The Basics of Learning

Virtually every experience in our lives has a biophysiological impact. Learning is, at its core, a biological process, involving the perceptual system and the brain. In addition to simple learning processes such as modeling, classical conditioning, and operant conditioning, human learning has highly complex features as well. The central nervous system is designed with an immense capacity for remembering events and integrating their nuances into scripts and schemas for future reference, used to facilitate speedy decision making in later situations. Psychologists today believe that the mind is “richly endowed from the outset” (Karmiloff-Smith, 1991, p. 171) but that, ultimately, learning is “jointly determined” by innate mechanisms and experience (Gelman, 1991, p. 312). In this book, we cover parental sensitivity (as a component of the attachment process), parental warmth and abuse. In this section, we will emphasize aspects of learning relevant for understanding the importance of those processes.

Bandura (1986) and others have emphasized the cognitive component of learning. Learning experiences are represented in the mind, and this representation determines future behavior. Action sequences are coded into memory, and these usually translate into abstract rules of conduct (Perry, Perry, & Boldizar, 1990). Through vicarious learning, we extract general rules as well (Bandura, 1986; Simons, Simons & Wallace, 2004). Humans are behavioral strategists and experiences may turn into long-term habits (Vila, 1994). According to Vila (1994), the propensity to use force, fraud, or stealth (criminality) comprises a set of behavioral habits based on individual characteristics and prior socialization. The process is ongoing and highly related to day-to-day social experience.

Studies have found biases and deficits among aggressive children at all stages of processing. Of great interest are the differences in attention to and interpretation of situational cues. It has been known for a long time that anger and aggression are influenced by our assessment of the intentionality and blameworthiness of a provocateur. Anger and aggression are increased when provocations are seen as intentional, foreseeable, and perpetrated for socially unacceptable reasons (Rule & Ferguson, 1984). We construct knowledge about the actor to make this assessment. Research suggests that, although children less than 10 years old do not consistently have the ability to take into account other people’s emotions, motivations, and intentions, even very young children categorize people as “nice” or “mean” and differentiate between “accidental” and intentional transgressions (Rule & Ferguson, 1984).

Research on chronically aggressive children suggests that they attend to fewer situational cues than nonaggressive children and are more likely to focus on hostile cues. These children are prone to hostile attribution bias as well, interpreting people and situations as hostile rather than benign (Dodge, 1993). The magnitude of the effect is not always large, and the bias only seems to occur when a situation is personal and emotionally charged (Dodge, 1993). Aggressive children tend to ascribe hostile meanings to features of social interactions and are more likely to interpret peer behavior as hostile and threatening than nonaggressive children are (Pettit, 1997). Importantly, hostile attribution bias has been associated with violent but not nonviolent crimes (Dodge et al., 1990). Research suggests that aggressive children search for fewer cues than nonaggressive children before making a decision about how to behave and are biased in favor of perceiving hostile intent in others (Perry et al., 1990). They also generate fewer solutions to hypothetical story conflicts than other children and they evaluate an aggressive response more favorably than nonaggressive peers. Finally, they may have social skills deficits, making it difficult for them to enact a positive response (Perry et al., 1990). Intelligence deficits (discussed in Chapter 4) and learning disabilities (discussed in Chapter 5) may prevent children from learning prosocial strategies, reasoning, and problem solving.

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