If some behaviour is innate, other behaviour is learnt through various series of events that happen at critical times early in life, or later on and throughout.
Habituation is a very primordial and simple learning mechanism that involves desensitisation to repetitive stimuli that are not rewarding nor harmful. Baby birds are habituated to the sound of falling leaves or birds of their own species, when they learn that they do not signal danger.
Being able to disregard the constant background noise in the environment and “false alarms” saves energy and allows focus on the real, relevant stimuli such as finding food, intra-species communication and detecting genuine threats.
Other examples of habituation include learning that randomly dripping water from the sink in the middle of the night is ok, someone walking through the front door is ok when you don’t live alone (after previously living alone and jumping scared if the front door opened), and pigeons in cities learning to be close to humans without the anxiety that might have initially been caused.
Imprinting is a type of learning that is thought to occur at a specific, sensitive time and have irreversible, lasting consequences regardless of its outcome. Imprinting can take place with regards to parenting, mating and other types of situations such as human-computer interactions.
It is defined as a period during which a particular set of lessons is established rigidly. It was classically represented by Konrad Lorenz and the baby ducks that imprinted on him as their parent and followed him around. This type of parenting-related imprinting is called filial imprinting.
They do not just follow the parent around, but full-blown fly with them too! If you think this is a bit crazy, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet because we are about to cover sexual imprinting.
Sexual imprinting refers to imprinting related to what sexual partner is found attractive. Many birds raised from hatching by humans sexually imprint on them rather than a fellow bird. This gets to a point where the human keeper has to be a mediator between the birds during mating. This involves wearing a special hat that catches bird semen as the bird mates with the human head, and then deliver the semen to the other bird via a pipette or syringe while pressing its back with a hand to simulate bird mating.
Sexual imprinting onto human keepers has also happened with a panda bear who rejected a fellow panda when they were brought together for mating, but approached the human instead. Within the same species, male zebra finches sexually imprint on the bird who raised them even when it’s not biologically related, so later are attracted to birds that look alike.
A human-computer interaction imprinting scenario is called baby duck syndrome and refers to people having a hard time programming in an environment different to the one they were originally taught in. The original system is seen as the benchmark against which others are judged, and it can interfere with the learning process.
Classical conditioning is the scenario of the dog salivating over food, then associating a bell ringing with the food and salivating thereafter at the sound of the bell only.
It relies on strong biological responses to unconditioned stimuli (US) in order to then pair the US with any neutral stimulus and, over a certain period of time and number of repeated instances, result in a conditioned response from a conditioned stimulus.
Operant conditioning involves the change in magnitude of behaviour base on its consequences. Consequences can be classified into positive or negative. Positive consequences involve the addition of either a reward or a punishment, while negative consequences involved the removal of either a reward or a punishment.
Therefore, reinforcement and punishment can be positive or negative. A positive reinforcement is a reward. A negative reinforcement is taking away of a punishment.
A positive punishment is giving a punishment. A negative punishment is taking away a reward.
Reinforcement (whether positive or negative), as the name suggests, results in an increase of the behaviour it follows. Punishment (whether positive or negative) results in a decrease of the behaviour it follows.
The intensity of reinforcements and punishments of a certain behaviour over time give the overall outcome of how often the behaviour will take place. A previously reinforced behaviour that no longer is reinforced will become less likely in a scenario called extinction.
Learning in operant conditioning depends on a number of factors such as contingency, immediacy and size. A consistent consequence that is strongly associated with a behaviour, occurs quickly following the behaviour, and is a large reinforcement or punishment will have a greater learning outcome compared to a weakly associated, small and delayed response.