Why do you decide in favor of certain actions and behavior but not of others? To get to the bottom of this question, psychology has developed a number of learning models. Classical and operant conditioning, learning by self-control, and observational learning are important basics that psychotherapy is based on. The following article contains, in addition to all facts about learning, knowledge about memory and language that is relevant for your exams.

Classical Conditioning: Stimulus Control

Iwan PawlowWhen referring to this term, do physiologist P.Pawlow and the dog-bell-saliva-experiment directly cross your mind? The founder of the principle of classical conditioning accidentally came across the reaction-stimulus-chain, the so-called respondent model. He combined the action of feeding dogs with the sound of a bell and by and by he determined that the dogs already produced saliva by hearing the chime although no food was put in front of them.

The originally unconditioned stimulus (food) that led to an unconditioned reaction (salivation) was combined with a neutral impulse. By and by, this neutral impulse triggered the unconditioned reaction: The neutral impulse became the conditioned stimulus.

This conditioned reaction can also be deleted (extinction) by leaving out the conditioned impulse. If the impulse is set again spontaneously, the deleted reaction can appear again, however in a milder form (spontaneous recovery).

If similar impulses release the same reaction, we talk about stimulus-generalization. The term stimulus-discrimination, however, is used when similar impulses can be distinguished anyway.

Ivan Pavlov's conditioning experiments with dogs

Image: “Diagram Ivan Pavlov’s conditioning experiments with dogs” by Maxxl. License: (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Operant Conditioning: Trial and Error

Bild: “ B.F. Skinner at  Harvard” von silly rabbit. Lizenz: CC BY-SA 3.0

Image: “ B.F. Skinner at  Harvard” by silly rabbit. License: CC BY-SA 3.0

The US-American psychologist B.F. Skinner is inevitably associated with the term of operant conditioning (Skinner-box see below). Operant conditioning describes the acquisition of stimulus-reaction-patterns:

„How do we adjust our originally spontaneous behavior through reward and punishment?“

The following terms are important with operant conditioning:

    • Positive reinforcement:The probability of certain behavior to occur increases through positive reinforcement.
    • Negative reinforcement:The discontinuation of negative impulses also leads to an increase of incidents.
    • Reinforcement:positive or negative behavior consequences


  • Reinforcement = increase of behavior, regardless of whether positive or negative reinforcement
  • positive and negative are not judgmental
  • Positive: adding consequences
  • Negative: removing consequences

Skinnerbox: Equipment for animal testing with a fixed lever. If this is pushed, the rat will be rewarded with a food pill for its behavior. The behavior of the rat (pushing down the lever) is reinforced and so the action is executed more often. If the animals receive a painful stimulus after pushing the lever, they will stop this behavior after a little while.

Skinner box scheme

Image: “Skinner box, a cage to perform behavioural experiments with animals” by Andreas1. License: (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Differentiation of Positive and Negative Reinforcement vs. Punishment

Behavior consequence will be…

… added … removed
Positive reinforcement Positive strengthening (behavior increases) punishment(behavior decreases)
Negative reinforcement Punishment (behavior decreases) Negative strengthening (behavior increases)

More important terms and examples of operant conditioning

Term Definition Example
Primary reinforcement Satisfaction of primary needs Food, sleep, rest
Secondary reinforcement Linking to primary reinforcement (social, material, etc.) Praise, admiration, money
Emitted behavior Spontaneously occurring behavior that can be reinforced Dog lifts its paw, gets rewarded and repeats behavior
Prompting Cue through initiating behavior externally Acquisition of language
Fading Gradual fading out of the prompts over the course of the conditioning process Teacher gives tips to get the right answer and reduces the number of tips in the process
Shaping Stepwise acquisition of complex behavior by rewarding subsequences Toddler learns to tie shoes
Chaining Learning complex chains of behavior, usually the last element is reinforced first Brushing teeth: toothpaste on brush, clean various areas,  flush, use dental floss, etc.
Premack-principle Linking of a less favorable activity with a popular one “First you have to eat the salad, then you’ll get the dessert!”

The Reinforcement Plans

Reinforcement plans are consistent relations between behavior and consequence =  contingency.

