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6 Types of Learned Behavior and Why Some Are So Hard to Change

What is a learned behavior?

Learned behavior is one that is not innate, instinctive or “canalized” but rather is acquired through practice or a specific experience with an external event.

Scientists and psychologists believe that the human ability to learn is an evolutionary adaptation that allows us to adjust to changing environments on a short-term basis.

Learned behavior vs innate behavior

In the past, animal behaviors were studied and theorized without taking into account the knowledge of the nervous system development and structure​1​.

Under the traditional view, innate behavior is programmed by genes, and learned behavior is a more recent development that is much more complex, and costly in terms of genetic code​2​.

This innate vs. learned behavior distinction in human beings has been extensively discredited in recent years (although psychology textbooks may not mention this).

Scientists no longer separate them into two distinct categories of behavior. Rather, behavior varies from being independent of learning to being highly dependent on it​3​.

Innate behaviors, or instinctive learning, are canalized, meaning that they do not rely as heavily on learning, whereas learned behaviors are primarily the result of previous experience.

Since learning is a fundamental property of all central nervous systems, learned behavior does not require more neurons, more DNA, or is more costly genetically than strongly canalized behavior​4​.

son mimics dad putting shaving cream on face

Types of learned behavior based on cognition

Learning can be categorized in many different ways. Here, we will look at the types of learning controlled by different systems inside the human brain.

Learned behavior can be controlled by reflective or reflexive systems. These systems result in two types of learning behaviors – cognitive learning and habitual learning.

Cognitive learning

Cognitive learning involves deliberate evaluation of the environment to reflectively acquire a skilled behavior. It uses the relationship between multiple cues in the environment to build a cognitive map. 

This type of learning is flexible, but requires more cognitive resources because it uses complex strategies to build an internal model of the environment that allows planning of future actions.

When a child first learns to ride a bicycle, they must pay close attention to their bodies and coordinate their foot and arm movements to stay balanced. The bikers must consciously adjust their body balancing strategies as the road condition changes or as they approach a turn to prevent them from falling.

Learning to ride a bike is a good example of cognitive learning.

Habitual learning

Habitual learning is formed through a learning process called conditioning.

When an action is repeatedly paired with an outcome, habituation forms. A habitual type of behavior can form in two different types of conditioning process.

If the particular behavior is voluntary, i.e. the person can control it, the learning is called operant conditioning or instrumental conditioning. Operant conditioning, proposed by psychologist B.F. Skinner, creates associated learning by applying reinforcement or punishment to cause a voluntary response.

If the action is an involuntary behavioral response, then the process is called classical conditioning. Discovered by Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov, classical conditioning associates a neutral stimulus with an unconditioned response to cause an instinctive response involuntarily.

Habitual form of learning resulting from conditioning, operant or classical, is inflexible. It uses rigid strategies driven by past experiences​5​.

Through regular practice, a child can habituate the act of riding a bike and do it reflexively without having to think much about it.

Types of learning based on consciousness

Conscious learning

Conscious learning is explicit knowledge acquisition. The learner knows that they are receiving and incorporating new information.

Paying attention to a lecture and absorbing new information is an example of conscious learning.

Unconscious learning

Unconscious learning is implicit knowledge acquisition. The learner may not be aware that they are acquiring and retaining new knowledge in their memories​6​.

Unconscious form of learning occurs when a child watches their parents swear and does not realize that they have learned it.

Types of learning based on perspective

Individual learning (Enactive learning)

Individual learning involves direct interaction with the environment to experience the difference between predicted outcomes and actual outcomes. Individuals must understand through their own actions and outcomes (trial and error)​7​.

Individual learning occurs when a toddler interacts with a new toy she’s never seen before. She needs to touch different parts and push the various buttons to find out how it responds.

Observational learning

Observational learning does not require direct interaction. People acquire new knowledge from watching others’ observable behavior. This type of learning involves imitation​8​ and social learning​9​.

In sports, motor skill learning occurs through observation. The instructors teach by demonstrating and the learners copy what they observe​10​.

Learning and the brain

Understanding how the brain interacts with the learning process can shed light on many facets of human’s unhealthy behavior.

Phobia and anxiety disorders

In fear conditioning, neutral environmental stimuli are linked to aversive outcomes to form unconscious learning.

Psychologist John Watson conducted an infamous experiment to illustrate this type of associated learning. In the experiment, each time little Albert was shown a white rat, he was startled by a loud noise. With time, the baby learned to fear the sound and wanted to avoid it​11​. The learning was habitual and unconscious.

Fear conditioning is thought to be the basis for many types of phobia and anxiety disorders in humans​12​.

Mental disorders

Stress can shift the cognitive type of human behavior toward the habitual type​13​.

During threatening situations, this shift conserves cognitive resources and prevents hesitations or delays in decision-making, which makes it a highly adaptive trait. However, it sacrifices flexibility and cognitive capability​14​.

Since repetition can also turn a learned behavior into a habit, chronic stress, especially during critical periods of brain development, can result in this shift even when one is not under any immediate danger​15​.

Inability to switch off habitual responses triggered by stress plays an important role in mental disorders, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and relapse into addiction or obsessive-compulsive disorders (OCD)​16​.

Childhood aggression and adult criminality

Children can develop aggressive behavior in a variety of ways. According to social learning theory, an early exposure to aggression is one of the most common ways a child learns to act antagonistically.

Through such experiences, a child may unconsciously acquire aggressive scripts through both individual and observational learning. These scripts encourage aggression in the child and guide their social behavior later in life.

Aggressive responses may be triggered by environmental cues and become habitual if repeated often enough.  Unless dampened, this cumulative learning process can lead to persistent aggressive behavior in adulthood​17​.

Resistance to punishment

Stress can shift children’s learning strategy from cognitive to habitual and inflexible. This may contribute to why punishment-based discipline rarely works.

Stress caused by punishment can make children’s behavioral approaches habitual, inflexible, and difficult to change.

Also See: Vicarious Learning, Vicarious Reinforcement


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