DEP 5068-01


Key to Boyd and Bee: Chapter 9 (Physical and Cognitive Development in Middle Childhood) and Chapter 10 (Personality and Social Development in Middle Childhood).

In this section, we examine learning theories more closely, as well as the cognitive, social and personality changes that occur in middle childhood. We'll define middle childhood as roughly the ages from 6 to age 11 or 12. The vagueness in the upper boundary is because it is generally agreed that middle childhood ends at puberty. However, over the twentieth century, the age of puberty has dropped and, of course, its onset varies across individuals and cultures.




Diverse theories of learning form an important part of socialization, and a challenge in at least some ways to developmentalist perspectives. I address them in some depth here because with the coming of the school years, of course, we expect students "to learn." We can apply learning theories to the Vygotskian concept of scaffolding, i.e., the linking of old information to new information. I will examine three very basic learning/reinforcement theories in more depth in the last part of this Guide.

Furthermore, it is a central assumption of the behavioral and social sciences that individuals can learn. Otherwise, we would be stuck in the same old patterns, with the associated repurcussions. Instrumental conditioning in particular (sometimes called applied behavioral analysis) has had very fruitful therapeutic applications.

Formal learning theories, heavily influenced by Russian and American research, were a product of late nineteeth and early twentieth century thought. Behavioral scientists were ecstatic! In the stimulus-response (S-R) connection, they felt that they had found the equivalent of "the atom" in physics or chemistry or "the cell" in the life sciences, that is, they envisioned the "S-R" connection as the basic building block of all organic behavior. Learning theories, or "behaviorism" became the dominant thrust from the early twentieth century to the early 1960s. They still form a prominent overall paradigm today and have changed public attitudes in many ways.

Whereas in the past, human behavior was largely seen as "instinctual" or biological "destiny", with this paradigmatic shift to reinforcement theories, our behavior was now seen as learned and heavily influenced by the environment. This change was enormous: after all, if behavior is learned, previous theories of race or ethnic based behavior, grounded in biology or "instinct" as destiny, simply make no sense. Probably the last bastion to fall was the idea of biologically based sex differences as "destiny". Social scientists could no longer view national differences as ingrained by our genes but due, instead, to cultural influences. (Of course, we have returned to issues of "temperament" but this is a far cry from the old instinct theories. As we saw in the Kagan childhood video, biology is NOT seen as destiny but rather one of many inputs into the human outcome.)

All organisms are considered subject to stimulus and response connections. And all behavior is subject to "shaping." From the progression of Skinner's babbling baby to speaking child, to teaching tricks to your dog, to Unabomber victim James McConnell, who shaped the behavior of planeria (a primitive cellular structure), all living beings learn.

The practical and political implications meant that national and cultural viewpoints and priorities could change, and individuals could change with them. "The sky was the limit" for women or ethnic groups previously seen as immutably hampered by gender, nationality or color. With the view of lifetime socialization sponsored by a learning theory perspective, even the old dog could learn new tricks. And, of course, the whole concept of "adult education" or career counseling takes on entirely new meanings.

In virtually all countries exposed to these perspectives, socialization (at home and elsewhere) and education are considered to contain the keys to change. In the early twentieth century United States public schools in New York taught adult immigrants the English language and "American ways" in night school. U.S. government agencies sponsored pamphlets and training programs for "modern childrearing." At least two generations of American children were raised "by the clock," conditioned to be obedient to schedules created by behavioral specialists, such as John Watson. The profession of social work became a government-sponsored industry. By the late 1960s, Head Start was created to provide resources comparable to those middle and upper class children encounter in nursery school to children from lower income families. Thus, in theory we could make all children "ready" for elementary school. By that time anyway, the children of upper and middle class families were attending nursery school, many of them being drilled in foreign languages and reading. Brand new fields: adult education and instructional design, have become industries, as government and industry began to realize that education never stops. Extension of the behaviorist model to gender meant that girls are now given opportunities in sports or education that previously did not exist. Learning theory models were consistent with and boosted the emerging fields of anthropology and sociology, which saw individual behavior as determined by "social forces." It was not difficult to translate cultural mandates and interactional scripts into chains of learned stimuli-response connections.

Did these dramatic changes engender "backlash" or reaction? Sure they did. Developmental theorists pointed out that children had to be at particular stages of maturation in order to perform the activities (such as toilet training) that behaviorists were trying to instill at "too early" an age. By the 1980s, biological determinism and Social Darwinism were re-emerging in new guises, buoyed by breakthroughs in genetics, even though many sociobiology assertions (e.g., "an altruism gene") have never  received verification and the end goal appears the same as earlier Social Darwinism theories: to make stratified social divisions appear "functional," natural, inevitable, and immutable. "Evolutionary psychology" makes some similar statements. These streams of thought continue with us, sometimes financially bolstered by those who would aid agenda scholarship. The book, The Bell Curve, for example, which asserts biological differences in "intelligence" and "motivation" between Blacks and Whites, was largely funded by grants to the authors (one a specialist in pigeon learning, the other a polical scientist, neither a specialist in genetics or IQ) through a very politically conservative foundation in Wisconsin.

