Select your language

Suggested languages for you:
Log In Start studying!
StudySmarter - The all-in-one study app.
4.8 • +11k Ratings
More than 3 Million Downloads
Free
|
|

All-in-one learning app

  • Flashcards
  • NotesNotes
  • ExplanationsExplanations
  • Study Planner
  • Textbook solutions
Start studying

Learning Theory

Save Save
Print Print
Edit Edit
Sign up to use all features for free. Sign up now
Learning Theory

The learning theory's approach to attachment is based on the principles of classical and operant conditioning, a behaviourist approach. We have looked at these in more depth in previous articles, so let's quickly recap the definitions of these key terms.

Classical Conditioning was first demonstrated in the famous Pavlov's Dogs experiment and is where an individual begins to associate a neutral stimulus (something that is not associated with anything else) with an unconditioned response.

Operant Conditioning is the idea that some conditioning occurs through reinforcement. This can be either positive or negative. If someone receives a reward after performing a behaviour, they are more likely to repeat the behaviour later on to receive the reward, which is positive reinforcement. Similarly, negative reinforcement is where the reward for performing the behaviour comes in the form of the removal of an unpleasant stimulus.

Learning theory implies that the attachment a child or baby feels to their parent (usually the mother) is based mostly on the associations the child makes with the mother. So, a mother providing food causes the food to be associated with the mother, and it is in the child's best interest to attach to this figure in order to ensure their survival.

 Learning Theory, Mother and Child, StudySmarterMother and child, flaticon.com/photo3idea_studio

Behaviourist learning theory

Behaviourist learning theory uses a few key assumptions.

These are:

  • Knowledge is a set of behaviours that we learn through experience and reinforcement
  • Motivation is extrinsic, meaning that it comes from outside sources rather than within the individual.
  • Learning occurs through repetition and reinforcement.

Behaviourist learning theory is based on the work of Ivan Pavlov and B.F. Skinner. These psychologists both conducted animal experiments. In these, they found that the animals they tested seemed to learn behaviours based on whether or not they were positively reinforced, usually using food as a reward. Behaviourists believe that this applies both to humans and animals, in that the distinction between how we learn is not as obvious as we like to believe.

Research concerning behaviour in animals can therefore be somewhat generalisable to humans, including the cases of attachment.

Learning Theory, Dog being Petted, StudySmarterDog being petted, flaticon.com/Freepik

Behaviourist learning theory of attachment

We can use behaviourist learning theory to explain attachment. This theory suggests that we learn attachment behaviours in infancy due to reinforcement from our parents, such as through providing food and comfort. This is an example of how operant conditioning principles can be applied to understand how infants learn attachments.

An example of this is that when a baby is hungry they will usually cry and feel discomfort and their mother is likely to comfort them. This is a form of negative reinforcement as it removes the negative feelings. In future cases when the baby experiences these negative feelings they will continue to seek their mother to fulfil their needs. Over time, this will lead them to form a bond. Moreover, when a baby seeks attention from its mother then she may play with the baby. This is a favourable outcome that the baby would want to re-occur. Therefore, they would repeat the behaviour. This is known as positive reinforcement. This can also contribute to the development of a quality infant-mother attachment.

The principles of operant conditioning suggest that individuals are likely to repeat the behaviour if they are reinforced. This is so that they can continue to feel the rewards (positive reinforcement) or remove something that is negative (negative reinforcement).

The other behaviourist theory, classical conditioning, explains the formation of infant-caregiver attachment styles as a result of a child learning to associate their caregiver with a conditioned response.

Before the baby has formed an attachment with its mother, the baby thinks that food (unconditional stimuli) causes that automatic response of pleasure from eating (unconditional response). During this period, the mother is a neutral stimulus. Over time, as the mother repetitively provides food for the baby, the baby forms an association between their mother and being provided food. This leads to the formation of an attachment as the child begins to associate that their mother (becomes the conditioned stimuli) provides them with the food that makes them happy (conditioned response). The infant feels happy each time they see their mother because of the learned association.

