Pavlovian conditioning, operant conditioning and vicarious modes of learning

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This examines how Pavlovian conditioning, Operant Reinforcement or Punishment, and Vicarious learning can be used to explain learning and behavior in everyday life. Personal experiences are shared and each type of learning is looked at individually with its merits and demerits also evaluated.

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Pavlovian conditioning, Operant conditioning and Vicarious modes of learning

            Pavlovian conditioning is also referred to as classical or respondent conditioning.  It is a form of associative learning. It was first demonstrated by Ivan Pavlov whom it is named after. Pavlovian conditioning is induced by a conditioned stimulus which induces a conditioned response.  The most famous example in pavlovian conditioning is pavlov’s experiment on dogs and meat. Dogs at the ringing of a bell, they were observed salivating.  The dogs associated the bell which is conditioned stimulus in this case and with meat which is the unconditioned stimulus. Salivation is the unconditioned response. Unconditioned stimulus and unconditioned response is what comprises a reflex action (Hill, 1985).

            Pavlovian conditioning is extremely common in day to day learning.  It is commonly used in advertisements. For example a beer advertisement can feature an attractive young woman wearing a bikini.   The young attractive woman is the unconditioned stimulus.  The woman would naturally elicit a favorable and mild feeling of romance among men.  The feeling is the unconditioned Response.  Men who drink beer will always associate the advertised beer with the romantic feeling evoked by the attractive young woman. That explains why most advertisements are associated with soft music from the background. The advertiser in that way wants to pass the message that his product evokes such feelings of tenderness and sweetness like that music.

            From a personal experience I have ever been robbed at gun point.  The robber gave me a choice of surrendering money or my life.  The experience was quite frightening and unexpected.  The event occurred to me slightly after dusk.  Since that time, I have feared walking in town at dusk.  Dusk evokes a feeling of fear of robbery however safe I am in town.  In this case, dusk is the unconditioned stimulus and fear of robbery is the unconditioned stimulus.

            Pavlovian conditioning has its own weaknesses in learning behavior .firstly time plays a big role in that way of learning. The mode of learning ceases to be effective if there is a big delay between conditioned stimulus and unconditioned response (Petty and Cacioppo, 1981).

            The type of response that occurs is genetically predetermined. Therefore response cannot be modified. Therefore when this mode of learning is used, one must be aware that learning can only occur within genetic setups.

            It does not lay down objectives for the learner from the word go. Therefore it may not be very good for valuation purposes.

            This mode of conditioning can be very good in understanding how living things in nature behave and how environmental factors contribute to those behaviors.

            Operant conditioning is the use of consequences to rectify an occurrence and form of behavior.  It deals with the modification of behavior done voluntarily.  It is maintained purely by its consequences. Reinforcement and punishment are the major tools applied in operant conditioning.  Reinforcement and punishment are either withdrawn or delivered following a response.  When there is no change in consequences following a response, it is referred to as extinction.  Response is therefore reinforced, punished or extinguished.  Reinforcement causes a behavior to occur with greater frequency, punishment causes a behavior to occur with less frequency and extinction implies a behavior is inconsequential therefore it should occur or be done with less frequency.  There is positive or negative reinforcement or punishment.  Positive refers to additional reinforcement/punishment while negative refers to subtraction of reinforcement/punishment (Hill, 1985).

            Operant conditioning is a common way of learning especially in educational systems.  In this form of learning desired behavior is specified, observable and measurable outcome is stated, explanation of the conditions under which the behavior should be exhibited is given and the criterion for judging the acceptable behavior is also stated.

            My immediate younger brother grew up wetting his bed.  My mother in the quest to help him stop the behavior, she developed a criteria of punishing and rewarding him.  Any night that went without the boy wetting his bed he could be rewarded with 2 dollars to buy anything of choice.  In case he could wet the bed, the agreement was that he does the washing of the bedding thereafter. The punishment/reward system continued like that for about two months.  In the third month the boy had totally abstained from wetting his bed. Finally, the reinforcement and the punishment were withdrawn.

            Operant conditioning as a way of learning has its strengths and weaknesses. The punishment offered in operant conditioning at times can be overly severe.  In that way it can cause anger and resentment.  At the same time it can be mild or too short or soft.  In that way it will also not be effective.

            Operant conditioning needs consistent.  If a person is not consistent, it loses its objective.  It is required that punishment be given immediately.  Delay may make it lose its meaning or objectives.

            Operant conditioning forms a good basis for evaluation especially where performance is required.  It lays down objectives from the beginning.  Therefore a child can be able to master the requirement quickly. Response is not also so much tied to genetic composition of an organism or individual.

            Vicarious learning is also called observational or social learning.  Learning takes place as a function of observing.  After making observations one retains and tries to replicate that.  Observational learning has four key processes.  They include attention, retention, reproduction and motivation (Hill, 1985).

            For one to learn, he/she must first of all pay attention to another person’s behavior what consequences are involved.  The observed behavior and consequences should also be retained in the mind.  The learner should also be able to reproduce response by converting stored mental images in actions.  Motivation involves reward basically.  The learner is unlikely to reproduce a certain response if not motivated.  Motivation is done by giving rewards.  This method of learning can be very effective for an autistic child.  A parent only needs to design a method in which the attention of the child is captured.  This can be through use of things like toys and play games or anything deemed appropriate.  The child should be encouraged appropriately to retain and reproduce a certain behavior (Petty and Cacioppo, 1981).

            This mode of learning has an advantage of perpetuating some good behavior.  For example if a child chooses a certain person as a role model those good characters in the role model can be perpetuated.

            There are debates concerning influences of television on children.  By watching television, children may learn behaviors such as violence which are played in movies.

            Observational learning allows for learning that does not perpetuate behavior change.  It is therefore not a good way of learning especially when behavior change is required in a certain system.  This is because behavior must change for new ones to be acquired.  In general observation learning is good in developing memory.


Hill, W. (1985). Learning: A survey of psychological interpretations. (4th. Ed.). New York:       Harper and Row.

Petty, R., & Cacioppo, J. (1981). Attitudes and persuasion: Classic and contemporary    approaches. Dubuque, IA: William C. Brown.

 Reflex: accessed on          1st August 2008


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