At the same time reinforcement theories "gained control" of behavioral science, cognitive and developmental specialists questioned the passive perspective many reinforcement theories imposed on human behavior. People could learn and react, all right, but what happened to originality, initiative, leadership, or the importance of values? About the best behaviorists could muster were vague allusions to randomly emerging behavior, which, if reinforced, became the springboard for original responses.


So, besides the obvious contrast with many developmental theories, with their emphasis on stages and progression, why is the focus here in mid childhood on learning or reinforment theories?

Middle childhood is a relatively quiescent physical period. Certainly the child is still growing physically, but the pace is temporarily slower than the spurts of infancy, to some extent early childhood and puberty to come. Perhaps this is why Freud dubbed it the  "latency stage". Note that by the end of this period, many girls in particular are entering--or have entered--puberty. Thus, they not only have a growth spurt, but a more adult shape and hormonal changes.

During this period, there is tremendous cognitive and social growth, at least some of it corresponding to some of the life cycle stages we have examined (see below re: Piaget).

Middle childhood in most countries corresponds with the entrance into elementary or primary school. For children who have not attended some form of nursery school, or even been in day care, elementary school respresents a huge "break", or, if you prefer, a new series of disjunctive social roles.

Entering formal schooling has huge ramifications for most children. No wonder parents make such a celebration for the "first day" of school! Ceremonies over "a new life" or series of disjunctive roles are quite typical, signaling the child toward anticipatory socialization. For example, parent or caretaker and child shop for school supplies or new clothes, or even visit the child's new school in advance. The school often holds an orientation for beginning students.

The child's sphere of authoritative influence at this age widens enormously. Teachers, counselors, aides may all be new figures for him or her. At the same time, many parents also increase their children's activities in religious congregations and neighborhood activities, introducing the child to pastors, coaches, and adult volunteers.

The child is also in a larger setting with many more children. Even children who are nursery school or day care veterans may be surprised at being in a class with several dozen children, in a school of several hundred--or even over 1000 students.

As a result the child will almost certainly now encounter other children from different backgrounds--different social classes, ethnic groups, religions, and cultures if they had not done so at an earlier age.

And, of course, the child is presented with enormous amounts of material to learn in a wide diversity of fields. For example, some children will have their first intensive exposure to computers (and other media).

Physical, cognitive, emotional or social issues that may not have seemed very important before can take on new meaning in the school setting. A child now formally designated as ADHD may have only been seen at "highly energetic" before. Undiagnosed poor eyesight or hearing will almost certainly be spotted. A shy child may become shyer.

Thus, issues of learning--in all directions, scholastically or socially, become paramount. Thus the major part of this Guide will summarize the major perspectives in learning theories and many of their ramifications.

Language skills during this age leap forward. It's not just vocabulary (although some scholars suggest during this time that children increase their vocabularies by as much as 10,000 words a year). Children not only become fluent in the grammatical rules of their language but are rapidly learning its idiosyncrasies ("I went" rather than "I goed"). (NOTE: persistent language problems during mid-elementary school should probably be a tip off to check for hearing or speech problems, or possibly developmental delays.) It's not just grammatical rules, either. Children become quicker and more skilled at learning and following rules and sequences for activities, games, and academic assignments. (Symbolic interactionists pay special attention and importance to children learning "the rules" for their particular culture.)

Children also begin to apply several dimensions of an object or problem simultaneously, for example, they recognize that an object can have color, weight, height, tactile touch, and so forth. (See Piaget and below.)

There are also qualitative cognitive changes. Piaget referred to it as a time of "concrete operations". Children are able to "transmute" or decentrate, recognizing that a short fat shape can contain as much volume as a long, thin one and realizing that one shape could possibly turn into the other. Inductive reasoning also expands, and children's ability to inductively categorize and apply class inclusion becomes more sophisticated. Recall that at earlier ages, children's tendency to categorize can often mean that they over-generalize, for example, ascribing gender attributes to a parent that are inaccurate, although stereotyped. Mid-range, children begin to recognize "exceptions to the rule." Children also begin to progress in moral reasoning, beginning to apply the concept of intention to behaviors.

Adults who associate with children in middle childhood will note that they often become avid collectors at this age, and, further, young experts about their collections: a girl may be able to tell you "everything about dinosaurs" or vividly categorize every television program that she enjoys.

Children become increasingly able to delay gratification. This ability may tie in to the mixed effects of reward, described late in this Guide. It may also lead to the growth of skills such as self-regulation. It also means that rather than using instrumental aggression to get what they want (e.g., grabbing another child's toy) children become more adept at negotiation (and even manupulation), turn taking and strategizing to achieve satisfaction..

