In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Learning Theory

  • Introduction
  • Books
  • Journals
  • Biological Constraints on Learning
  • Extinction
  • Cognitive Factors and Comparative Cognition
  • Applications

Psychology Learning Theory
Mark E. Bouton, Geoffrey Hall
  • LAST REVIEWED: 30 October 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 October 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199828340-0252


For over a century, psychologists have been conducting experimental studies, largely with nonhuman animals, in order to establish general principles of learning and behavior. In everyday usage, the term “learning” refers to the acquisition of new information or new skills. But psychologists often have a wider interpretation, taking learning to refer to almost any fairly permanent change in an animal’s behavior, or potential for behavior, that results from experience. Learning is the process whereby an animal interacts with its environment and becomes changed by the experience so that its further behavior is modified. “Learning theory” refers to the attempt to devise an account of the mechanisms responsible for this process of individual adaptation. The data it deals with are largely, but not exclusively, derived from experimental studies of the behavior of nonhuman animals, tested in controlled conditions. The last century, starting with the pioneering work of Pavlov (on classical conditioning) and of Thorndike (on instrumental learning), saw the development of a range of rival learning theories that are still of present-day concern. The dominant theoretical perspective may be termed associative (or alternatively, connectionist); it explains learning in terms of the formation of hypothetical links (presumed to be in the central nervous system) between entities representing external events or responsible for the emission of behavior. This central notion has been extended by theorists who emphasize the role of motivational factors that activate such links, or who postulate a wider range of psychological processes (conveniently labeled cognitive: e.g., attention, rehearsal), with association formation given a lesser role. Finally, some have rejected not just the notion of association but all postulation of central psychological processes. This atheoretical “theory,” referred to as radical behaviorism or the experimental analysis of behavior, is primarily associated with the name of Skinner and focuses on instrumental learning (also called operant conditioning). Although learning theories have been derived principally from work on laboratory animals, they are intended to be applicable more generally. Their findings and concepts are relevant to understanding the psychology of domestic and wild animals in their natural habitats and thus contribute to the growing field of research known as animal cognition. They also apply to the behavior of our own species. Experimental studies of human subjects, based on paradigms developed with animals, can thus be used to test and develop our theories. More important, the methods and findings of learning theory have direct application to issues of human concern. Proponents of the experimental analysis of behavior have promoted the use of training procedures involving positive reinforcement for addressing a number of behavior disorders and as the basis for education more generally. Theoretical concepts developed in the associative tradition have been used to illuminate the source of (and possible treatments for) clinical problems such as anxiety disorders and drug addiction.


Bouton 2016, Domjan 2010, Pearce 2008, and Mazur 2013 are textbooks aimed primarily at undergraduate or postgraduate students of psychology. They have been chosen from a wider field on the grounds that all are clear, accurate, and well constructed. To some extent, which is preferred is a matter of personal taste. Mackintosh 1983 and Gallistel 1990 are more advanced, aimed at the researcher rather than the student, and reflect the theoretical bias or perspective of their authors. Mackintosh 1994, McSweeney and Murphy 2014, and Murphy and Honey 2016 are edited books that contain contributions from a wide range of authors and thus provide a genuine overview of the state of research in the areas tackled. All of these books cover the major topics described so far but with the biases indicated in their titles.

  • Bouton, M. E. 2016. Learning and behavior: A contemporary synthesis. 2d ed. Sunderland, MA: Sinauer.

    A text for advanced undergraduates or graduate students, concentrating (although not exclusively) on the central topics of learning theory (i.e., classical and operant conditioning) and taking the reader to the edge of research in these areas.

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

    Covers much the same material as Bouton 2016, with perhaps a little less depth and with more space given to discussion of cognitive processes.

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

    Gallistel takes learning to be the process by which a nervous system forms representations of space, time, and number, and it extends this “computational-representational” approach to cover conditioning phenomena (denying a role for association formation as traditionally understood).

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

    This book provides a definitive statement of the associative analysis of learning as it stood toward the end of the 20th century (much of which still holds). It focuses exclusively on traditional laboratory conditioning procedures.

  • Mackintosh, N. J., ed. 1994. Handbook of perception and cognition. Vol. 9: Animal learning and cognition. San Diego, CA: Academic Press.

    Covers the major topics discussed so far but also includes material on human associative learning and aspects of animal cognition (e.g., on social cognition and language in primates).

  • Mazur, J. E. 2013. Learning and behavior. 7th ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall.

    Gives a fuller coverage than other undergraduate texts of aspects of operant conditioning of the sort studied by Skinner and his successors.

  • McSweeney, F. K., and E. S. Murphy, eds. 2014. The Wiley Blackwell handbook of operant and classical conditioning. Chichester, UK: John Wiley.

    Although there is coverage of topics in classical conditioning, the emphasis here is on operant conditioning.

  • Murphy, R. A., and R. C. Honey, eds. 2016. The Wiley handbook on the cognitive neuroscience of learning. Chichester, UK: Wiley Blackwell.

    The focus is again on conditioning procedures, but each chapter includes information on attempts to determine the cerebral/neural basis of the behavioral phenomena that are described.

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

    Less advanced than Bouton 2016 but wider ranging than the other undergraduate textbooks listed (discussing, e.g., social learning, mechanism of animal navigation, the evolution of animal intelligence, as well as basic processes of classical and operant conditioning).

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