contingent on the material conditions of our reality, rather than some inherited, implicit biases towards thoughts or behaviors. What do you think? Did the fact that the material conditions of Piaget and Vygotskys’ environments differed influenced their psychology? If so, doesn’t that necessarily imply that Piaget was right? Would this information discount Vygotsky’s theory?