Can you think of a time where you learned your behaviours from someone you identified with? Have you wondered how can you change and adapt your unhealthy behaviours into more healthy choices?

In the earlier parts of this blog series, we investigated how our jobs, as well as our reactions and perceptions of self-worth through comparison are influenced by others. For our fourth and final blog, we’ll examine the last of Argyle’s Four Factors: the extent to which we identify with people around us and assimilate their features.

If true, this would mean that our identity is less based on our genetic makeup than on our interactions with the people in our social circles and what we learn from them. More importantly, by understanding how our behaviours are formed, we can then take practical steps to retrain our brain and develop better responses.

In this blog you’ll discover:
  • how behavioural learning forms physiological reactions and behaviours
  • how cognitive learning influences our behaviour patterns
  • how observing and modelling our behaviour based on others influences our lives
  • how to mediate our behaviour by being aware of our learned behaviour patterns

For our fourth factor, I’d like to explore how we learn behaviours through our experiences of identifying with others. There are several theories that try to explain why we behave through learning, so let’s look at some of them now.

Behavioural learning: Pavlov’s dogs

Behavioural learning theories are based on the idea that any behaviour can be learned regardless of our genetics, personality and thoughts. It simply requires the right training, or conditioning.

Conditioning is a learning process that involves making connections between things that happen (stimuli) and the responses that occur due to stimuli. The most famous example of behavioural learning and conditioning is the experiment with Pavlov’s dogs, where he showed that you can indeed teach old dogs new tricks (ba dum tss).

Ivan Pavlov was actually a physiologist, not a psychologist, who was studying digestion in dogs. He later won a Nobel prize for this work, so he’s a pretty smart guy. While he was studying the dogs’ digestive processes, he noticed that every time his assistants would enter the room in their white lab coats, the dogs would start to salivate, even though the assistants weren’t carrying food. But here’s the clincher: these assistants were also the ones who fed the dogs.

In this case, the dogs would see the assistants and make a connection between them and the food that they usually provided. From this he reasoned that the salivary response, or when the dogs started drooling, was not an automatic physiological process, but rather one that was learned through making a connection. In this case, the connection was between a stimulus—the presence of the assistants in their white lab coats—and a reward: getting food.

So Pavlov then set out to test this further. For this, he used a metronome: that is, he tried to link the sound of a metronome with the provision of food. Without using food as a reward or connecting food to the sound, the dogs would just think of it as a sound. Boring. But what he found was that after conditioning, or training, the dogs began to understand that ‘sound = food’—and the dogs started to salivate as soon as they heard the sound.

For the next step, he only gave the food intermittently. So sometimes the metronome would ding and food would be presented, other times it would ding and no food was presented. What he found was, no matter what, the dogs salivated whenever they heard the sound, because in their minds, ‘sound = food’.

The importance of behavioural learning

This was one of the most important discoveries in psychological research to date, and is currently used to treat several conditions such as anxiety and panic disorders. This form of treatment works by making people disassociate connections that were originally negative.

For example, let’s say as a child you were bitten by a dog. Likely you’d be scared of all dogs, as you associate a dog with pain and fear. Using this approach, the aim would be to reduce fear by slowly introducing you to calm, placid dogs until you learned that not all dogs bite and not all dogs are scary.

Can you think of a situation where a stimulus occurs and you just automatically do something? For example, do you feel like having a snack as soon as you turn on the TV? Or, let’s say you’re at work and you get a nasty email from a client, do you automatically go into the staff room for a chocolate? Or what about when your kids are misbehaving, or if you have a fight with a friend or your partner? What do you do then?

The fact is, we all have behaviours that we associate with certain things that happen to us. But here’s the thing: now that you know that these connections are there, ask yourself, what can you do to slowly disconnect the stimuli from the responses?

For example, instead of having a snack right in front of the TV, a first step would be to still eat the snack, but in a different area of the room. Gradually, you’ll increase the distance between you and the TV, so the snack is no longer associated with the TV.

Operant conditioning: Skinner

Let’s now look at some of the work of Burrhus Frederic Skinner . . . Let’s just call him Skinner, shall we?

Skinner believed that classical conditioning (you know, the work that we talked about, Pavlov with his drooling dogs) was good, but . . . a bit too simplistic and that it needed to be developed further.

So Skinner thought that when behaviour was reinforced in some way, only then it would be repeated. He called this operant conditioning, a term that always confused the heck out of me. Essentially it means learning a behaviour, but the chance of repeating that behaviour depends on the consequences of engaging in that behaviour. He used the term operant because it’s like the behaviour affects or ‘operates’ on the environment, which results in a consequence, and this consequence in turn changes the frequency of that behaviour.

