Essay // Origins of the Cognitive-Behavioural Model: Biological Constraints in Learning By Operant Conditioning

Mis à jour le Jeudi, 27 Janvier 2022neurolearn


While the “Law of Effect” has one of the most popular concepts in learning theory, the deeper applications have also been questioned. From humans to animals however, although the intelligent management of the concept of reinforcement enables learning to occur, biological factors known as the “instinctive drift” and “autoshapingchallenge the principles of learning. Instances have risen with animals, where unreinforced behaviours were noted without any particular stimulus. Such occurrences have been referred to as “misbehaviour” (Breland & Breland, 1961).

The studies (Timberlake & Grant, 1975) & (Bullock & Myers, 2009) applied 2 different concepts to further understand biological constraints where the possible explanation of classical conditioning (Moore, 1973) was heavily challenged with a more sophisticated argument involving solid claims for a “behaviour-systems analysis”. The idea of “stimulus substitution” in (Moore, 1973) was also questioned by Wasserman (1973), where 3-day old chicks were observed to have adaptable responses to specific stimuli.

The 1960s, The Debate & The Effectiveness of Thorndike’s Findings

Discovered in the 1960s, the two phenomena, instinctive drift and autoshaping have created a lot of debate among psychologists who are in disagreement with one another in providing a concrete explanation.

The main issue in behavioural therapy has been how certain animals [in some cases], would cease performing reinforced behaviours [previously shaped by trainer through operant conditioning] but instead would adopt a new pattern of unreinforced behaviours – even leading to the frequency of the behaviour increasing over time. The phenomena has caused a lot of problems and controversy in the animal behaviourist’s field; as some would see countless amount of work [requiring careful shaping and chaining] being ruined through their animal’s drift from the conditioned task.

The discovery of biological constraints also raise serious questions over the effectiveness of reinforcement in modifying and controlling behaviour. Some researchers such as Timberlake in 1983 argued that the concept of reinforcement learning is inadequate and should be forgotten.

Study 1: Auto-Shaping in Rats to the Presentation of Another Rat predicting Food (Timberlake & Grant, 1975)


The hypotheses in rat experiment were tested by comparing the behaviour of an experimental group with three control groups with each consisting of five male Wistar albino rats, 90 days of age.

During acquisition, each rat received 30 10-second presentation of the predictive stimulus on a variable time schedule with mean interval of 60 seconds. The stimulus-platform was driven by a motor and the cam assembly presented sideways through a flap door.

For Experimental group CS+ each presentation of predictive rat was followed by one 45-mg food pellet. The CS (S) (Social) group received the same pattern of presentation but no food was delivered [since rats are highly social, grouped served as baseline for social reactivity to stimulus].

The CS(T) group was presented with stimulus rat and food, randomly on two independent variable-time 60-second programs.

The CS (W) (Wood) group was subjected to the same procedures as CS+ group, except predictive stimulus was a rat-sized block of wood [to separate the social and predictive effects of the stimulus rat]

Rats in the CS+ group might approach the stimulus rat for its predictive quality and only engage socially due to proximity.

All rats were housed alone during experiment, and after adaptation to a 23-hour feeding schedule, each rat received 22 days of training, 2 days of pretraining, 11 days of acquisition, and 8 days of extinction. On first day of pretraining, each subject was exposed to experimental chamber for 30 minutes.

trialsratThe above figure shows that CS+ animals increased the frequency of Orient, Approach, Sniff and Social Contact during 11-day acquisition period and successfully decreased during extinction. The CS(S) animals also engaged in considerable behaviour towards stimulus rat but performance stabilized at lower level than CS+ animals (Fig 1B)

white ratFindings

These reveal that the form of contact with predictive stimulus cannot be predicted from stimulus substitution hypothesis, but seems to depend on both predictive stimulus and reward; which supports the theory of autoshaping being the reflection of a system of species-typical behaviours commonly related to the reward. The form of the behaviour [in presence of the stimulus], would thus depend on which behaviours in the conditioned system are elicited and supported by the predictive stimulus. The existence of biological constraints is confirmed.

