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Learning by Insight and Observation

21 September, 2015 - 16:42


  1. Understand the principles of learning by insight and observation.

John B. Watson and B. F. Skinner were behaviorists who believed that all learning could be explained by the processes of conditioning—that is, that associations, and associations alone, influence learning. But some kinds of learning are very difficult to explain using only conditioning. Thus, although classical and operant conditioning play a key role in learning, they constitute only a part of the total picture.

One type of learning that is not determined only by conditioning occurs when we suddenly find the solution to a problem, as if the idea just popped into our head. This type of learning is known as insight, thesudden understanding of a solutionto a problem. The German psychologist Wolfgang Köhler (1925) 1 carefully observed what happened when he presented chimpanzees with a problem that was not easy for them to solve, such as placing food in an area that was too high in the cage to be reached. He found that the chimps first engaged in trial-and-error attempts at solving the problem, but when these failed they seemed to stop and contemplate for a while. Then, after this period of contemplation, they would suddenly seem to know how to solve the problem, for instance by using a stick to knock the food down or by standing on a chair to reach it. Köhler argued that it was this flash of insight, not the prior trial-and-error approaches, which were so important for conditioning theories, that allowed the animals to solve the problem.

Edward Tolman (Tolman & Honzik, 1930) 2] studied the behavior of three groups of rats that were learning to navigate through mazes. The first group always received a reward of food at the end of the maze. The second group never received any reward, and the third group received a reward, but only beginning on the 11th day of the experimental period. As you might expect when considering the principles of conditioning, the rats in the first group quickly learned to negotiate the maze, while the rats of the second group seemed to wander aimlessly through it. The rats in the third group, however, although they wandered aimlessly for the first 10 days, quickly learned to navigate to the end of the maze as soon as they received food on day 11. By the next day, the rats in the third group had caught up in their learning to the rats that had been rewarded from the beginning.

It was clear to Tolman that the rats that had been allowed to experience the maze, even without any reinforcement, had nevertheless learned something, and Tolman called this latentlearning. Latent learning refers to learning that is not reinforced and not demonstrated until thereis motivation to do so. Tolman argued that the rats had formed a “cognitive map” of the maze but did not demonstrate this knowledge until they received reinforcement.