Gender differences are small on IQ scores, at this period or later. Unfortunately early IQ tests date back a century to when tests such as the Binet were constructed. Their creators tended to believe that few gender differences in "intelligence" existed, and thus often excised questions that did show sex differences. On the other hand, various achievement tests tell us that girls tend to read somewhat earlier (perhaps related to somewhat greater maturation in language skills?) and boys begin on the average to show slightly greater skills at spatial relations. The sexes begin to show what I call "specialized gendered science domains," even at this early age; girls begin to evince more interest in the life sciences and health and boys more interests in physical and earth sciences and in technology. These differentiations increase as children grow older.

It's unclear how these gender differences come about. There are many theories, and there are cultural variations. For example, any differences in science and math interests among girls and boys from first-generation Asian U.S. families tend to be smaller than those from other American backgrounds. Boys more often receive toys that stress spatial manipulation (Legos, "transformers") and girls more often receive toys that stress interpersonal relations. Both parents and teachers more often believe that boys are better at either science or math than girls. On the other hands, in a 2001 survey of U.S. adults, 80% of both women and men said they would be "happy" if either a son or a daughter chose a career in science (there were similar results in 2012). Recall also that in representative surveys of American adults, the General Social Survey has repeatedly found that most parents are not terribly (consciously) concerned that their child adheres to gender-stereotyped roles and activities. Perhaps at least some of the answers lie below, in reinforcement for gender "appropriate" behavior and for modeling gender "appropriate" figures. 


Middle childhood is more than learning grammatical and cognitive rules. Children are also busy learning social rules, consequences, and psychological constructs. Comparable to cognitive development, children begin with categorical thinking. They are especially atuned to rules which appear to come from authority figures and they worry about any rule violations. "Step on a crack--break your back" goes one old superstitious city childhood rhyme about avoiding cracks in an urban sidewalk. Toward the end of middle childhood, children also begin to judge moral dilemmas from a rules perspective.

At the same time, partially because of developments in memory and autotomicity, children are better able to link cause and effect in behavior and consequences. They also link entities such as the physical attractiveness or height of another child and popularity. Consequences vie with rules in middle childhood thinking. Is it OK to break the rules to get something you want--as long as you succeed and don't get caught? Is it better to follow the rules even if it means someone else wins the prize, or even if someone gets hurt?

Further, both rules and consequences contrast with the child's greater awareness of intention and motivation. As schoolwork becomes more complicated, for example, children become more aware of placing effort into an achievement. They may watch their peers practice for a sports event or rehearse for the school play. They begin to distinguish between negative consequences that were intended (one child trips a second in the school hallway) or accidental (a child brushes against another, spilling the second child's drink).

Middle childhood is typically a time in which private speech goes internal. The parental admonishions, instructions from adults or peers, pep talks, all now become thought in the child's internal dialogue. At this point, the child is becoming a "social being," even if no one else is around, able to recall appropriate behavior or delay gratification.

It is clear that children's play becomes more cooperative, specialized, and complex. No longer are children simply co-actors, engaging in the same behavior independently side by side. Games become a thicket of rules. Children, especially boys, begin to form status hierarchies in part depending on prowess at play.

Symbolic interactionists will assert that children's greater participation in group activities, and their greater engagement in the school games and school groupwork that are often planned, mean that children now play a greater variety of social roles within a single social setting. As a result, they are more able to "take the role of the other," or to see the situation from more than one perspective. Children thus become less egocentric and more epathetic with others, able to put themselves in the other's shoes. Symbolic interactionists argue that this also makes children more self-perceptive. By learning more about others, children can begin to apply these percepts to themselves.

At the same time, however, bullying becomes more pronounced. Among boys, bullying more often takes the forms of physical and verbal aggression. Among girls, relational aggression is more common. Girls exclude ("you're not invited to my party"), threaten exclusion ("if you do that, you won't be my friend any more"), tattle and construct stories. However, there are cases more recently when girls "gang up" and become physical bullies.Bullies are rarely the most popular children; however some new research finds that bullies come from the "next stratum down" in popularity and see bullying as one way to grab attention and possibly even admiration. Other research finds that bullies don't  interpret other children's emotions quite as well as very popular children, have more difficulty distinguishing between consequences and intention in interaction, and thus may retaliate inappropriately. Boyd and Bee cite research that suggests that bullies more often have problems with aggression in later life than other children do.

However, bullying involves more than simply the perpetrator and the victim. A cast of other social roles, from passive bystanders to "encouragers" to "rescuers" may be invoked. The social status of the victim for a host of reasons may be low--or even "just different", such as depression, autism syndrome, obesity or even food allergies. Although many adults believe it is best for children to learn to handle such situations by themselves, without grownup interference, a bullying situation typically requires "treatment" of the entire social setting by adults--and the sooner the better. A host of late middle childhood and early adolescent suicides point to the extreme damage that bullying can do. "Cyber bullying" is a recent extension to the Internet, where it is easier for bullies to hide their true identity and to harass others away from the physical settings of school and neighborhood. Experiences with bullies not only can lead to school absenteeism and depression among those in middle childhood, but can perpetuate problems in later life.

