While I know that toasters are inherently not dangerous appliances, I have learned through several experiences to fear them. In this essay, I look at the experiences from three separate vantage points: classical conditioning, operant conditioning, and cognitive social learning. There was no influence by the media in this particular learning experience.
When I was young, I innately knew that fire alarms with their loud noises were to be taken seriously. As such, I always responded to these alarms with an involuntary rush of adrenaline and an urge to leave the area I was in. The first time I heard a fire alarm in my own home was when my father was attempting to make toast. The second time I heard a fire alarm at home was when a friend was trying to make toast. The third time I heard a fire alarm at home was when another friend was making toast. This time, the sound of the fire alarm was accompanied by the sight of flames shooting up the wall of my kitchen. Luckily, we put out the fire before anything was seriously damaged.
Huitt and Hummel (1997a) identified four essential elements of Pavlov’s model of classical conditioning: the unconditioned stimulus, the unconditioned response, the conditioned stimulus, and the conditioned response. In this scenario, the fire alarm is the unconditioned stimulus – it naturally triggered a response (rush of adrenaline and feeling of fear, the unconditioned responses) in me. The toaster is the conditioned stimulus. Normally, people do not feel fear when in the presence of a toaster, but due to my continued association of toasters with alarms, I began to feel fear in the presence of toasters (conditioned response).
When I was young, I loved to eat toast every morning for breakfast. Often, my dad and my friends would make toast for me because they knew how much I loved it. However, the toaster caught on fire on several occasions, causing the fire alarm to go off. Now, I never eat toast for breakfast, and I refuse to have a toaster in my house.
Huitt and Hummel (1997b) explained that operant conditioning, as developed by Skinner, is based on the principle that voluntary responses can be learned through the association of behaviors with their consequences. According to the theory of operant conditioning, the behavior in this situation is eating toast. The consequence is the fire alarm going off. This consequence is a form punishment: it is a consequence consisting of an adverse stimulus (the loud noise of the fire alarm) that results in a less frequent occurrence of the behavior (i.e. I do not eat toast anymore). The severity of the consequence meant that the punishment did not have to occur frequently for my behavioral patterns to change.
When I was younger, I used to eat toast every morning for breakfast. I would often make the toast myself, but sometimes my father or friends who were staying at my house would make the toast. One day, I was watching my dad make toast, and the toaster caught on fire, setting off the fire alarm. Then, I saw friends making toast, and two of these times, the toaster caught on fire and the fire alarm went off. Even though the toaster never caught on fire while I was using it, I still stopped using the toaster.
Huitt (2004) explained that Bandura’s conception of cognitive social learning developed from the operant conditioning model. There are four elements of the cognitive social learning theory: attention, retention, reproduction, and motivation (Huitt, 2004). In this scenario, I (an impressionable young child) paid attention to the behavior (making toast) and consequences (starting a fire) of the behavior of my father and my older friends. I stored a mental image (retention) of both the behavior and its consequences. Because the consequences were severe, I no longer engaged in the behavior as I was not motivated to suffer the consequences.
Comparison of these Three Learning Types
These three learning types offer different perspectives on the learning process. Essential to the theory of classical conditioning are the assumptions that the unconditioned response is involuntary (such as salivation in Pavlov’s original experiment) and that the conditioned stimulus is neutral (provoking no reaction under normal circumstances) (Huitt and Hummel, 1997a). In place of learning new behaviors, we learn to develop new associations between stimuli and responses (Huitt and Hummel, 1997a).
In contrast, the theories of operant conditioning and cognitive social behavior both emphasize learned voluntary responses to stimuli. The major difference between these two types is that the theory of cognitive social behavior allows for the observation of consequences to the actions of others – one can therefore learn from observation, not just experience (Huitt, 2004).
Huitt, W., & Hummel, J. (1997a). An Introduction to Classical (Respondent) Conditioning. Educational Psychology Interactive. Valdosta, GA: Valdosta State University. Retrieved
June 30, 2009 from http://chiron.valdosta.edu/whuitt/col/behsys/classcnd.html
Huitt, W., & Hummel, J. (1997b). An Introduction to Operant (Instrumental) Conditioning.
Educational Psychology Interactive. Valdosta, GA: Valdosta State University. Retrieved June 30, 2009 from, http://chiron.valdosta.edu/whuitt/col/behsys/operant.html
Huitt, W. (2004). Observational (Social) Learning: An Overview. Educational Psychology
Interactive. Valdosta, GA: Valdosta State University. Retrieved June 30, 2009 from http://chiron.valdosta.edu/whuitt/col/soccog/soclrn.html