A high contingency is given, when almost every behavior results in a consequence, whereas we speak of low contingency, when consequences follow just sometimes. Continuous reinforcement means that every single desired behavior is strengthened. Intermittent reinforcement means that just a certain number of all desired behavior is strengthened. A distinction is drawn between ratio plans and interval plans:

Fixed ratio plans Consequence after fixed rate, e.g. every third time
Variable ratio plans Consequence after variable rate, e.g. after the second, then the fifth, then the tenth time
Fixed interval plans Consequence after fixed time interval, e.g. every five minutes
Variable interval plans Consequence after variable time interval, e.g. after 5, then after 10, then after 15 minutes

Important: While continuous reinforcement leads to fast learning, skills are more resistant to erasing if reinforcement occurs intermittently.

Learning by Understanding: Cognitive Learning

Learning by understanding means that we come to a solution by understanding the circumstances. Hence, the person gets to a solution through pure reflection, not through an outward visible and observable experience. The „light bulb moment“ falls in this category of learning by understanding: A sudden flash of inspiration leads to understanding and solution-oriented behavior respectively. This approach can then be extrapolated to other situations (example: math problem).

Model-based Learning: Observational Learning

Behavior is learned with potentially positive or negative consequences using a model: Other people are observed and their behavior is imitated and learned in this manner. Consequently, there’s neither reinforcement nor consequences for the observer.

Many pro- and antisocial behaviors become conceivable through observational learning.


  • Fear of spiders or mice that is conveyed through media and social environment (parents, siblings)
  • Xenophobia
  • Cooperativeness

Learning by Self-control

Behaviors are learned by initial model-based learning and operant conditioning. Based on this, we create our own expectation-patterns for ourselves. The intrinsic factors of self-control, self-criticism, and self-confirmation now replace outside reinforcement and punishment.

Example: A child is taught that leisure activities can only be enjoyed after achieving something. As an adult such people only take a break if their self-imposed work plan for the day is met, otherwise they do not.

Habituation, De-habituation and Sensitization

Habituation Adaptation to a recurrent impulse. Intensity of reaction decreases with repetition. (Though no habituation to pain) Contact lenses, tactile impulses of clothing
De-habituation “Weaning from habituation” Recurrence of the reaction after habituation through an interspersed, different impulse If the permanent siren sound of an ambulance suddenly changes, then we notice the already faded out sound again
Sensitization Opposite of Habituation. Increase in reaction intensity, which increases with repetition

Clinical Reference: Application of Learning Models in Therapies

Step 1: development of fear

Behavior therapy is especially used with anxiety disorder (phobia). Classical conditioning processes play a major role with the development of fear, whereas sustainability is achieved by operant conditioning. The linking of stimulus and reaction (such as fear of black cars, winding up in an accident) can be sustained for years through avoiding the anxiety-inducing stimulus.

Step 2: analysis of behavior

A therapist would create an analysis of behavior with the SORCC-Model. Here with the example of fear of black cars.

S Stimulus Sight of black cars O Organism Negative experience with black cars in childhood R Reaction Strong anxiety, avoidance, stimulus control C Contingency Power of the connection between R and C C Consequence Easing of fear through avoidance (negative reinforcement)

If the therapist makes a clear diagnosis with regard to the circumstances of the fear, he will try to initiate a behavior modification. Erasing of fear can be achieved if the affected person confronts the object of fear and recognizes that it doesn’t pose any danger. To this end, confrontation therapies are applied.

Step 3: confrontation procedure

Systematic desensitization

The systematic desensitization describes a procedure in three steps:

  • Relaxation training:learning to consciously relax in situations of fear, e.g. with progressive muscle relaxation technique (according to Jacobson)
  • Fear hierarchy:rank situations depending on the threat level
  • Confrontation in situ or in vivo:In relaxed condition, the patient is presented with confrontation situations at various levels of the fear hierarchy until the patient can stay relaxed while being confronted with the object of fear at the highest level.


Stimulus saturation is no stepwise process, but presents a sudden, intense confrontation with the object of fear/situation of fear. Flooding shall prove to the afflicted person that there’s no real danger to expect from the stimulus.


Cognition is perceived (lat. cognoscere = experience, recognize) as the complex comprising perception, consciousness, thinking, recognition, and memory.