Boys and girls--together and apart. In the United States, and in many other parts of the world, most elementary school girls and boys attend academic classes together, craft and hobby workshops together, and some religious services and classes together. However, from voluntary lunchtable gatherings to the playground, this is an age at which children self-segregate and all-boy and all-girl groupings become much more common. Furthermore, boys' groups tend to be larger, engage more in group activities and games requiring more complex role divisions, and boys engage more in playful "rough-housing" (think tumbling puppies and you can begin to get an idea about the term "rough and tumble play"). Girls' groupings tend to be smaller, often dyads, and involve more talk and intimacy.

But given that girls and boys do sex-segregate begs the question of why they do so. First, some institutions do separate girls and boys: private schools may have gender-segregated classes, as do some religious congregations. Summer camps for  children, especially "sleep-away" camps, are typically sex-segregated. Sports teams encourage sex-segregation, and girls' involvement in sports is a comparatively recent phenomenon. These are adult decisions about children's behavior, not self-sex-segregation.Second, anthropological research indicates that sex-segregation, and rough and tumble play among boys, decreases when children receive more adult supervision. Because many adults see boys as stronger and more forceful, they often give boys more autonomy than girls the same age--thus boys receive less supervision. Third, during middle childhood, children become more aware of stratification patterns in their larger social environment. Recall that even nursery school children in Jerome Kagan's research can tell us that "mommies are nice" and "boys grow up to be boss." This awareness is also fostered by what children see on television--George Gerbner's work on television content alerts us that kids often view a highly stereotyped world on television. For example, scientists on TV until very recently--and still--were nearly all White males. Recent changes in gender stratification among adults are very important (see Guide 5 to come on Adolescence) but many occupational sex differences are still widespread. Further, there are greater strictures on boy's behavior: adults do show more concern over boys who seem "too feminine" in their behavior or interests than over girls who are "tomboys". Finally, from kindergarten on, boys and girls nurture different interests and hobbies and these differences widen over time. Although the "gender gap" has largely closed in high school math, girls and boys still have different interests in science. As girls move toward adolescence, they receive pressures from both adults and peers about their appearance. Many boys are pressured to become active in sports. Although middle childhood girls and boys have more in common than they have differences, sex-segregation continues.


There are certain similarities among virtually all learning theories:

Stimulus and response should both be observable.

Stimulus and response are more often linked if they are contiguous or associated in some way. Association can be temporal (happening close together in time), geographical (linked to the same place) but also linked by symbolism or meaning. Contiguity is a key in virtually all learning theories.

Stimulus and response become linked through processes of reinforcement. Rewarded behavior is more often repeated under the same or similar stimulus conditions to those which contained the reward. (The effects of punishment are conceptually more controversial and are described later.)

Virtually all learning theories consider the role of habit, frequency, rehearsal, or practice. Stimulus-responses connections that occur more often are seen as higher in the habit or response hierarchy. Thus, a well-practiced response is more likely to be evoked and performed in a similar stimulus situation. The veterans of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing had a practiced repertoire or script when the building again came under attack in 2001. Others had had rehearsals or fire drills held by their companies, a life-saving effort because stairwells were not always easily spotted on all floors. In both cases, practice or rehearsal saved many lives.

Learning theories also incorporate motivation and drive. These are sometimes ascertained through deprivation (e.g., not feeding your dog her breakfast) and other times by goals with a high positive valance. Self-regulation is one type of motivation whereby the individual internally prioritizes goals and undertakes systemic steps to achieve them.

Both stimuli and responses generalize, i.e., there are a range of similar stimuli which evoke roughly equivalent responses and there are roughly similar responses (a smile, a giggle, a guffaw) that can occur to the same stimulus. So, for example, if you have a bad experience with a red-headed teacher, you might invoke stereotypes about red heads and apply them to all people with red hair.

Individuals also discriminate, i.e., they treat stimuli that are different enough as distinct.

Over the twentieth century, learning theories also became:

More complex, often leading to several stimulus-response chains, or adding additional variables such as generalization gradients (see work by the late Clark Hull, one of the most famous reinforcement theorists of the 1950s).

More social, in particular, acknowledging that organisms could learn through watching others or through watching others receive rewards or punishments for their behavior.

More cognitive, adding cognitive mediators and information organizers that were not immediately observable. For example, self-regulation is highly internal and cognitive.

They distinguished more between learning and performance. Contiguity and habit are often more associated with learning, while drive and reward are more associated with performance. That is, learning can occur through frequent, contiguous presentations, while performance may require an incentive. In classic learning theories, incentives are seen to be external. As theories became more sophisticated, incentives such as self-identity, meaning, or anticipatory goals, which are internal, became added.


