Sample Psychology Paper on Behavioral and Cognitive Learning Theories


Human learning is one of the fields in the academic community that has gathered considerable attention and various theories have been put forward to explain the concept of human learning. Behaviorism, which focuses on observable aspects of human behavior, and cognitive theories, which are concerned with the mental processes, are two of the learning theories. This paper provides a comprehensive review of the historical development, key concepts, biblical worldview, and evidence-based support, as well as educational implications of behavioral and cognitive learning theories. John B. Watson and B.F. Skinner are the prominent contributors of behaviorism and they believed that human beings are born like blank slates, which start to acquire knowledge after they start interacting with the environment. The cognitive theory, which focuses on the thought process when interacting with new information, was advanced by theorists like Jean piaget, Tolman, and Kohler. Empirical data has shown the effectiveness of these two approaches particularly in the classroom application and the treatment of psychological problems. The concept of human learning behavior is also approached differently from a biblical perspective. However, behaviorism shares most aspect with the biblical approach. The most effective theory is behaviorism because it has a unique way of defining and measuring changes in behaviors.





Behavioral and Cognitive Learning Theories


Human learning is one of the fields in the academic community that has gathered considerable attention. Learning is the acquisition and modification of knowledge, attitudes, beliefs, and values. The concept has been widely defined by scholars who hold varying views on its processes, causes, and consequences. Despite the different approaches to learning, there are various features that are consistent with all approaches. Learning involves change in behavior because learning occurs when a person is able to do something differently. Even though learning may not last forever due to factors like forgetfulness, it endures over time. Lastly, learning occurs through experience such as practice of observing others. Various theories have been put forward to explain the concept of human learning. Behaviorism, which focuses on observable aspects of human behavior, and cognitive theories, which are concerned about the thought and mental processes, are two of the learning theories. This paper outlines the historical development, key concepts, biblical worldview, and provides evidence-based support, as well as educational implications of behavioral and cognitive learning theories.

Historical Development

John B. Watson and B.F. Skinner are prominent contributors to behaviorism. Watson believed that human formed behaviors after exposure to specific stimuli that evoked certain reactions (Brown & Zhou, 2017). Watson suggested that human development should be studied in the context of observation of overt behavior instead of speculating about latent cognitive processes or subconscious motives. This view was partially inspired by Ivan Pavlov’s digestive experiment that examined the connection between salivation and stomach function: he found out that reflexes in the autonomic nervous system were closely linked to the digestive process (Brown & Zhou, 2017). Pavlov performed an experiment of classical conditioning to show how external stimuli affect the digestive process. He repeatedly rung the bell whenever he fed the experimental dogs and after a while, the researcher learnt that the action of ringing the bell alone (conditioned stimulus) caused the dogs to salivate (conditioned response) (Brown & Zhou, 2017). He also revealed that the conditioned reflex diminished if the stimulus proved “false” frequently. Skinner expanded Watson’s approach by developing a more comprehensive approach toward conditioning known as operant conditioning. This mode was based on the principle that satisfying behaviors are conditioned and while negatives ones are not. Skinner believed that humans tend to repeat actions with a positive response outcome and suppress those with negative results. Thus, operant conditioning is the reward of a desired behavior to increase the response. (Brown & Zhou, 2017). Skinner demonstrated this phenomenon using a rat that continuously presses a bar each time it receives a food pellet. He concluded that if the rat had been shocked each time it pushed the bar, it would have stopped.

The study of cognitive theory of learning began in the 1920s when Kohler, in his book Mentality of Apes, reported observations, which indicated that animals could demonstrate insightful behavior. This concept was termed as the Gestalt theory. The Gestalt theory assumes that a stimulus is only meaningful basing on the cognitive organization of an individual. Therefore, true learning occurs only when a person perceives new relationship with the subject. For instance, if an individual does not understand how to use a laundry machine, learning or insight will not occur until he/she figures out the machine’ function.  In 1948, Tolman demonstrated that animals have an internal representation of behavior through his project on cognitive maps, which involved training rats in mazes Ormrod, 2016). Three sets of rats ran a maze daily for several weeks in which the first set was always awarded food. On the 11th day, Tolman gave the last set of rats food, which resulted in an improved performance in the maze. This illustrated how stimuli trigger response. Jean Piaget also contributed towards the cognitive learning theory through his approach on child development. He believed that knowledge is achieved through a dynamic and evolving interaction with internal structures and the environment (Brown & Zhou, 2017). He specifically focused different cognitive developmental stages of children.