Learning theory of attachment research

Psychologists have carried out research to identify the factors such as parenting styles (parent versus nanny) and maternal comfort versus food that contribute to the formation of attachments.

Harlow (1958) carried out two experiments with the aim to identify what caused the formation of attachments.

  • Experiment 1 - infant rhesus monkeys were separated from their mothers at birth. They were placed in cages at birth with two 'surrogate mothers'. One of these was made from wire and the other was covered in a soft cloth.
    1. in one group, the surrogate soft mother provided no food but the wired mother did (attached with a milk bottle)
    2. in the second group, the soft surrogate mother provided the rhesus monkeys with food but the wired mother did not
      • Results: both groups spent more time with the soft mother. Once infants in the first group had their food they returned to close proximity of the soft surrogate mother. When the infants were scared they would use the soft mother as a safe base and stay close to it.
  • Experiment 2 - infant monkeys were split into two groups. They either received food from the soft surrogate mother or from the wired surrogate mother. With the exception of this, they were reared in the same conditions.
    • there were clear behavioural differences between the two groups
      • Infants in the wired monkey groups were shyer, had difficulties interacting with others and the females did not become good mothers.

    • infants who were in these experimental conditions for less than 90 days, these behavioural differences could be reversed once returning to a normal condition. This was not the case for monkeys who stayed in the conditions for longer than 90 days

Harlow's, behavioural psychologist research emphasises how maternal conditions such as the comfort that they provide play an important role in forming attachments.

Harlow (1965) carried out another experiment. The study involved completely isolating newborn rhesus monkeys. They were isolated up until either, three, six, nine months or the first year of their life. They were then moved into an environment with other monkeys to see if they could form attachments. The results found that infants who were secluded for the first three months did not show severe side effects. The monkeys who were isolated for the first year had serious side effects that were irreversible.

Some behaviours that were observed include:

  • difficulties interacting with other monkeys
  • some were initially scared but then started acting aggressively
  • some engaged in self-harm such as pulling their own hairs out or biting themselves
  • became anxious and some neurotic
  • when some female monkeys became parents they harmed their own infants

This research highlights that the initial attachments formed guide how individuals interact with others in the future. If monkeys do not form an attachment (this is called privation) then this has long-term, irreversible consequences. Furthermore, this research supports that primary attachments are time-sensitive. This is known as the critical period.

There are serious ethical issues raised in this research. This research cannot be replicated because of the serious physical and psychological harm it caused.

Fox (1977) carried out research on Isralean children using the strange situation.

The strange situation was a procedure formed by Ainsworth to identify what attachment styles children had with their primary caregiver.

In Israel children are reared in a Kibbutz therefore, they are used to being separated from their mother and spending time with their metapelet (nanny). The results from the strange situation showed similar attachment styles between both their mother and metapelet when left with a stranger. Children were slightly happier when reunited with their mothers.

As children were happier to see their mothers rather than their metapelets at the reunion this may support that the children have formed an unconditional response of happiness with their mothers.

This supports the classical conditional theory of attachment styles.

Cognitive constructivist learning theory

Cognitive constructivist theories state that children learn by actively constructing knowledge based on their existing cognitive abilities.

For example, research by Jean Piaget (1936) found that children can only learn certain skills as they develop through stages that are associated with different age groups, building up their skills stage on each stage.

An example of these stages is the sensorimotor stage, in which children learn through their senses and movement. In this stage children only have certain cognitive abilities, an example of this being that they don't yet understand the concept of object permanence (they believe that when they can't see something, it ceases to exist), however as they get older and they develop new cognitive abilities, they can construct more knowledge using this.

As children grow, they build upon the abilities they learn at each stage to reach the next one and develop at an age-appropriate level.

Learning theory, Children Playing, StudySmarterChildren playing together, flaticon.com/Freepik

Cognitive constructivist theory in attachment

In attachment, we can see cognitive constructivist concepts within the theory of attachment stages by Schaffer and Emerson (1964). This theory suggests that, much like Piaget's stages of cognitive development, children go through different cognitive stages of development that characterize how their attachments develop in the first year of life.

