Learning Theories

7 Behavioural Learning Theories

Learning refers to the relatively permanent change in knowledge or behaviour that is the result of experience. Although you might think of learning in terms of what you need to do before an upcoming exam, the knowledge that you take away from your classes, or new skills that you acquire through practice, these changes represent only one component of learning. In fact, learning is a broad topic that is used to explain not only how we acquire new knowledge and behaviour but also how we acquire a wide variety of other psychological processes, including the development of both appropriate and inappropriate social behaviours, and even how a person may acquire a debilitating psychological disorder such as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

Learning is perhaps the most important human capacity. Learning allows us to create effective lives by being able to respond to changes. We learn to avoid touching hot stoves, to find our way home from school, and to remember which people have helped us in the past and which people have been unkind. Without the ability to learn from our experiences, our lives would be remarkably dangerous and inefficient.

Theories of learning range from those that focus on simple stimulus-response connections (behavioural theories) to perspectives that regard consumers as solvers of complex problems who learn abstract rules and concepts as they observe others (cognitive theories). Basic learning principles are at the heart of many advertising efforts.

Learning Through Experiences

Learning refers to the process by which consumers change their behaviour after they gain information or experience. It’s the reason you don’t buy a bad product twice. Learning doesn’t just affect what you buy; it affects how you shop. People with limited experience about a product or brand generally seek out more information than people who have used a product before.

Companies try to get consumers to learn about their products in different ways. Car dealerships offer test drives. Pharmaceutical reps leave samples and brochures at doctor’s offices. Other companies give consumers free samples. To promote its new line of coffees, McDonald’s offered customers free samples to try. Have you ever eaten the food samples at Costco or in your favourite grocery store? While sampling is an expensive strategy, it gets consumers to try the product and many customers buy it, especially right after trying in the store.

Behavioural Learning Theories

Behavioural learning theories assume that learning takes place as the result of responses to external events. For example, if a song we remember fondly from high school gets repeatedly paired with a brand name, over time our warm memories about the tune will rub off onto the advertised product. Can you think of any advertisements that feature a favourite song from your teenage years?

According to this perspective, the feedback we receive as we go through life shapes our experiences. Similarly, we respond to brand names, scents, “jingles” (a short song used in advertisements), and other marketing stimuli because of the learned connections we form over time. People also learn that actions they take result in rewards and punishments; this feedback influences the way they will respond in similar situations in the future. Consumers who receive compliments on a product choice will be more likely to buy that brand again, but those who get food poisoning at a new restaurant are not likely to return to it in the future.

Classical Conditioning

Although Ivan Pavlov (1849-1936) won a Nobel Prize for studying digestion, he is much more famous for something else: working with a dog, a bell, and a bowl of food. Many people are familiar with the classic study of “Pavlov’s dog,” but rarely do they understand the significance of its discovery. In his famous experiment, Pavlov rang a bell and then gave a dog some food. After repeating this pairing multiple times, the dog eventually treated the bell as a signal for food, and began salivating in anticipation of the treat.

In fact, Pavlov’s work helps explain why some people get anxious just looking at a crowded bus, why the sound of a morning alarm is so hated, and even why we swear off certain foods we’ve only tried once. Classical (or Pavlovian) conditioning is one of the fundamental ways we learn about the world around us. But it is far more than just a theory of learning; it is also arguably a theory of identity. For, once you understand classical conditioning, you’ll recognize that your favourite music, clothes, even political candidate, might all be a result of the same process that makes a dog drool at the sound of bell.

Pavlov's dog and bell, showing the sequencing of Pavlov's conditioning theory.
Image 1: the dog food and dog are featured (dog salivates). Image 2: The dog is introduced to a ringing bell (no response from dog). Image 3: The ringing bell is paired with the dog’s food (dog salivates). Image 4: The dog becomes conditioned to salivate whenever it hears the ringing bell.

As illustrated in the image above, the dog food in Pavlov’s experiment is called the unconditioned stimulus (US) because it elicits an unconditioned response (UR). That is, without any kind of “training” or “teaching,” the stimulus produces a natural or instinctual reaction. In Pavlov’s case, the food (US) automatically makes the dog drool (UR). Other examples of unconditioned stimuli include loud noises (US) that startle us (UR), or a hot shower (US) that produces pleasure (UR).