Behaviour + Consequence = Frequency of Behaviour

If that’s still a bit confusing (because it was for me the first time I learned it) just think of operant conditioning to mean changes in the frequency of a behaviour. For example, do you eat more or less broccoli if you’re trying to eat well? Do you go to the gym more or less if you’re trying to lose weight?

But here’s where it gets interesting—if the consequence of doing the behaviour seems good, whether it is good or not, you’ll likely do it more often. What I mean by this is, for example, if you drink alcohol or smoke cigarettes to relax in social situations that make you feel nervous or anxious, you’ll likely repeat the behaviour more often, even though excessive drinking and smoking isn’t good for your health. Or what about having a second piece of cake when you’re trying to lose weight? The consequence seems good because it tastes good, but it also makes you feel like a failure for not sticking to your diet.

Or, on the other hand, what about if you try out a new fitness class and you stumble and fall throughout the whole thing? If you think everyone is looking at you, you’ll likely not get involved in that class again even though it might be really good for you.

Reinforcers

Let’s now go back to Skinner. He discovered there were specific ways to change the probability (or frequency) of engaging in a behaviour. When I’m talking about them, as always, try to think about how it might apply to you.

The frequency of a behaviour can be increased by using reinforcers. Reinforcers can be positive or negative.

A positive reinforcer is when something pleasant is added in response for the correct behaviour. An example of a positive reinforcer would be if your parents gave you candy every time you cleaned up your room. In this case, the candy is a positive reinforcer because it’s something that is added or presented into the situation. In later life, maybe every time you cleaned your house, maybe you thought to yourself, ‘Hey, I did good! I deserve a little sweet’.

A negative reinforcer is when something unpleasant is removed in response for the correct behaviour. An example of a negative reinforcer would be if your alarm sounds at six o’clock and you press the ‘off’ or ‘snooze’ button to make it stop.

Punishers

In contrast, the frequency of a behaviour can be decreased by using punishers. Sounds scary I know; we think of prisons and torture chambers. Punishment weakens behaviour frequency or can even cause it to become extinct. Like reinforcers, punishments can also be either positive or negative.

A positive punishment is when an unpleasant consequence is added following a behaviour. For example, let’s say we wear a new outfit and we get made fun of in front of others. In this case the unpleasant consequence, someone making fun of us, is added which in turn will likely decrease the chance that we’ll wear new outfits.

A negative punishment is when a pleasant consequence is removed following a behaviour. For example, let’s say as a kid we need to lose weight. We go for a weigh in, and it turns out we haven’t lost any weight. Our parents may punish us by not allowing us any desserts until we get to our goal weight. In this case the goal is to decrease weight through punishment in the form of taking away something tasty.

It’s important to note that reinforcers and punishers have one goal: to modify behaviour by either increasing the frequency or decreasing the frequency of it. Understanding how behaviour can be modified by these factors is an important step in learning how to change one’s behaviour.

Moving forward, use the knowledge you’ve just gained to look at how reinforcers and punishers, or certain situations that connect a stimulus and a reward, contribute to a behaviour you’d like to change.

Cognitive learning: Piaget

Let’s now quickly talk about cognitive learning, originally developed by Jean Piaget, a Swiss clinical psychologist. It is exactly what it sounds like, and probably the type you automatically think of when it comes to learning: we learn by using our brain. Specifically, that our brain uses certain processes to understand our environment, problem-solve and then store any important information as a memory. So it’s quite different from Pavlov’s original theory of drooling dogs.

As such, cognitive learning is dynamic and changing, as it can grow as we mature and interact more with our environment. Essentially, we learn and store new skills by doing, interacting and being involved with . . . stuff.

For example, when I was very, very young, I put my hand on a hot stove. I don’t need to tell you this hurt, and I never did it again. But why didn’t I do it again? Well, because I remember that the interaction between my hand and the stove caused pain, and because most humans want to avoid pain at all costs, I was therefore motivated to not repeat this action. So when I’m cooking, whether conscious of it or not, I go back into my brain’s filling cabinet and tap into that memory to prevent being burnt again.

What’s important to understand about cognitive, or ‘brain’, learning is that we understand information by actively processing it, rather than just automatically reacting to it.

Why is this important for you to know when it comes to body confidence? Well, when it comes to how we think about ourselves, if we’ve always disliked ourselves and think we always will, this isn’t true. We can be actively involved with our thoughts and resulting behaviour. Essentially, we have a choice about how we think about ourselves.

Our brains don’t have to be on autopilot.

Social learning theory: Bandura

The next theory I’d like to talk to you about is the social learning theory, which proposes that we learn new behaviours from observing, imitating and modelling the behaviours of others. When it comes to how experiences affect how we feel and what we believe about ourselves, this section is the most relevant of all the learning theories, in my opinion.