Attention and perception

Attention: Hightened vigilance and selective focus of perception, thinking, and action = condition of intense consciousness

Perception: We gain information about outside and inner world through perception. Exteroception is the term for perception of the environment through the senses and interoception the inner perception of own physiological processes.

Perception can be selective, strengthened, subliminal, or impaired. Perception disorders include:

  • Agnosia: sensory organs are intact, patient however is unable to recognize the perception (e.g. „apple“ is described as a round red thing)
  • Prosopagnosia: faces can’t be recognized


Multistore model

Memory is able to save information (encoding) and later to reproduce (decoding) or  recognize it. We distinguish sensory memory, short-term and long-term memory. Keeping information is called retention.

    • Sensory memory (ultra-short-term memory): visual impulses of the environment are saved in the iconographic memory for one second, auditory information in the echoic memory for two seconds
  • Short-term memory:„interstation“, a part of the information is taken out of the sensory memory and if necessary transferred to the long-term memory: 7 +/- 2 elements can be kept up to 20 seconds
  • Long-term memory: retention for minutes to years

Subdivision of the Long-term Memory

Note: The episodic memory is responsible for the knowledge about our own periods of life, the semantic memory is our memory for facts.

Amnesia and Memory Disorders

Most important forms of amnesia

Anterograde amnesia Memory gaps in the period after the harmful incident (e.g. Polytrauma)
Retrograde amnesia Memory gaps in the period before the harmful incident
Dissociative amnesia Sudden inability to remember (mostly upsetting) incidents or information

Most important memory disorders

  • Korsakow-Syndrome: persistent amnesicdisorder caused by alcoholism, marked with extreme confusion, neurologic abnormalities and  confabulation (memory gaps are re-recorded with imaginary stories)
  • Dementia:Loss of brain functions including memory. Reasons of dementia can be alcohol, drug abuse, or brain lesions like strokes. The degenerative disease of Alzheimer‘s makes up the bulk of dementia
  • Perseveration:Persistence on certain memory contents, repetition of thoughts, language contents (Reason: fatigue, drugs, degenerative)

Speech and speech disorders

We use language for interpersonal communication of thoughts, desires and feelings and hereby use many symbols. Broca-Area und Wernicke-Area are responsible for language generation and speech comprehension. Central speech disorders are called aphasia. We talk about global aphasia if both, speech comprehension and language production are impaired.

Function Localization Aphasia
Broca-Area Language production Frontal convolutions of the dominant hemisphere (on the left side for right handers) Motor, expressive aphasia (speech comprehension is intact)
Wernicke-Area Speech comprehension Parietal frontal lobe of the dominant hemisphere Sensory, recipient aphasia (speech comprehension is impaired)
Broca’s and Wernicke’s Areas

Image: “Broca’s and Wernicke’s Areas” by Phil Schatz. License: CC BY 4.0

Popular Exam Questions Regarding Learning and Memory

The answer key is located below the references.

1. The phenomenon of confabulation is observed with alcohol-addicted patients. What does this term mean?

  1. The patient can’t recognize the faces of friends who visit him.
  2. A contrived and incorrect explanation of the differential stimulation of left and right cerebral hemisphere in order to make sense of the contradictory reactions.
  3. Exuberant, uncontrollable language generation with numerous neologisms.
  4. Persistence with one topic with many linguistic and content-related repetitions.
  5. Impaired speech comprehension caused by a lesion of the right brain hemisphere.

2. Following a polytrauma, Mrs. Z. suffers severe memory loss, especially relating to biographic contents. To her husband’s amazement she has no problem listing all 50 states of the USA. Recalling these facts proves that which of Mrs. Z.’s memory form is intact?

  1. Episodic memory
  2. Implicit memory
  3. Non-declarative memory
  4. Procedural memory
  5. Semantic memory

3. A man spends 8 hours a day playing real-time-strategy computer games and now wants to stop doing this. He gets rid of his entire computer equipment at the buyback center. Which behavioral therapy technique is he most likely applying?

  1. Exposition
  2. Cognitive restructuring
  3. Self-strengthening
  4. Shaping
  5. Stimulus-control

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