Key Concepts

Behaviorism or the behavioral learning theory is primarily concerned with observable behavior and assumes that humans learn and form behaviors through interaction with the environment (Brown & Zhou, 2017). The behaviorist definition of learning emphasizes change of behavior through stimulus-response by an individual. Since behavior is driven by stimuli, an individual chooses one response against the other(s) due to previous conditioning or the psychological forces present at the moment of the action (Brown and Zhou, 2017). By assuming that human behavior is learned, behaviorists also contend that behavior can be unlearned and replaced by acceptable ones. Behaviorism embraces the reward response, which is the process of acquiring the desired response of behavior by offering a reward. This theoretical approach has been widely applied in education to promote and suppress desirable and undesirable behaviors respectively. Some of the techniques employed include reinforcements, consequences, and behavior modification (Brown & Zhou, 2017). Reinforcement can be positive or negative. Positive reinforcement is the use of a stimulus aimed at increasing the probability of an acceptable response. For instance, praising students’ performance to parents may improve the students’ performance. Negative reinforcement, on the other hand, presents a stimulus to increase the likelihood of a response that eliminates an unpleasant behavior. For instance, a teacher can use contracts such as “students who fail in exams will be detained after school” to discourage poor performance.

The cognitive learning theory shifted away from conditioned behavior towards the processing of information. Since behaviorists ignored the internal mental processes, cognitive theorists chose to illuminate the internal processes in the mind that influence behavior (Ormrod, 2016). Instead of solely focusing on stimulus-response as proposed in behaviorism, the theory of cognitive learning intensively explores meditational process of individuals since they provide a clear understanding of human behavior. Humans are believed to be information processors like computers because they have the ability to transform, store, and retrieve information from memory (Ormrod, 2016). Cognitive theorists contend that learning includes the integration of events into an active storage system of organizational structures known as schemata. Schemata play various roles in human cognition. Besides storage of information in the long-term memory, they establish frameworks of understanding new information. Moreover, schemata organize searches of the environment, regulate attention, and “fill in the gaps” during the processing of information. Therefore, the mind selectively uses schemata to organize and process information (Ormrod, 2016).

Research Support

Behavioral and cognitive learning theories are applied in numerous fields including education, moral development, learning styles, mental health treatment, and gender development. Depression is one of the conditions explained and treated through cognitive and behavioral learning theories. Behaviorism suggests that depression results from interaction with the environment specifically through classical or operant conditioning. A person develops depression after linking a certain stimuli to a negative or unpleasant emotional state (Hiltunen et al., 2013). Operant conditioning involves the removal of positive reinforcement such as a job, which induces depression. The cognitive approach to depression explains that the condition is as a result of a systematic negative bias in the thought processes. Depressive emotions and behavior symptoms are products of cognitive abnormalities (Hofmann, 2011). People suffering from depression tend to exhibit the cognitive triad, which is the negative view of the self, the world, and the future, negative schemas, which are pessimistic beliefs and expectations, and logical errors, which focus on negative aspects of situations.

The characteristics of depression can be understood better of the behavioral and cognitive approach. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) of psychological problems is an application of the combination of the two learning theories. CBT functions on a principle that psychological issues arise from unhealthy ways of thinking and unhelpful behavior, and that the individuals can adopt new coping ways of relieving the symptoms (Hoffman, 2011). Therefore, CBT makes an effort of changing individual’s thinking processes and behavior patterns. The effectiveness of CBT can be seen in some of the studies that featured less experienced CBT therapists who produced significant changes of depressive or other psychological symptoms. Ost et al. demonstrated that clients suffering from depressive disorders showed significant relief from symptoms after CBT training by a less experienced therapist (2012). In 2013, Hiltunen et al. conducted a study at a psychotherapy training center at Karlstad University to determine the effectiveness of CBT. CBT sessions were conducted by less experienced individuals. After the therapy, the clients reported a significant suppression of symptoms and increased life satisfaction (Hiltunen et al., 2013). In another study, Hofmann et al.’s review of meta-analyses which featured seven studies that compared the effectiveness of CBT to other psychological treatments (2012). The evidence-base for CBT was strong, with only one study showing lower response rates of patients.


