Domain-Specific Learning Theories


When a stimulus is first presented, it elicits an orienting response and attention to that stimulus. That is, after it is perceived, it influences internal states, such as arousal—leading the actor to attend to its source. Continue repeating exposure to that stimulus, however, and arousal decreases, lowering the time spent attending. Habituation has occurred, which implies familiarity with the stimulus—an elementary but important type of learning. All that is needed for habituation learning is single or repeated exposure to a stimulus. In fact, even a single exposure that is too fast to be consciously noticed can be learned and can change behavior (e.g., Bridger, 1961; Colombo & Mitchell, 2009).

Habituation also accounts for our ability to learn to tolerate noxious or threatening situations. Enter a noisy space and it will immediately be noticeable, even jarring. Remain there for some time and you will accommodate to that level of noise. The noise level could even be gradually increased over time and we would habituate to it and show greater tolerance of it. Tolerance to spousal abuse, media violence, and noxious smells can all be at least partly explained by habituation (see Sidman, 1960, for other interesting examples). For example, frequent consumers of violent video game content, those who have habituated to scenes of violence, display lessened physiological arousal to real-life violence (Carnagey, Anderson,

& Bushman, 2007) and exhibit lower activation of event-related potentials associated with aversive motivations when exposed to violent images (Bartholow, Bushman, & Sestir, 2006).

A related learning process is discrimination; learning to distinguish two or more things that are not the same. Discrimination learning only requires repeated exposures for learning to occur. It usually helps if the repeated exposures provide an opportunity for comparison. Discrimination learning also does not need any type of reinforcement, although reinforcement can sometimes speed up learning. These types of learning often need to occur prior to other types, such as associative learning. Only after you can recognize something (habituation) or discriminate it as being different from other things can you learn to associate it with different things and consequences.

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