12.1 Essential ideas

12.1.4b Innate and learned behaviour 2 (HL)

Learning involves forming and strengthening associations between regions in the brain.

Reflex conditioning involves forming new associations

  • Reflex conditioning is a form of learning in which behaviour is elicited by a stimulus that previously had no effect.
  • Here is an example. Imagine you eat a certain food and then get sick because of the flu. You may develop a dislike for the food and feel nauseated whenever you smell it, even though the food was not the cause of your illness.
  • Can you identify the unconditioned stimulus, unconditioned response, conditioned stimulus and conditioned response in the example above? 

Fig 12.1.4b-a reflex conditioning

Figure 12.1.4b/a – Reflex conditioning
Reflex conditioning results in new neural associations.

Application: Pavlov’s experiments into reflex conditioning

  • Ivan Pavlov was a Russian behaviourist who studied reflex conditioning in dogs in the 1890s.
  • He found that the salivary reflex could be conditioned by stimuli of varying types and strength, including bells, whistles or flashes of light. 

Figure 12.1.4b/b – Reflex conditioning in Pavlov’s dogsFigure 12.1.4b/b – Reflex conditioning in Pavlov’s dogs

Operant conditioning is learning from trial and error experience

  • Operant, or instrumental, conditioning occurs when an animal learns to associate a behaviour with negative or positive consequences, i.e. by trial and error.
  • When the consequence of a behaviour is positive, the behaviour increases. For example, a rat in a Skinner box learns to get food by pushing a lever.
  • When the consequence of a behaviour is negative, the behaviour decreases. For example, cows learn to avoid the electric fence around their enclosures after being shocked.

Fig 12.1.4b-c operant conditioning

Figure 12.1.4b/c – Operant behaviour
Reward strengthens behaviour and punishment weakens behaviour in operant conditioning.

  • Operant conditioning is the most common form of learning in animals.

Imprinting occurs at a particular life stage and is independent of consequences

  • Imprinting is irreversible phase-sensitive learning that occurs during a critical period in the early stages of life.
  • Filial imprinting of chicks is an example. Goslings and ducklings learn to follow their mothers, who will lead and protect them in the first weeks of life.
  • In the 1930s, Konrad Lorenz discovered that the stimulus for filial imprinting is movement. When hatched in isolation from their mothers, the young birds he studied followed the first moving object they encountered during the critical period of 13–16 hours after hatching.
  • Imprinted hatchlings continue to follow their ‘mothers’ even if it puts their lives in danger.

Memory is the process of encoding, storing or accessing information

  • Encoding is the first step of memory formation.
  • The physiology of memory is not well understood. The current model is that encoding and storage of memory involves the persistent strengthening of synapses. This is an example of neural plasticity. 
  • Research on patients with damage to the hippocampus indicates that the hippocampus (see figure 12.1.4b/d) is necessary for new memory formation.
  • Studies with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) indicate that many different regions of the cerebral cortex are involved in the storage of long-term memory and that the pre-frontal cortex is active when memories are recalled.

Figure 12.1.4b/d – The hippocampus is necessary for encoding new memoriesFigure 12.1.4b/d – The hippocampus is necessary for encoding new memories 

Fig 12.1.4b/e – Skinner box

Fig 12.1.4b/e – Skinner box
B.F. Skinner (1904–90), an American physiologist and behaviourist, studied operant conditioning in rats in a box with levers and buttons, now known as a Skinner box.


Figure 12.1.4b/f – Principal Skinner
‘Principal Skinner’, a character from the popular television series, The Simpsons, is a namesake of the famous behaviourist.

Key questions

  • Compare reflex conditioning with operant conditioning, using examples.
  • Discuss the roles of innate and learned behaviour in imprinting.

12.1.4b/g Konrad Lorenz

Figure 12.1.4b/g – Konrad Lorenz
Konrad Lorenz (1903–89) being followed by imprinted greylag geese, Anser anser

Figure 12.1.4b/h - Pavlos apparatus

Figure 12.1.4b/h – Pavlos apparatus

Science and Social Responsibility (Aim 8)

Pavlov’s experiments involved presenting dogs with food, then withholding the feeding. The behaviourist approach to reflex conditioning borders on the unethical.

Further reading

The ethics of important studies in the history of behavioural psychology, such as the Stanford Prison experiment, are still being discussed today.

12.1.4b/i smell memoryFigure 12.1.4b/i – Smell memory

Food for thought

The amygdala is important for mediating emotion. The hippocampus, amygdala and olfactory bulbs are located on the temporal lobe. Have you ever noticed that certain smells evoke strong emotional memories?

Course link

Memory is thought to rely on long-term potentiation of synapses. Learn more in 12.1.5.