Learning theories? Reinforcement theories? Behaviorism? I will use these three terms more or less interchangeably--as does most of the field of psychology (although there are some distinctions between the three names.)


Classical conditioning is most often associated with Ivan Pavlov, who worked with dogs in Russia at the turn of the twentieth century. His terminology is still current today. Pavlov would deprive dogs of food for about a day, then present the dog with meat powder. Upon smelling the meat powder, the dog would begin to salivate.

He termed the meat powder the unconditional stimulus  and the saliva the unconditional response. Pavlov treated unconditional stimuli and responses as a given, an already established stimulus-response connection, possibly due to reflex or to unmeasured earlier conditioning. The animal's role was essentially passive, responding with a physical reflex to a stimulus.

Pavlov then presented a tone or a light (the conditional stimulus) immediately prior to presenting the meat powder. After a few trials, the dog would salivate when the tone was sounded or the light was turned on. Then Pavlov omitted the meat powder, but the dog would still salivate in response to the light or tone. The conditional stimulus had to be presented prior to the unconditional stimulus. Pavlov termed this response to the tone or light the conditional response--it was typically not exactly the same as the unconditional response (for example, less saliva) but was similar.  Thus, previously neutral stimuli become associated with other stimuli or with rewards and punishment.

Notice here that the unconditional stimulus was fused, or confounded, with the reward or reinforcement.  Disentangling these two (the stimulus versus reward) was a refinement of later learning theories.

Pavlov could not permanently remove the meat powder, or eventually he would sound the tone or activate the light and nothing happened at all. The conditional stimulus-response connection was now broken. Pavlov termed this process extinction. The unconditional stimulus had to be replaced in the sequence to reinstill the conditional response. Learning about extinction stimulated Pavlov's interest in different reinforcement schedules:

Reinforcement could be given on a fixed periodic basis (say, every five minutes).

Reinforcement could be given at fixed intervals (say, every fifth time the organism made the response).

Reinforcement could also be irregular or variable.

Pavlov's basic ideas are still very much with us. Regular reinforcement is often used at the beginning of a learning task to "stamp in" the response, to "give the person or animal the right idea".

After that, an irregular reinforcement schedule typically is the most resistant to extinction. Later research suggests that consistent use of a regular (periodic or interval) schedule sensitizes the organism to changes in the reinforcement schedule so that it notices immediately when the reinforcement is missing. It is harder to detect changes when a variable schedule is used because reinforcement is unpredictable. Notice the cognitive approach to extinction here.

Pavlov's work also gave rise to the concepts of generalization and discrimination (or differentiation).

Pavlov's work had enormous influence in the United States due to adaptations by psychologist John Watson. Watson felt that humans started with very few reflexes, such as a startle reflex or a fear of falling. All else was conditioned in. In his research with "Little Albert," Watson showed how a toddler, originally interested in a fuzzy, white rat became afraid of it after Watson repeatedly clashed cymbals behind Little Albert's head when the animal was presented (they didn't show the cymbals in the movie clip you see--no wonder!). Little Albert quickly generalized to any white furry animal and (so legend has it) eventually anything white or furry.

Thus, many emotional disorders (especially phobias) have been seen as explained by conditioned responses and generalization to an initial incident. 

 Watson extended his applications to the socialization process (those rigid schedules for feeding--and even for picking up and holding an infant) and to education. He believed that anyone could become anything--any occupation--with the proper background and training. His ideas (particularly on schedules) influenced child-rearing until Dr. Spock and other, more development-oriented perspectives gained credence following World War Two.

There was, however, a relatively unnoticed fly in the ointment: Pavlov noted that if someone new entered the testing room dogs would show an alerting response. All their other responses stopped as the dog oriented to the new stimulus in the environment. Conditioned responses were no longer exhibited unless the dog became used to the newcomer or the visitor left the room.


The late B.F. Skinner had a more active picture of humanity (and, at least, other animals and birds). Skinner saw organisms as active, as constantly emiting responses in a random manner.  Some of these responses were rewarded. These were the ones that were would remain (using Thorndike's "law of effect") in the organism's behavioral repertoire.
Skinner saw learning as incremental.The organism started with a random response which bore some, often very slight, resemblance to the end response the experimenter (or authority) desired to instill. For example, simply to get a dog to come near a hoop may be an initial triumph if you are trying to teach your dog to jump through a hoop.
At first the initial response would be strongly rewarded, almost regardless of what it was. As the organism continued to emit responses (now, the dog is sniffing the hoop), only those responses that came closer to the final desired response would be rewarded. Step by step, the organism is successively rewarded for responses that come closer and closer to the goal behavior (the dog sticks its head through the hoop). Rewarding these successive approximations is called shaping. Skinner saw shaping at work in all forms of human behavior, including language. Eventually, the dog sniffs the hoop, then sticks its head through the hoop, walks through the hoop, then jumps as the hoop is lifted off the ground.