Through self-report 'diaries' completed by the mothers of 60 babies, Schaffer and Emerson used analysis of three attachment behaviours (stranger anxiety, separation anxiety and secure base behaviour) similar to those in Ainsworth's Strange Situation Experiment to determine the attachment behaviours of children at different stages of life.

These were the stages they defined:

  1. Asocial (0-6 weeks) - Infants tend to react favourably to all kinds of stimuli, regardless of whether it is social or not.
  2. Indiscriminate attachments (6 weeks - 7 months) - Infants seem to enjoy social interaction and respond positively to all caregivers with no real preference. They also seem to become upset when social interaction stops (e.g., their mother puts them down in their cot and stops talking to them). During this stage, they begin to smile more at familiar faces than strangers.
  3. Specific attachment (7-9 months) - Infants begin to show a preference for their primary caregiver and look to specific familiar people for comfort, security and biological needs. This is when they begin to show separation anxiety (fear when away from their caregiver) and stranger anxiety (fear when around unknown people).
  4. Multiple attachments (10 months onwards) - Infants have now formed multiple attachments with their primary caregivers as well other people in their lives such as siblings, grandparents and nursery staff. Attachments seem to be structured in a hierarchy, where some attachments may be stronger or weaker than others.

Learning theory, Family, StudySmarterFamily, flaticon.com/Freepik

Social constructivist learning theory

Social constructivist theory is based on the assumption that knowledge is constructed socially and people learn through reinforcement from peers in their lives in order to be socially accepted. The theory suggests that we learn through both extrinsic and intrinsic motivations, meaning that some come from external sources, and some from our own internal drives and goals.

Social constructivist theory in attachment

An example of a social constructivist theory is that of Lev Vygotsky (1934). Vygotsky's theory of development states that learning is a social process in which children acquire cultural knowledge, customs, beliefs and rules by learning from more mature members of the same culture. In attachment, this can be seen in differences between attachment types across cultures.

For example, a meta-analysis conducted by Van Ijzendoorn and Kroonenberg (1988) examined the results of 32 studies across 8 countries, which investigated attachment types based on Ainsworth's Strange Situation Experiment. These were some of their findings;

  • The UK had the highest percentage of securely attached children, whilst China had the lowest. This is not, however, due to 'bad parenting' in China, instead, it is believed to be simply due to the largely different child-rearing practices within the two countries, and the fact that they are being measured against eurocentric standards.
  • Japan and Israel had the highest number of resistantly attached children in comparison to avoidant children.

The researchers concluded the low levels of cross-cultural differences between some countries may be due to the influences of media, as parenting is often portrayed similarly across different media sources.

Overall, the idea that there are cultural differences in attachment types across cultures supports Vygotsky's hypothesis that learning, and therefore the learning of attachment behaviours, is dependent on the sociocultural context in which a child grows up.

Learning Theory - Key takeaways

  • Learning theory explanations of attachment are often based on the principles of classical and operant conditioning
  • There are three types of learning theory, behaviourist, social constructivist and cognitive constructivist.
  • Behaviourist learning theory suggests that we learn attachment behaviours in infancy due to reinforcement from our parents, such as food and comfort.
  • Harlow carried out a series of experiments to identify whether infants formed attachments based on maternal comfort rather than as a source who simply provides food.
    • Furthermore, Harlow later investigated the effects of privation.
  • Social constructivist theory suggests that knowledge is constructed socially, where people learn through reinforcement from peers and other people in their lives in order to be socially accepted.
  • Cognitive constructivist theory suggests that children go through different cognitive stages of development that characterize how their attachments develop in the first year of life.

Frequently Asked Questions about Learning Theory

Social learning theory is the idea that our knowledge comes from what we learn from others around us, either by observing them or copying them and having that behaviour reinforced. 

The four theories of learning are classical conditioning, operant conditioning, cognitive learning theory and social learning theory.

 Learning theory is an important theory as it helps us to understand how we acquire the behaviors and thought patterns that we have, which can help us to achieve goals and help correct detrimental behaviors and thoughts.