Educational Implications

Behaviorism is widely applied in education while the cognitive theory narrows down to children’s development. Behaviorism can be embraced at school to encourage pleasant behaviors and discourage negative ones. Students commit to tasks that bring them positive feelings. They change or avoid behaviors to please the people they highly regard (Brown & Zhou, 2017). They tend to avoid behaviors that have unpleasant results and develop habitual behavior from those performed repeatedly. Teachers can employ repetition in specific subjects to enhance the children’s understanding. Also, to reinforce positive response, teachers can commend the students who pass to encourage them to achieve higher. Negative reinforcement like punishment for unpleasant actions is also used in school to eliminate bad behaviors and replace with desired ones. Another important implication of learning and unlearning behavior is that students, through modification or reinforcement, can unlearn unpleasant behaviors and replace with desired ones through repetitive stimuli. Piaget’s theory of cognitive development is applied in the adaptation of instruction based on learners’ development level. The content of learning materials is required to match the cognitive development level of students. Also, when students with varying cognitive levels study together, they are likely to influence each other: those with low cognitive abilities are likely to advance to a higher level (Brown & Zhou, 2017).

Biblical Worldview of Learning Behavior

From a biblical perspective, the behavioral learning theory has various consistencies and inconsistencies with the bible. First, the reinforcement principle is illustrated in 2 Thessalonians 3:10, which directs that a person shall not eat if he does not work (Bufford, 1981). Therefore, for one to eat, he/she will be compelled to work.  Another consistent aspect of behaviorism in the bible is punishment. When Adam and Eve disobeyed God, he chased them from the Garden of Eden and brought curse upon them (Genesis 3) (Bufford, 1981). Behaviorists believe that behavior form through interaction with the environment. The concept is seen in the bible where believers are encouraged to associate with fellow believers to avoid moral decay (2 Corinthians 6:14). Just like behaviorists focus on behavior, the bible too illustrates a special focus on behavior by emphasizing that true believers will be known by their fruits or actions (Mathew 7:15-20). However, behaviorism is against the biblical perspective of human because it ignores the existence of the soul and the mind by assuming that the human’s functionality only involves the body. The bible addresses humans as the mind, body, and soul, thus, an appropriate approach of human learning behavior would include a holistic approach of the three aspects of mankind.

Most Effective Theory of Learning

The most effective theory of learning is behaviorism because of its unique ability to define and measures changes in behavior. The cognitive theory only relies on computers to explain human learning, which provides scanty details on creative and emotional aspects of human learning. Also, the law of parsimony states that the fewer the assumptions a theory has the higher the credibility (Brown & Zhou, 2017). Therefore, compared to the cognitive theory, behaviorism is more credible. Even though the theory provides a partial account of human behavior by not considering emotions, motivation, and expectations, is widely and effectively used in psychological-related fields including education, language development, gender development, and medicine among others.


Behavioral and cognitive perspectives are major theories of learning which focus on the influence of the environment and the thought process respectively. Behaviorists believe that human are born like a blank state and start to acquire knowledge after interacting with the environment. This approach highlights elements like reinforcement, punishment, conditioning, and behavior evaluation, which are consistent with the biblical worldview of human behavior learning. On the other hand, cognitive theorists believe that learning involves the thought process after interacting with a specific field. This approach compares the mind to a computer due to the common abilities to input, store, and retrieve data. Behaviorism and cognitive perspectives are applied in the classroom to modify behaviors of students and offer instructions basing on students’ development stages. Studies of CBT in the treatment of psychological issues have also demonstrated effectiveness of the behavioral and cognitive approaches. The most effective theory is behaviorism because it defines and measures changes in behavior, which are clear indicators of the learning process.


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