Skinner trained pigeons for the military during World War Two. He also developed the "Skinner Box", a cube with a bar for a rat to press, and a tube that dispensed food pellets, and even a "total environment," a kind of Skinner Box for an infant, with climate control (no diapers, just a paper sheet on rollers; no clothes either) and visual stimulation. His 1948 novel, Walden Two, still fun reading after all these years, portrayed an ideal society based on operant conditioning principles. For example, young children would learn to resist temptation by wearing a lollipop dipped in sugar on a string around their necks. Hungry children came to the table and donned their lollipop, which would show tongue tracks in the powdered sugar. How long the child had to wait before licking the lollipop was gradually lengthened from a few minutes to as long as an hour.

Instrumental conditioning has become the favored treatment for phobias. Phobias are a strong, unpleasant physiological reaction with accompanying psychological ideation to an object or circumstance that most people find innocuous. The fact that the cat or the balcony or going outside  really won't hurt you doesn't help. Most people with phobias already know that the phobic entities are basically harmless; that doesn't make them feel better; in fact, it makes people feel worse because their sense of self-efficacy suffers so much.

Phobic anxiety reactions can be terrifying. Anxiety has a very strong physical component. The person might feel "a band around their chest," feel dizzy, nauseated, sweat profusely, and feel unable to breathe. Full-blown agoraphobics literally cannot leave home by themselves. Less severe cases may go to great lengths to avoid flying, heights, dogs, cats, or whatever is the subject of the phobia. Others stop driving. As you can see, phobias exert an enormous toll in work days lost, inconvenience, and just plain old psychological human misery.

Many developmentalists tended to see phobias as resulting from inner conflicts and psychological defenses. They believe in substitution, that is, if one phobia is "cured," another will replace it until the inner conflict is addressed and resolved. As you might guess, it can take months or even years to unearth such psychological conflicts and resolve them.

Reinforcement theorists believe that phobias are noxious habitual responses to a set of stimuli. The first anxiety reaction may be accidental and the setting probably merely a coincidence (e.g., an attack of dizziness at a shopping center perhaps in response to sniffing tobacco, a fragrance, or something else that might be an allergen for the individual). Through generalization, the person now begins to have the same reactions under somewhat similar circumstances, such as in a grocery store or pharmacy. Very rapidly, the individual may now produce phobic responses in any type of shopping in a large enclosed area. The preliminary response of most people is then to avoid the circumstances that set off these unpleasant phobic reactions. Unfortunately, generalization often means that phobic reactions continue to occur, only in new settings, which, in a chain reaction, are then avoided. The individual's world becomes smaller and smaller.

Desensitization training, a variant of operant conditioning, is much faster and more effective than traditional "talk therapy," although the latter can be helpful in conjunction. Further, new phobias do not seem to arise. In desensitization, the individual starts learning relaxation responses in a non-threatening environment. The person learns to contract and release muscles from head to toe. At the end of this series, the body is very relaxed. The muscle exercises are often coupled with visualizing a relaxing scene, which is usually person-specific (favorites are listening to ocean surf, or sitting in a quiet forest; others use aural stimuli, such as a favorite piece of music.)

Then, shaping begins. The person is exposed to the least threatening version of the phobia (for example, if you have a feline phobia, you might be shown drawings of kittens). Relaxing techniques are practiced until the individual becomes comfortable with the situation. Then, the next level of the phobic situation is invoked (for example, photographs of adult cats). Step by step, the person learns to make relaxation responses in the presence of a phobic situation (for example, you might have a cat in a carrier placed across the room, which is then moved closer; eventually you might pet the cat.) Sometimes "virtual reality" headgear is used to simulate a phobic situation (e.g., a swimming pool).

Operant conditioning has often been used to explain internalization, or how the individual comes to accept society's values and regulations. For example, Vygotsky's discovery of private speech, in which children talk to themselves aloud before learning to silently think to themselves, is one possible mechanism. By speaking to themselves, children reinforce these values and rules, and they become part of the self.

Operant conditioning has several drawbacks:

It badly predicts acquiring more complex behaviors, such as generative grammar in language, compared with learning individual words.

It is slow and cumbersome. As Albert Bandura put it, God forbid you should learn to drive a car this way!

As an undergraduate psychology major, my friends and I trained rats in Skinner boxes. Poor rats! It took them so long to connect pressing the bar with its click noise to receiving a food pellet. In fact, it took forever for them to even depress the bar, so we speeded up the process. We crumbled the pellets and sprinkled them on the bar. The rat came right over to the bar. In nibbling the pellet, the rat would press the bar, it would click, and a pellet shot down the tube of the Skinner box. Using this procedure, lab rats quickly learned to press the bar to receive food pellets.

And, perhaps the most important, operant conditioning STILL doesn't explain the generation of original complex responses.


