Behavioral Learning Theory and Associated Therapies
As the name implies, behavioral learning theory concerns itself with the way behaviors are learned, and subsequently "unlearned." Since the word "learning" is often used throughout this article, it is important to understand the way in which psychologists define the term. According to behavioral psychologists, "learning" is indicated by a relatively permanent change in behavior or knowledge, as a result of a "learning" experience. Thus, "learning" is not limited to the most common usage of the word that typically references academic learning (school). In psychological terms, learning can occur without any intention to learn, and without a conscious awareness that something has been learned: Any change in behavior suggests the person has learned a new response to a particular situation. The term will become clearer as we examine the two primary ways that organisms learn: classical conditioning and operant conditioning.
Classical conditioning was the first type of learning behavior to be demonstrated in a laboratory setting. Under ordinary circumstances, certain types of environmental stimuli will produce a reflexive, behavioral response. For instance, if a puff of smoke is blown toward your face, your behavioral response is to blink your eyes. You never have to "learn" to blink your eyes; it's just an automatic reflex. Therefore, in classical conditioning terminology, an unconditioned stimulus, or UCS (e.g., smoke) spontaneously produces a physiologic, reflexive unconditioned response or UCR (e.g., an eye blink).
Classical conditioning demonstrated that people can be trained to produce these same reflexive, behavioral responses to a neutral stimulus, called a "conditioned stimulus" or CS (i.e., a stimulus that would not ordinarily cause the reflexive response). This learning occurs through a process called paired association. In other words, a reflexive behavioral response can be elicited by pairing an unconditioned stimulus (UCS) with a conditioned stimulus (CS). For example, a puff of smoke (unconditioned stimulus; UCS) causes one to reflexively blink (unconditioned response; UCR). Through conditioning, an individual can be trained to reflexively eye blink to a neutral stimulus, such as bell, when repeatedly paired with a puff of smoke. Obviously, the sound of a bell does not ordinarily cause someone to reflexively blink their eyes. But, through the process of paired association, if the bell (CS) is paired numerous times with a puff of smoke (UCS), then eventually the bell alone will cause someone to blink their eyes, even though smoke is no longer presented. In behavioral terms, the individual has learned that the sound of the bell is synonymous with smoke and therefore, they reflexively blink. Here is a diagram of the process. Note that once the unconditioned response (UCR) becomes conditioned (learned), it is then called a conditioned response (CR). Thus, prior to conditioning an eye blink is the UCR, but after conditioning, the eye blink becomes the CR.
Puff of smoke --> eye blink
UCS ---> UCR
Bell + puff of smoke --> eye blink
CS + UCS --> UCR
Bell alone --> eye blink
CS --> CR
Classical conditioning suggests that anxiety disorders may be learned via paired association. John B. Watson is famous for his 1920's "Little Albert" experiment. Watson demonstrated that humans can learn to be afraid of neutral objects through the process of classical conditioning. Watson and his assistant, Rosalie Rayner, presented Little Albert (an 11 month old baby) with a white rat. Initially, Albert was not afraid of the rat; in fact, he reached out to touch it. The experimenters then struck a steel bar right behind Albert every time they presented him with the rat. The loud noise made Albert jump and start to cry. A week later they presented Albert the rat alone, and he attempted to stay away from it. Watson and Rayner later demonstrated that Albert also reacted the same way to similar, white, furry objects (a fur coat, a rabbit, a Santa Claus mask). Thus, the fear had generalized to other similar objects. It is important to bear in mind these experiments were conducted in the 1920s and it is quite unlikely they would be permitted by today's standards of ethical research.
Here is a diagram of this process:
Loud noise --> fear
UCS --> UCR
White rat + loud noise --> fear
CS + UCS --> UCR
White rat alone --> fear
CS --> CR
Classical conditioning provides important insight into the process by which humans may develop a fearful response to previously neutral objects and neutral situations. Classical conditioning also demonstrates how the fear response generalizes to related stimuli which can eventually develop into a full-blown anxiety disorder. Imagine a child walks by a Golden Retriever dog at a park who barks loudly at her. As a result, she becomes fearful of not only Golden Retrievers, but all dogs, parks with dogs in it, as well as large brown furry animals. This is the process of "generalization."