On the other hand, a conditioned stimulus (CS) produces a conditioned response (CR). A conditioned stimulus is a signal that has no importance to the organism until it is paired with something that does have importance. For example, in Pavlov’s experiment, the bell is the conditioned stimulus. Before the dog has learned to associate the bell (CS) with the presence of food (US), hearing the bell means nothing to the dog. However, after multiple pairings of the bell with the presentation of food, the dog starts to drool at the sound of the bell. This drooling in response to the bell is the conditioned response (CR). Although it can be confusing, the conditioned response is almost always the same as the unconditioned response. However, it is called the conditioned response because it is conditional on (or, depends on) being paired with the conditioned stimulus (e.g., the bell).

To help make this clearer, consider becoming really hungry when you see the logo for a fast food restaurant. There’s a good chance you’ll start salivating. Although it is the actual eating of the food (US) that normally produces the salivation (UR), simply seeing the restaurant’s logo (CS) can trigger the same reaction (CR).

We now believe that this same learning process is engaged, for example, when humans associate a drug they’ve taken with the environment (or surroundings) in which they’ve taken it; when they associate a stimulus (e.g., a symbol for vacation, like a big beach towel) with an emotional event (like a burst of happiness); or when they associate the smell of a particular type of fast food with getting food poisoning.

Although classical conditioning may seem “old” or “too simple” a theory, it is still widely studied today as a type of associative learning, a form of learning that relies on the repetitive pairing of stimuli. Swedish car brand, “Volvo” has successfully paired its name with the concept of “safety” for years, giving consumers the sense that Volvos are among the safest cars on the road (and ideal for young families).

Classical Conditioning & the Consumer

Classical conditioning has long been, and continues to be, an effective tool in marketing and advertising (Hawkins, Best, & Coney, 1998). The general idea is to create an advertisement that has positive features such that the ad creates enjoyment in the person exposed to it. The enjoyable ad serves as the unconditioned stimulus (US), and the enjoyment is the unconditioned response (UR). Because the product being advertised is mentioned in the ad, it becomes associated with the US, and then becomes the conditioned stimulus (CS). In the end, if everything has gone well, seeing the product online or in the store will then create a positive response in the buyer, leading them to be more likely to purchase the product.

A similar strategy is used by corporations that sponsor teams or events. For instance, if people enjoy watching a university basketball team playing basketball, and if that team is sponsored by a product, such as Red Bull, then people may end up experiencing positive feelings when they view a can of Red Bull. Of course, the sponsor wants to sponsor only good teams and good athletes because these create more pleasurable responses.

Advertisers use a variety of techniques to create positive advertisements, including enjoyable music, cute babies, attractive models, and funny spokespeople. In one study, Gorn (1982) showed research participants pictures of different writing pens of different colours, but paired one of the pens with pleasant music and the other with unpleasant music. When given a choice as a free gift, more people chose the pen colour associated with the pleasant music. And Schemer, Matthes, Wirth, and Textor (2008) found that people were more interested in products that had been embedded in music videos of artists that they liked and less likely to be interested when the products were in videos featuring artists that they did not like.

Another type of ad that is based on principles of classical conditioning is one that associates fear with the use of a product or behaviour, such as those that show pictures of deadly automobile accidents to encourage seat belt use or images of lung cancer surgery on cigarette boxes to discourage smoking. These ads have also been found to be effective (Das, de Wit, & Stroebe, 2003; Perloff, 2003; Witte & Allen, 2000), due in large part to conditioning. When we see a cigarette and the fear of dying has been associated with it, we are hopefully less likely to light it up.

Taken together then, there is ample evidence of the utility of classical conditioning, using both positive as well as negative stimuli, in advertising. This does not, however, mean that we are always influenced by these ads. The likelihood of conditioning being successful is greater for products that we do not know much about, where the differences between products are relatively minor, and when we do not think too carefully about the choices (Schemer et al., 2008).

Check your learning! Try this H5P review on Classical Conditioning to make sure you are familiar with the terms of this learning theory.