This type of learning goes by several names (perhaps just to confuse us?). It is also often called:

Social Learning

Imitation (how performance occurs?)

Observational Learning (because this is what happens)

Vicarious Learning (because what happens to the model has a vicarious effect on the observer; if the model is rewarded, the observer expects to be rewarded for the same behavior)

"No-trial" Learning because the behavior can be learned from one observation without practice. Or

Social cognition (so it gets mixed up with person perception, attribution theories and other social forces on cognition approaches!)

Going back to John Dollard and Neal Miller's work in the late 1930s, the assumption is that people (and often animals) imitate or "model" responses. Why does imitation occur? That is never really explained; it is just something we do, and recall from Boyd and Bee, we begin imitating during early infancy.  Perhaps it has a biological base; perhaps it is a response to stimulation...The original organism emitting a response is called "the model."

Not all responses or all models are imitated. Physically agressive responses, at least for young boys, are often imitated even if a model is not rewarded. Physically arousing behavior in general is more often imitated.

Models who are warm and friendly are imitated more often. So are higher status or more powerful models.

What happens to the model is critical. Behavior is far more often imitated if the behavior is rewarded. It is less often imitated if the behavior is punished. Thus, this research demonstrates the influence of vicarious reinforcement.

What happens to the observer is perhaps even more critical. In Bandura's early work, he showed that large sex differences between young girls and boys who imitated a filmed aggressive model virtually disappeared if children of both sexes were directly rewarded for imitation. Boys were much more likely than girls to imitate an aggressive model if neither the child nor the model received no reward or no punishment. Thus, one thing these results demonstrate is that behavior can be learned but not performed if the observer or the model is not rewarded.

Modeling was not only a more social and more cognitive form of learning, it added several advantages to previous theories:

It illustrates that behavior can be learned, but not performed, unless circumstances are auspicious.

It shows that complex behavior can be rapidly acquired, sometimes within the context of a single observation.

Behavior can be acquired in "large chunks" or sequences, rather than laboriously step by step. Interactional sequences (scripts) can be modeled too.

Consequences to the model are very important.

Both direct and vicarious reward can be effective. So can direct and vicarious punishment.

Behaving in role-appropriate ways (gender, age, occupational) may be intrinsically rewarding. Some role theorists speculate that people deliberately and selectively seek out and perform role-related behaviors. For example, studies of nursery school age children show they want to act "like a girl or boy should." (Lawrence Kohlberg also took this approach, see Guide Three.)

Modeling results from over thousands of studies have changed how we view responses to filmed physical aggression. Prior to these studies, a prominent view was the catharsis or "hydralic model." The idea was that physical aggression was one response to stress, which built up like steam in a closed boiler. Watching filmed violence supposedly had a "cathartic effect" by allowing a stressed individual to "blow off steam" by watching someone else do the punching. Now, we realize that a steady diet of filmed violence has negative effects and can aggrevate, not alleviate, aggressive responses. Even the American Medical Association has labelled watching violent TV a medical risk for children.

One chilling finding is that aggression increases after watching filmed violence, even if people have not been frustrated or are not under stress or angry. In fact, Leonard Berkowitz' research suggests that all that is needed are aggressive cues. In one study he conducted, half the students entered a laboratory room where a gun was placed in a jumble of papers, books, a tennis racket, and assorted academic junk on a table. The gun was removed for the other random half of the students. The gun was never mentioned by the experimenter. Nevertheless, students shocked an experimental confederate more often and more severely when the gun was present on the table than when it was absent.

Unfortunately, the way most violent villains are punished in films is through violence delivered by the heroes. The heroes are then usually rewarded for violently bringing the villains to justice.

People who watch a lot of TV (which shows several murders per hour) overestimate the incidence of violent crimes in their area and are more likely to report being afraid to go out at night. (This occurs despite controls for actual crime rates in the person's area and their own experiences being victimized by crime.) George Gerbner's "cultivation theory" (perceptions of reality are "cultivated" through media) has been largely tested through surveys of the general public.

In experiments, boys don't need to see a model rewarded to imitate filmed aggression. As long as the model isn't punished, boys will imitate the behavior. Typically, girls must be directly rewarded to imitate filmed aggression. Of course, both sexes watch long hours of TV (the worst are cartoons) in which they see boys are far more likely to initiate aggression and be rewarded for it than girls are.

Many children's movies and TV shows repeatedly show children as far smarter than adults, who are often portrayed as stupid and oblivious. The bumbling behavior and ignorance is ascribed to most adults in authority over children: parents, teachers, principals, and camp counselors. Children are the heroes who solve the problems that adults cannot. Walt Disney features are often the worst offenders. And then teachers and parents, who  tout Disney movies as so terrific and wholesome because they don't have sex or violence, wonder why kids disrespect authority...