The social learning theory was developed by a Canadian (woohoo!) psychologist named Alfred Bandura. Bandura believed that reinforcement couldn’t explain all types of behaviour and added a social element to learning; this is why it’s also known as the social observation theory. While Bandura agreed with previous behaviourists, he also believed in observation and mediation.

We learn through actively observing the behaviour of others—and these others are called models. But no, not fashion models, models in the sense that they are modelling behaviour. So, for example, when I first started exercising in a gym, I was only thirteen. I had no idea what I was doing. So what did I do? I would watch others and learn from them. I wouldn’t talk to them, but rather just watched them from afar and tried to imitate what they were doing. Another example is if you’ve ever watched one of David Attenborough’s shows on monkeys, you’ll see young monkeys watching how older monkeys collect and capture food. The whole point of this observation is to learn.

We are also capable of mediating information from our environment, and therefore we do not automatically imitate a model’s behaviour without thinking of the consequences. So if I was watching someone lift weights that were too heavy for them, which resulted in an injury, I would first consider the consequences of imitating that behaviour before doing it. With our second example, if a young monkey saw an older monkey getting hurt using a specific food gathering technique, they too would likely not try it.

  • Behavioural learning = can only be observed/external behaviour
  • Cognitive learning = includes internal behaviour (mediation/thought processing)

All of this thinking that we do to weigh up the pros and cons of imitating a behaviour is known as mediation. Think about mediation as one of those big bouncers in a night club. Let’s say a guy tries to cut in on someone’s girlfriend. That act would be the stimulus or trigger, and that trigger is going to provoke a response, or behaviour, by the boyfriend.

So the bouncer is our brain that steps in and says, ‘Woah! Before you hit anyone let’s figure out what’s happening and also think about the consequences’. The brain acts like a bouncer to mediate what’s going on.

Can you think of a time that your internal bouncer has made you stop and think about the consequences of engaging in a behaviour? How did that work out for you?

Four Processes of Mediation

As we just discussed, many of us, unconsciously or not, have used our brain’s bouncer at one time or the other. But here’s the thing: there actually is a method to the madness of our brain’s bouncer. The bouncer uses four steps. A good way to remember this process is thinking about the bouncer’s big arms: ARRM.

A for Attention. The first process is that we have to pay attention to the behaviour we are observing. There is a lot of stuff going on at all times, and an endless amount of behaviours to observe, but that doesn’t mean we process all of it. If we did, we wouldn’t get anything done! The behaviour must be significant and noticeable. For example, noticing how a beautiful person (our model) walks or talks and gets attention for it. Perhaps it may be the particular way they walk or move through a crowd. Or maybe it’s that they are smoking or drinking and are getting a lot of attention for it. For us to learn this behaviour, and choose whether to imitate it or not, the behaviour we observe needs to grab our attention.

R for Retention. The second process involved in mediation is retention. If we forget about the behaviour that the beautiful person expresses as soon as we look away, chances are that we won’t replicate the behaviour.

R for Reproduction. The third process involved in mediation is reproduction. This is our ability to perform the behaviour we witness. It’s important to note that reproduction is dependent on ability; therefore our age will be influential. If our model is behaving in ways we can’t easily reproduce, such as smoking cigarettes or drinking alcohol, and we’re only twelve years old, it will be pretty tough (though not impossible) to replicate these behaviours.

M for Motivation: The last process involved in mediation is motivation. To consider imitating the behaviour we observe, we must first weigh up the perceived reward and cost. If the reward outweighs the cost, we’ll likely engage in the behaviour; if not, we won’t. Using our example, we would have to decide whether it’s more important to be ‘cool’ by drinking and smoking, or more important to stay out of trouble.

Final summary and action points

Here are your key take-home messages:

Identification with others affects how we feel about ourselves. When we identify with others, we inadvertently learn from them as well. It is likely that we learn through a variety of factors including conditioning (or training), reinforcement, processing information and through observation.

Actionable advice:

So unlike the robotic theories of behaviourism, mediation means that our responses aren’t automatic, and we are actively involved in the decision to either imitate or not imitate the behaviour that we observed and learned.

Why is this important for you to know? Well, other than the fact that this information is just super cool, this emphasises that we are in control of our thoughts, and therefore have the superpower to change our thoughts and our behaviours, especially those behaviours we don’t like or don’t serve us.

When in doubt, follow the ARRM method:

  • Attention: pay attention to observed behaviour
  • Retention: remember the observed behaviour
  • Reproduction: ability to reproduce the observed behaviour
  • Motivation: weigh pros/cons of replicating the observed behaviour

Dr Katherine x