The study proves that the animal will not necessarily associate innate behaviours linked to the primary reinforcer whatever the predictive stimulus is. Here, the predictive stimulus is another rat, and the subject rat does not treat the predictive rat [stimulus] to behaviours connected to eating.

The findings here are also supported by (Bullock & Myers, 2009) where the image of a grey square was used as the predictive stimulus preceding the delivery of bananas. The video retrieved showed monkeys’ touching, grabbing, licking and biting responses towards the grey square that moved along the chamber floor, which are the typical types of behaviours observed when the monkey in its natural environment feeds itself.

The lack of approach to the group seems to suggest a low level of conditioning to the block of wood CS(W), but also shows that approach to predictive rat in the CS+ group was not based on its predictive value alone; conditioned approach depends on the social as well as predictive aspects of stimulus rat. Biological limitations are supported as the results seem to suggest that rats can be conditioned to approach a live rat, but not a block of wood which predicts food. Block and platform provided no social cues and could have been too large to elicit behaviour related to food. 

Study 2: The Misbehaviour of Organisms (Breland & Breland, 1961) 


In this experiment pigs were conditioned to pick up large wooden coins and deposit then in a large “piggy” bank. The coins were placed several feet from the piggy bank and the pigs were required to carry and deposit those coins to be reinforced. Generally, 4 or 5 coins would lead to a reinforcer, although the initial shaping of the pig started with 1 coin for 1 reinforcer.

Photo: Center for the History of Psychology // UOA


The pigs conditioned very rapidly and had no trouble taking ratios on top of having a famously ravenous appetite. However, gradually the same problem developed from pig to pig usually after a period of weeks or months, gradually worsening.

While at first the pig would eagerly pick up dollar, carry it to the bank, then run back to get the next, and so on, until the ratio was complete. After weeks, instead of pursuing the same routine, reinforced behaviour would become slower and slower. The pig would sometimes run to pick a coin but on the way back to the bank, it would drop it, root, drop it again, root it along the way, pick it up in the air, drop it, root it some more and so on.

This change in behaviour was initially believed to be caused by a low-drive, but that odd unreinforced behaviour only increased in intensity and strength in spite of increased drive; finally going over the ratio so slow that it would be left without much to consume.

As the unreinforced behaviour increased in frequency and manifested, it was noted that the behaviour was very similar to those repertoire of food-gathering behaviours pigs usually do in their natural setting.

The Brelands then concluded and referred to the behaviours as instinctive drifts as they seemed to relate to the animal’s innate responses. The subject was replaced by a Raccoon, and a similar unreinforced behaviour appeared, which caused the animal to misbehave. The initial pattern was fine when 1 coin was being given to the Raccoon, however with 2 coins the reinforced behaviour gradually deteriorated leading to Raccoon holding them together, rubbing, dipping in container and out again.

Similarly to the pigs it was deduced these movement were innate behaviour to food in natural setting [rubbing crustacean, for example]. Those behaviours were said to constitute a clear example of the failing of conditioning theory. It was evident that the animal was performing unreinforced behaviours despite the lack of reinforcer; it was concluded that coins were not food, container not a stream [dipping in and out] and no shell to remove [rubbing]. The new behaviour also produced no food, but instead delayed delivery, which makes a clear point for biological constraints in Operant Conditioning.


While the concept of operant conditioning remains a reliable method in learning [having proven to alter behaviour as a result of experience], the unpredictability of an organism seems to suggest that an element of failure in whatsoever process involving animals [living organisms] remains a possibility. On this subject, Skinner established that perhaps animal/organic behaviour is defined by both learning experiences and hereditary drives.

Skinner also concluded that the odd occurrence of unreinforced behaviour would be related to phylogenetic [hereditary] and ontogenetic [learned] influences operating simultaneously.




