8 julio, 2024

Associative learning: characteristics, advantages and disadvantages, examples

He associative learning It is a way of learning or modifying behavior that occurs through the relationship between a stimulus and a response or way of acting. In its broadest sense, this term is used to refer to any learning other than habituation, but in other contexts it is only used to talk about classical and operant conditioning.

Learning is one of the most important processes for living beings, especially for the most evolved animals. Thanks to associative learning we are able to modify our behavior to adapt to the environment, in such a way that we can increase our chances of survival.

Associative learning processes were first studied by behavioral psychology. This discipline focused on trying to understand our behavior leaving aside the content of our mind. Thus, the behaviorists realized that it is possible to modify the behavior of a living being by associating certain behaviors with reinforcements or punishments.

Although behavioral psychology has lost its place as the mainstream in the study of human behavior, associative learning continues to be a fundamental tool in contexts such as education. In this article we will see exactly what it consists of and what its benefits are.


Characteristics of associative learning

– It is present in many species

Unlike other typically human types of learning, associative learning is present in practically all complex animal species. In fact, some experiments suggest that even certain types of insects could use these same mechanisms to modify their behavior, although there is still some debate in this regard.

The reason why associative learning is so pervasive is simple: it is the most useful mechanism for adapting to the environment. Using their tools, animals can very quickly learn what is detrimental to them and what is beneficial for their survival.

– Does not involve advanced cognitive processes

Unlike other more complex types of learning, associative learning occurs unconsciously and can be studied exclusively from the behavioral point of view. Thus, simply by observing the behavior of the individual and the responses of their environment, we can predict what learning will take place.

On most occasions, moreover, the individual himself is not aware of those changes that he is undergoing in his behavior as a consequence of associative learning. Even if we reflect on it, most of the time we are not able to fully understand the associations we have made without realizing it.

– It is based on our instincts

Despite having a multitude of applications, the basis of associative learning is actually quite simple. Through different techniques, the individual relates a positive or negative innate response to a stimulus that a priori does not cause any reaction, in such a way that from that moment on it starts to cause a response that did not exist before.

For example, through a process of reinforcement, it is possible to get an animal to acquire behaviors that were not part of its usual behavior before, such as getting a dog to relieve itself in a sandbox. For this it will be necessary to give him prizes every time he acts as we want, until he associates the fact of using the sandbox with something positive.

Reinforcements and punishments must be based on the animal’s instincts to be effective. Thus, generally the prizes are related to elements such as positive attention, food or sex; punishments have to do with physical or emotional pain.

– Form very lasting learning

Associative learning is very different from other processes of behavior change or knowledge acquisition. On the one hand, the learning achieved through this method is acquired very slowly, since it is necessary to repeat the associations several times until the body internalizes them.

By contrast, once a new learning has been carried out using this method, it is very difficult to get rid of it. The behavior changes achieved with associative learning tend to last a very long time, especially when the appropriate stimuli have been used.

The most extreme example of this is that of phobias. When a person associates very negative emotions with something harmless or neutral in principle, he will feel great discomfort every time he is exposed to it. Phobias often have to be treated in a therapy context, as they do not go away on their own.

Types of associative learning

Among the types of learning that exist, associative is one of the types that includes the most different processes. It is generally said that all types of behavior changes that can occur are part of this category, with the exception of habituation. Even so, some authors also name other processes that would be outside this classification.

In any case, most authors consider that the basic processes within associative learning belong to two categories: classical and operant conditioning.

Classical conditioning

In classical conditioning, the individual associates a stimulus that initially does not cause a response with another that does, often unintentionally.

Operant conditioning

In operant conditioning, on the other hand, the individual increases or decreases his chances of carrying out a particular behavior depending on whether he receives reinforcements or punishments when he performs it. This second type of meaningful learning is the most complex and can occur in a large number of different contexts.

Advantages and disadvantages

As with other methods of acquiring new behaviors and knowledge, associative learning has both advantages and disadvantages. Next we will see which are the most important.

– Advantages

It’s universal

Many of the modern learning methods depend to a great extent on factors that differentiate some people from others, such as culture, personality, motivation or previous knowledge and attitudes. On the contrary, associative learning has the great advantage that it works equally with all individuals.

Thus, a learning system based on reinforcement and punishment will be just as useful for people of any age, ethnic group, culture, ideas, and intellectual capacity. In this way, using the techniques extracted from it, very effective educational methods can be devised and can be applied in different contexts.

Produce lasting learning

As we have already seen, one of the main advantages of associative learning is that the changes in behavior it produces tend to be sustained over time and difficult to eliminate. This, if used properly, can be extremely useful.

For example, one of the most classic applications of this type of learning is the treatment of enuresis (the fact that children urinate on the bed while they sleep). If done properly, a single intervention with associative methods is enough to end the problem.

It is very studied

Due to its universality and the simplicity of its mechanisms of action, associative learning is one of the behavior change and knowledge acquisition systems on which we have the most information. The research on it was one of the first to be carried out in the field of scientific psychology.

Thus, today anyone who wants to carry out an intervention using associative learning has a large amount of information on the subject that will allow them to know all the factors related to this technique and how they affect the changes they want to achieve.

It is useful in many contexts

Due to the universality of its principles, associative learning can be used in many different contexts with hardly any adaptation. Thus, the most common area in which we can see it is educational; but we can also find it in many other places.

For example, associative learning is extremely useful as a therapeutic tool for treating certain kinds of psychological disorders. Problems such as phobias or behavioral disorders can be very easily resolved with interventions based on this type of behavior change.

– Disadvantages

Some of their tools are unethical

One of the biggest criticisms of associative learning is that its use in certain contexts and situations can lead to unethical situations. For this reason, some of its tools are avoided in certain contexts, while others have simply fallen into disuse.

For example, the use of punishment in a therapy or educational context is prohibited in many countries, even though its effectiveness is much higher than the use of reinforcement. On the other hand, using an associative learning process without the knowledge of the subject is highly frowned upon by most professionals.

Not useful for all types of learning

Although associative learning is a very powerful tool in certain contexts, there are some situations in which it is not very useful. This is due to the nature of the changes it can bring about in individuals.

Associative learning is very useful for changing behaviors or attitudes, but it cannot help when it comes to acquiring explicit knowledge or memorizing concepts. Therefore, within traditional classrooms it can only be used indirectly.

Examples of associative learning

Associative learning is one of our brain’s most important tools for relating to the environment, which means that we can find it in many everyday situations. Some examples of associative learning are:

– When a person feels unwell after trying a certain food, they quickly learn to avoid it. This type of learning is called “acquired taste aversion”.

– A dog learns that sitting down will receive a cookie. He associates sitting with the cookie.

– A child associates getting bad grades with punishment.

– In a more formal context, we have already seen that associative learning can be used to treat certain problems such as phobias or lack of motivation. Through the use of reinforcements and punishments it is possible to permanently modify the behaviors and attitudes of a person. For example, a child is taught that after doing homework she will receive a snack.


“Associative learning: definition, theory and examples”in: Study. Retrieved on: May 18, 2020 from Study: study.com. “Associative learning”in: Britannica. Retrieved on: May 18, 2020 from Britannica: britannica.com. “Associative Learning: Learning from association or relating several things”in: Cognifit. Retrieved on: May 18, 2020 from Cognifit: blog.cognifit.com. “Associative learning”in: Science Direct. Retrieved on: May 18, 2020 from Science…

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