Learning theory is a behaviorist theory that suggests that we learn our behaviours through the processes of classical and operant conditioning. Other theories include the constructivist learning theory and the social constructivist learning theory. 

The learning theory of attachment is based on the behaviourist approach, adopting the idea that attachment is formed between a child and their parent based on classical and operant conditioning. 

Final Learning Theory Quiz

Question

What approach is learning theory based on?

Show answer

Answer

Behaviourism

Show question

Question

What is classical conditioning?

Show answer

Answer

Where an individual begins to associate a neutral stimulus (something that is not associated with anything else) with an unconditioned response. An example of this could be when you hear a phone ring and automatically check your phone even if it's on silent, because you have been conditioned to associate that sound with your phone ringing.

Show question

Question

What is operant conditioning?


Show answer

Answer

The idea that some conditioning occurs through reinforcement. This can be either positive or negative. An example of this could be when a child who has a toy taken away for refusing to eat dinner, they are more likely to eat their dinner next time to avoid the unpleasant consequence of losing a toy.

Show question

Question

 What is Extrinsic motivation?


Show answer

Answer

Motivation that comes from external sources, such as wanting to get a good grade in anticipation of getting a reward.

Show question

Question

What is intrinsic motivation?


Show answer

Answer

Motivation that comes from ourselves, such as wanting to get a good grade simply because you want to do well.

Show question

Question

Give an example of reinforcement in attachment


Show answer

Answer

When a baby is hungry, they realise that their mother will feed them and help remove the unpleasant feeling of hunger, which encourages them to seek out their mother.

Show question

Question

Who conducted a meta-analysis on cultural differences in attachment?


Show answer

Answer

Pavlov & Skinner

Show question

Question

What does behaviorist learning theory suggest?


Show answer

Answer

Behaviorist learning theory suggests that we learn attachment behaviors in infancy due to reinforcement from our parents, such as food and comfort.

Show question

Question

What does the social constructivist learning theory suggest?

Show answer

Answer

The social constructivist theory suggests that knowledge is constructed socially, where people learn through reinforcement from peers and other people in their lives to be socially accepted.

Show question

Question

What does cognitive constructivist learning theory suggest?

Show answer

Answer

Cognitive constructivist theory suggests that children go through different cognitive stages of development that characterize how their attachments develop in the first year of life.

Show question

Question

What kind of process did Vygotsky consider learning to be?


Show answer

Answer

Social

Show question

Question

How many countries did Van Izjendoorn & Kroonenberg study?


Show answer

Answer

8

Show question

Question

Which attachment stage identified by Schaffer and Emerson supports Bowlby's idea that one attachment is more important than other attachments in an infant's life?

Show answer

Answer

Specific attachment

Show question

Question

Which attachment stage identified by Schaffer and Emerson refutes Bowlby's idea that one attachment is more important than other attachments in an infant's life?


Show answer

Answer

 Multiple attachments

Show question

Question

Who conducted research into cognitive stages of development concerning learning?


Show answer

Answer

Jean Piaget

Show question

60%

of the users don't pass the Learning Theory quiz! Will you pass the quiz?

Start Quiz

Discover the right content for your subjects

No need to cheat if you have everything you need to succeed! Packed into one app!

Study Plan

Be perfectly prepared on time with an individual plan.

Quizzes

Test your knowledge with gamified quizzes.

Flashcards

Create and find flashcards in record time.

Notes

Create beautiful notes faster than ever before.

Study Sets

Have all your study materials in one place.

Documents

Upload unlimited documents and save them online.

Study Analytics

Identify your study strength and weaknesses.

Weekly Goals

Set individual study goals and earn points reaching them.

Smart Reminders

Stop procrastinating with our study reminders.

Rewards

Earn points, unlock badges and level up while studying.

Magic Marker

Create flashcards in notes completely automatically.

Smart Formatting

Create the most beautiful study materials using our templates.

Just Signed up?

Yes
No, I'll do it now

Sign up to highlight and take notes. It’s 100% free.