Stimulus Generalization

Pavlov also experimented with presenting new stimuli that were similar, but not identical, to the original conditioned stimulus. For instance, if the dog had been conditioned to being scratched before the food arrived, the stimulus would be changed to being rubbed rather than scratched. He found that the dogs also salivated upon experiencing the similar stimulus, a process known as (stimulus) generalization. Stimulus generalization refers to the tendency to respond to stimuli that resemble the original conditioned stimulus. The ability to generalize has important evolutionary significance. If we eat some red berries and they make us sick, it would be a good idea to think twice before we eat some purple berries. Although the berries are not exactly the same, they nevertheless are similar and may have the same negative properties.

Lewicki (1985) conducted research that demonstrated the influence of stimulus generalization and how quickly and easily it can happen. In his experiment, high school students first had a brief interaction with a female experimenter who had short hair and glasses. The study was set up so that the students had to ask the experimenter a question, and (according to random assignment) the experimenter responded either in a negative way or a neutral way toward the students. Then the students were told to go into a second room in which two experimenters were present and to approach either one of them. However, the researchers arranged it so that one of the two experimenters looked a lot like the original experimenter, while the other one did not (she had longer hair and no glasses). The students were significantly more likely to avoid the experimenter who looked like the earlier experimenter when that experimenter had been negative to them than when she had treated them more neutrally. The participants showed stimulus generalization such that the new, similar-looking experimenter created the same negative response in the participants as had the experimenter in the prior session.

The Copy Cat Brand Strategy

The reactions we learn to one object tend to transfer to other, similar objects in a process psychologists term  stimulus generalization. That explains why a drugstore’s bottle of private brand mouthwash deliberately packaged to resemble Listerine mouthwash may evoke a similar response among consumers, who assume that this copy-cat product shares other characteristics of the original. Indeed, consumers in one study on shampoo brands tended to rate those with similar packages as similar in quality and performance as well.

Stimulus generalization is the basic idea underlying numerous branding strategies that share this approach: (1) Create a brand name that consumers learn to associate with positive qualities; (2) paste that brand name on other, reasonably similar products; (3) stand back and let the positive associations transfer to the new item.

This approach explains the success of these branding strategies:

  • Family branding. Many products capitalize on the reputation of a company name. Companies such as Campbell’s, Heinz, and General Electric rely on their positive corporate images to sell different product lines.
  • Product line extensions. Marketers add related products to an established brand. Dole, which we associate with fruit, introduced refrigerated juices and juice bars, whereas Sun Maid went from raisins to raisin bread.
  • Licensing. Companies often “rent” well-known names. Christian Dior licenses the designer’s name to products from underwear to umbrellas.

Stimulus Discrimination

The flip side of stimulus generalization is stimulus discrimination — the tendency to respond differently to stimuli that are similar but not identical. Pavlov’s dogs quickly learned, for example, to salivate when they heard the specific tone that had preceded food, but not upon hearing similar tones that had never been associated with food. Discrimination is also useful — if we do try the purple berries, and if they do not make us sick, we will be able to make the distinction in the future. And we can learn that although two people in our class, Courtney and Sarah, may look a lot alike, they are nevertheless different people with different personalities.

Operant (Instrumental) Conditioning

Although classical conditioning is a powerful explanation for how we learn many different things, there is a second form of conditioning that also helps explain how we learn. First studied by Edward Thorndike (1874-1949), and later extended by B. F. Skinner (1904-1990), this second type of conditioning is known as operant (instrumental) conditioning. Operant conditioning occurs when a behaviour (as opposed to a stimulus) is associated with the occurrence of a significant event. In the best-known example, a rat in a laboratory learns to press a lever in a cage (called a “Skinner box”) to receive food. Because the rat has no “natural” association between pressing a lever and getting food, the rat has to learn this connection. At first, the rat may simply explore its cage, climbing on top of things, burrowing under things, in search of food. Eventually while poking around its cage, the rat accidentally presses the lever, and a food pellet drops in. This voluntary behaviour is called an operant behaviour, because it “operates” on the environment (i.e., it is an action that the animal itself makes)

Now, once the rat recognizes that it receives a piece of food every time it presses the lever, the behaviour of lever-pressing becomes reinforced. That is, the food pellets serve as reinforcers because they strengthen the rat’s desire to engage with the environment in this particular manner. In a parallel example, imagine that you’re playing a street-racing video game. As you drive through one city course multiple times, you try a number of different streets to get to the finish line. On one of these trials, you discover a shortcut that dramatically improves your overall time. You have learned this new path through operant (instrumental) conditioning. That is, by engaging with your environment (operant responses), you performed a sequence of behaviours that that was positively reinforced (i.e., you found the shortest distance to the finish line). And now that you’ve learned how to drive this course, you will perform that same sequence of driving behaviours (just as the rat presses on the lever) to receive your reward of a faster finish.