In one TV series, The Power Rangers, which was once wildly popular, sold millions of dollars of merchandise annually: doll figures, posters, books, and so on. The Power Rangers were "mutant" high school students who "metamorphed" into strange alien creatures who fight inter-galactic battles. It is clear that the producers had taken at least some behavioral science strictures to heart because the Rangers are a mix of male and female, White, Black, Hispanic, and Asian. Unfortunately, all the Power Rangers are also physically gorgeous, so fit that some are gymnasts. Their enemies are fat, badly groomed, poorly dressed, and have pimples. What do you think is being learned and modeled here?

More recently, attention has turned to the modeling of prosocial behavior. Individuals often "follow the lead" of those who act in an altruistic manner as well. The late "Mr Rogers" was an excellent example and many of his shows are still on television.


It may seem straightforward to you: behavior that is rewarded is repeated under similar circumstances while behavior that is punished is extinguished. At least that's how the early behaviorists thought, but we now know the reality is more complex.


Skinner felt punishment was counter-productive for several reasons:

punishment itself may become a reward in itself, as when children receive attention for misbehavior

punishment doesn't get rid of environmental temptations

punishment is highly situation-specific so you might get Johnny to stay in his seat in math but his behavior doesn't improve anywhere else

the punisher becomes an aversive stimulus (as in the dads who are seen as more distant and less close than moms)

punishment requires surveillance turning the situation into one of forced compliance. Hence, it is externally rather than internally controlled.

Skinner suggested simply ignoring unwanted behavior.

As we already know, however, ignoring behavior doesn't always work (remember those boys who imitated filmed aggression if nothing happened to the model?) Or what if your toddler runs into the street? It's tough to reason with a two year old and "time out" may not be dramatic enough for your kid to understand and change his or her behavior.

In his experiments with dogs, Solomon found that severe punishment can be effective. In fact, he was unable to extinguish escape behavior in dogs who were conditioned to escape a severe shock. Well, you don't want to be abusive in any regard, but research indicates that punishment can be effective. The watchwords are:


sure and

[relatively] severe

directly tie the punishment to the transgression

Swift, because your kid and your dog aren't going to remember why you put them in a corner hours after the event, sure so they don't learn you simply threaten, and severe enough to be remembered.

Severe punishment may well be behind some of the anxiety or even phobic reactions that many adults experience.

You can see why the old "wait until your father gets home" tactic works poorly, besides the fact that it makes Dad an aversive stimulus. Punishment, if it occurs at all, happens long after the transgression and Dad may say instead, "I don't think he needs to be spanked about that" (so the child isn't punished at all on that occasion). When fathers do engage in physical punishment, they often inflict more serious physical harm than mothers.

In surveys of the adult general public, over 95 percent of American parents say they spank their kids. This mostly means small kids (10 or under) and a quick potch to the rear end. Right or wrong, most parents use at least some corporal punishment. Middle class American parents tend to punish "bad intentions" and use less physical punishment than working class parents do.

On an adult level, punishment has been studied in the form of "fear appeals." The initial studies, done in the 1950s, tended to find that strong fear appeals were ineffective. Although people paid attention, the messages were usually so threatening that individuals failed to comprehend the messages and left the situation when possible. However, more recent research indicates that fear appeals can be extremely effective if you suggest specific remedies to alleviate the fearful situation. Brush your teeth and see your dentist, and gory teeth will not happen to you. Wash your hands and you will get sick less often.


In most cases, research supports the idea that reward directly influences repeating the behavior. And often, the greater the reward, the greater the commitment to the new behavior.

But we have to be careful. Rewards can be idiosyncratic, and specific to a particular individual. Sometimes praise actually does work better than a raise (although it's certainly nice to get both.)

In particular, we should examine issues in behavior that is intrinsically, or internally, motivated as opposed to that which is external or extrinsic. We perform internally motivated behavior because we find the behavior itself is satisfying.

There is research that indicates that expected large rewards for initially internally motivated behavior that occur regardless of performance can be counterproductive. Oversufficient justification theories describe such instances when reward can lower internal motivation and subsequent performance. When reward is proportional to performance or unexpected (that surprise bonus) oversufficient justification effects do not typically appear.

The oversufficient justification literature dovetails with two other independent streams of research: (1) cognitive dissonance effects, in which more attitude change can occur with smaller rewards and (2) equity effects, in which proportionate rewards are typically the most satisfying (too low rewards make people angry and too high rewards can make us guilty.)

Thus, even reward isn't as simple as it appears.

Lev Vygotsky, a Russian psychologist prior to Word War Two, was more cognitive than virtually all the behaviorists discussed above. Vygotsky saw learning:

As inherently social

Constructed together with significant others and

Inherently dependent on the meaning the child or adult attributed to learning the task

Dependent on prior learning to scaffold new information

And often coached by others to instill motivation.

Private speech during early childhood was one way Vygotsky saw children learning and internalizing their culture.
There are a lot of similarities between the symbolic interactionism approaches and Vygotsky's overall perspective.

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Susan Carol Losh January 29 2013