The cognitive theorists believe that conditioning is a matter of developing an understanding regarding how the learning situation is organized. Conditioning is just not learning of simple S-R associations. The earlier discussions on the phenomena of latent learning, place learning, and contrast effect support the view that learning is cognitive by nature, in each instance of learning; the organism is processing information about the environment to reach a desired goal.

Cognition refers to processes of acquiring knowledge about the environment, which has an internal mental representation. Learning refers to a relatively permanent change in behavioral tendency. The two terms are put together to generate the term ‘cognitive learning’, which refers to a change in the way information is processed as a result of organism’s experience.

The cognitive theorists have shown that even animals demonstrate intellectual capacity for cognitive learning. The two forms of cognitive learning are: (a) insightful learning, and (b) observational learning or learning by imitation. Both these forms of learning are clearly different from classical and operant conditionings. Wolfgang Kohler developed insightful learning, while Albert Bandura advanced the concept of observational learning. Both of them held ideas clearly different from those of Thorndike, Pavlov, and Skinner.

Pavlov, Thorndike, and Skinner, all behaviorists, investigated a form learning that was simple and mechanical. The behaviorists largely ignored the study of learning based on reason and intelligence. Imagine a doctor making a diagnosis of a disease, a student suddenly hitting upon a solution for an arithmetic problem, or a mechanic figuring out why an engine does not work. Pavlov, Thorndike and Skinner ignored these instances of complex learning based on insight.


Secondly, the boxes used by Thorndike and Skinner were too artificial. The boxes did not allow the animals to do anything other than blind guessing to accidentally emit a correct response. The situation did not allow the animals to truly understand the problem. The animal’s natural behaviors are different from the behaviors shown in the box. Kohler showed that animals like chimpanzees are capable of insightful behavior, which is based upon an understanding of the learning situation.

Thirdly, the behaviorists placed undue emphasis on external determinants of behavior. According to the behaviorisms, the organism learns to connect a response to a stimulus, so that when the stimulus comes, the response is given.

In other words, animal’s behavior is under the control of the external stimulus. Behaviorists designed all their experiments to study factors operating as external stimuli. Behaviorists designed all their experiments to study factors operating in the environment, and ignored the factors operating within the organism. The behaviorists did not consider the internal processes such as expectation, understanding and insight of the organism to be important determinants of learning. The cognitive theorists emphasized the internal processes. Gestalt psychologists like Kohler showed that the chimpanzee perceives and thinks, while it learns. The chimpanzee evaluates the information in the learning situation, and combines the piecemeal information into a meaningful whole, and learns to reach a goal by developing insight. The distinctions between the insightful learning and the trial-and-error learning will be discussed later.