Learning Theory


What is it?

Two of the most prominent theories of human behaviour are Classical Conditioning and Operant Conditioning (Thorndike 1898; Skinner 1953). Although conceived over 100 years ago, these theories remain among the most influential and useful in understanding human behaviour—and how to change it.

Classical Conditioning

Classical Conditioning describes the phenomenon where an unconditioned stimulus becomes associated with a conditioned stimulus to elicit a certain response. In Pavlov’s early trials, the unconditioned stimulus was food, and the conditioned stimulus was a bell (that Pavlov sounded in association with the food). After several pairing trials, Pavlov identified the response was salivation in his dogs. The result was that ultimately the bell by itself, in the absence of food, elicited the same salivation response.

Operant Conditioning

Operant Conditioning states that behaviours are more or less likely to occur depending on the consequences of that behaviour. Two of the main components of Operant Conditioning are reinforcement and punishment. Reinforcement can be either positive or negative – both of which are designed to promote more of the behaviour occurring. Positive reinforcement refers to the presentation of a positive (desirable) stimulus following certain behaviour. Negative reinforcement refers to the removal of an aversive stimulus following the behaviour. Punishment is different to reinforcement as it is designed to reduce rates of behaviour, not increase it. Like reinforcement, punishment can be either positive or negative.

Why is this theory important for behaviour change?

Learning theory provides a framework for responding to both desirable and undesirable behaviours in an attempt to consciously shape behaviour. The theory is simple and stands the test of time. Reinforcers and punishers can be a simple, yet powerful way to influence how one behaves.

Knowledge of reinforcement is useful more generally for behaviour change as it can be used to understand why a person is currently behaving as they are. When helping to enable behaviour change, it is therefore important to think about what reinforces might exist in a person’s environment.

At the core of everything that is behaviour change, is some form of stimuli or consequence.


How could you apply this theory?

Behaviour can be shaped using these techniques. The ability to apply these techniques is far reaching. The types of reinforcements and punishments can vary widely, from verbal praise or reprimand to tangible rewards or aversive stimuli. The intensity of the reinforcement and punishment can also vary widely.

Example of theory applied

In the cane industry, a grower receiving public praise and acknowledgement for becoming accredited in BMP would be an example of positive reinforcement. An example of negative reinforcement in the cane industry would be a reduction of the threat of further regulation being imposed upon growers as a result of increasing rates of BMP adoption. An example of positive punishment would be to impose a fine on growers who fail to adopt BMP. Negative punishment would be to remove the choice growers have in determining how much Nitrogen they can apply in fertilising their cane fields as a result of failing to be accredited in BMP.


Pavlov, IP 1927, Conditional Reflexes, Dover Publications, New York.

Thorndike, EL 1898, ‘Animal intelligence: An experimental study of the associative processes in animals’, The Psychological Review: Monograph Supplements, vol. 2, pp. i-109.

Skinner BF 1953, Science and human behaviour, Macmillan, New York.


Related Concepts

Social Cognitive Theory

Observational Learning


Vygotsky's Social Development

Lave's Situated Learning Theory