Psychology Animal Learning
Debbie Kelly
  • LAST REVIEWED: 08 May 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 November 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199828340-0073


Understanding why animals, including humans, behave as they do requires an appreciation for learning. Much of the history of animal learning has come from controlled laboratory experiments, coupled with careful field studies of natural behavior. Indeed, there are many approaches to understanding animal behavior, with equally many terms used to describe the endeavor: animal learning, animal cognition, comparative cognition, comparative ethology, and cognitive ethology, to name just a few. However, all these approaches have a foundation built on the principles of learning. Traditionally, psychological approaches to understanding animal learning have been of a general processes nature. This can be seen with the classic Pavlovian, or classical, conditioning experiments of ringing bells and salivating dogs, paradigms known to a broad audience. These principles have been advanced and refined over the years. The field of animal learning has continued to grow and influence other areas of research. The first section of this bibliography provides general Textbooks that cover the topic of animal learning (and cognition), as well as a few specialized textbooks that discuss more-complex forms of cognition. Next, a selection of peer-reviewed Journals that publish in the area of animal learning, cognition, and behavior are presented, with a brief statement of interest. Finally, the remainder provides an introduction to a few central topics of animal learning and ends with a couple of examples of how the foundational understanding of the principles of learning has been applied to the study of specific topics.


The textbooks on animal learning represent an important source for obtaining an overview of topics central to animal learning as well as more-specialized areas of research. Over the years, Domjan has provided an excellent textbook, aimed at undergraduate students, that offers a general overview of topics central to animal learning; now in its sixth edition, it has proven an excellent resource (Domjan 2010). Bouton 2007 is also a textbook directed at an undergraduate and graduate audience. This textbook focuses on the principles of learning, showing how theory and research guide our understanding of these principles. Pearce 2008 gives an introduction to the principles of learning and goes on to examine specific topics of animal cognition—for instance, navigation, imitation, and episodic memory. Papini 2008 is a textbook directed at an undergraduate or graduate audience that takes a different approach from many of the previously discussed textbooks. This textbook integrates important issues in biology and psychology, providing an excellent interdisciplinary resource. Shettleworth 2010 (as well as the previous, 1998 edition) is an excellent textbook that provides a good foundation on animal learning but goes on to examine cognition from the perspectives of comparative cognition, behavioral ecology, and ethology—an excellent synthesis of these areas. Gallistel 1990 is now a classic textbook offering an overview of learning principles, with a focus on time, number, and space. This book not only is accessible to undergraduate students but also is a strong resource for graduate students and researchers alike. Although perhaps now a bit out of date, Mackintosh 1983 is still a very strong resource for those interested in conditioning and associative learning.

  • Bouton, Mark E. 2007. Learning and behavior: A contemporary synthesis. Sunderland, MA: Sinauer.

    Aimed at midlevel to advanced undergraduate students, this textbook covers the foundational principles of learning and behavior.

  • Domjan, Michael. 2010. The principles of learning and behavior. 6th ed. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth/Cengage Learning.

    This textbook, now in its sixth edition, has proven to be a classic in the field. Written for an undergraduate audience, it focuses on the principles of learning and provides an excellent overview of theoretical and empirical research in the area.

  • Gallistel, C. R. 1990. The organization of learning. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

    This now-classic volume presents an overview of learning principles, with a focus on time, number, and space. Provides excellent coverage of the behavioral and neural basis of learning, with a strong emphasis on spatial learning. Written at the level of advanced undergraduates and graduate students, this book continues to be a valuable resource for those interested in learning.

  • Mackintosh, N. J. 1983. Conditioning and associative learning. Oxford: Clarendon.

    An account of the theories and empirical research, focusing on associative learning. This book covers issues within the areas of classical and instrumental conditioning, such as appetitive and aversive reinforcement, laws of association, and excitatory and inhibitory learning, as well as discrimination learning.

  • Papini, Mauricio R. 2008. Comparative psychology: Evolution and development of behavior. 2d ed. New York: Psychology.

    This textbook would be an excellent guide for undergraduate students of psychology and biological sciences alike. It is one of the few comparative psychology textbooks that provide a comprehensive introduction to the biological bases of cognition and evolution.

  • Pearce, John M. 2008. Animal learning and cognition: An introduction. 3d ed. Hove, UK, and New York: Psychology.

    Written for an undergraduate audience, this textbook gives a basic introduction to the main topics required to understand the principles of learning and behavior. An introduction discusses select topics within the area of animal learning and cognition.

  • Shettleworth, Sara J. 2010. Cognition, evolution, and behavior. 2d ed. Oxford and New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

    Excellent interdisciplinary coverage of the field of comparative cognition and learning, easily accessible to students and researchers from a psychology or biology background. This book presents a synthesis of knowledge of psychology, evolution, and behavior in the early 21st century. The material is written in such an integrated and clear manner, this book could be used by senior undergraduate as well as graduate students.

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