Operant conditioning research studies how the effects of a behaviour influence the probability that it will occur again. For example, the effects of the rat’s lever-pressing behaviour (i.e., receiving a food pellet) influences the probability that it will keep pressing the lever. For, according to Thorndike’s law of effect, when a behaviour has a positive (satisfying) effect or consequence, it is likely to be repeated in the future. However, when a behaviour has a negative (painful/annoying) consequence, it is less likely to be repeated in the future (negative reinforcement). Effects that increase behaviours are referred to as reinforcers, and effects that decrease them are referred to as punishers.

An everyday example that helps to illustrate operant conditioning is striving for a good grade in class—which could be considered a reward for students (i.e., it produces a positive emotional response). In order to get that reward (similar to the rat learning to press the lever), the student needs to modify their behaviour. For example, the student may learn that speaking up in class gets them participation points (a reinforcer), so the student speaks up repeatedly. However, the student also learns that they shouldn’t speak up about just anything; talking about topics unrelated to school actually punishes the students in their costs points (a form of punishment). Therefore, through the student’s freely chosen behaviours, they learn which behaviours are reinforced and which are punished.

Understanding classical and operant conditioning provides psychologists with many tools for understanding learning and behaviour in the world outside the lab. This is in part because the two types of learning occur continuously throughout our lives. It has been said that “much like the laws of gravity, the laws of learning are always in effect” (Spreat & Spreat, 1982).

Creating Loyal Customers Through Instrumental Conditioning

Marketers have developed a number of sales and marketing techniques based on the principles of instrumental conditioning and specifically positive reinforcement. Each of these commonly known tactics encourages consumers to be loyal, frequent, and high-spending shoppers:

  • Discounts
  • Rebates
  • Rewards Programs
  • Frequency Marketing Programs
  • Gifts & Giveaways

What about marketing techniques designed to avoid negative consequences? Well, most notably would be furniture companies and auto dealerships who launch “inventory blow-out” advertising campaigns encouraging shoppers to “avoid taxes” and other perceived penalties if they buy within a specific time period.

Media Attributions

  • The four images representing Pavlov’s dog experiment is by Maxxl from the Creative Commons and is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.

Text Attributions


Bouton, M. E. (2004). Context and behavioural processes in extinction. Learning & Memory, 11, 485–494.

Das, E.H.H.J., de Wit, J.B.F., & Stroebe, W. (2003). Fear appeals motivate acceptance of action recommendations: Evidence for a positive bias in the processing of persuasive messages. Personality & Social Psychology Bulletin, 29(5), 650-664.

Gorn, G.J. (1982). The effects of music in advertising on choice behaviour: A classical conditioning approach. Journal of Marketing, 46(1), 94-101.

Lewicki, P. (1985). Nonconscious biasing effects of single instances on subsequent judgments. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 48, 563–574.

Perloff, R.M. (2003). The Dynamics of persuasion: Communication and attitudes in the 21st century (2nd ed.). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Schemer, C., Matthew, J.R., Wirth, W., & Textor, S., (2008). Does “Passing the Courvoisier” always pay off? Positive and negative evaluative conditioning effects of brand placements in music videos. Psychology & Marketing, 25(10), 923-943.

Spreat, S., & Spreat, S. R. (1982). Learning principles. In V. Voith & P. L. Borchelt (Eds.), Veterinary clinics of North America: Small animal practice (pp. 593–606). Philadelphia, PA: W. B. Saunders.

Witte, K., & Allen, M. (2000). A meta-analysis of fear appeals: Implications for effective public health campaigns. Health Education & Behavior, 27(5), 591-615.



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