  1. Breland, K. & Breland, M. (1961). The misbehaviour of organisms. American Psychologist, 16, 681-684
  2. Bullock, C. E., & Myers, T.M. (2009). Stimulus-food pairings produce stimulus-directed touch-screen responding in cynomolgus monkeys Macaca fascicularis) with or without a positive response contingency. Journal of the Experimental Analysis Behavior, 25, 127-135
  3. Bullock, D., & Neuringer, A. (1977). Social Learning by following: An analysis. Journal of Experimental Analysis of Behaviour, 25, 127-135
  4. Mazur, J.E. (2013). Learning and Behaviour (7th Ed.).New Jersey. Pearson, 101-126
  5. Moore, B.R. (1973) The role of directed Pavlovian reactions in simple instrumental learning in the pigeon. In R. A. Hinde & J. Stevenson-Hinde (Eds.), Constraints of Learning. New York: Academic Press, 159-188
  6. Timberlake, W. & Grant D.L. (1975). Auto-Shaping in Rats to the Presentation of Another Rat Predicting Food. Science, New Series, 190, 690-692
  7. Wasserman, E. A (1973). Pavlovian Conditioning with heat reinforcement produces stimulus-directed pecking in chicks. Science, 81, 875-877

Danny J. D’Purb |


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6 thoughts on “Essay // Origins of the Cognitive-Behavioural Model: Biological Constraints in Learning By Operant Conditioning

  1. Horses Can Read And Remember Your Facial Expressions


    •Horses can remember emotional expressions that they’ve seen on human faces
    •Responses differ if horses have seen an angry versus happy photo of the person
    •This lasting memory for emotion is specific to the person whose face they saw
    •Non-human animals monitor human emotions and adjust subsequent behavior accordingly


    For humans, facial expressions are important social signals, and how we perceive specific individuals may be influenced by subtle emotional cues that they have given us in past encounters. A wide range of animal species are also capable of discriminating the emotions of others through facial expressions [ 1–5 ], and it is clear that remembering emotional experiences with specific individuals could have clear benefits for social bonding and aggression avoidance when these individuals are encountered again. Although there is evidence that non-human animals are capable of remembering the identity of individuals who have directly harmed them [ 6, 7 ], it is not known whether animals can form lasting memories of specific individuals simply by observing subtle emotional expressions that they exhibit on their faces. Here we conducted controlled experiments in which domestic horses were presented with a photograph of an angry or happy human face and several hours later saw the person who had given the expression in a neutral state. Short-term exposure to the facial expression was enough to generate clear differences in subsequent responses to that individual (but not to a different mismatched person), consistent with the past angry expression having been perceived negatively and the happy expression positively. Both humans were blind to the photograph that the horses had seen. Our results provide clear evidence that some non-human animals can effectively eavesdrop on the emotional state cues that humans reveal on a moment-to-moment basis, using their memory of these to guide future interactions with particular individuals.

    Proops, L., Grounds, K., Smith, A. and McComb, K. (2018). Animals Remember Previous Facial Expressions that Specific Humans Have Exhibited. Current Biology, 28(9), pp.1428-1432.e4.


    Top 10 des races de grand chien

    Brain scan study reveals dogs attend to word meaning, not just intonation

    A recent study published in Science indicates that many of us might be vastly underestimating canine listening skills. The findings reveal that dogs do not rely exclusively on intonation when judging the reward value of human speech, but that they also recognise the meanings that we assign to words.

    Full Article:

  2. ________________________________________________

    Heritability of Gray Matter Structural Covariation and Tool Use Skills in Chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes): A Source-Based Morphometry and Quantitative Genetic Analysis


    Nonhuman primates, and great apes in particular, possess a variety of cognitive abilities thought to underlie human brain and cognitive evolution, most notably, the manufacture and use of tools. In a relatively large sample (N = 226) of captive chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) for whom pedigrees are well known, the overarching aim of the current study was to investigate the source of heritable variation in brain structure underlying tool use skills. Specifically, using source-based morphometry (SBM), a multivariate analysis of naturally occurring patterns of covariation in gray matter across the brain, we investigated (1) the genetic contributions to variation in SBM components, (2) sex and age effects for each component, and (3) phenotypic and genetic associations between SBM components and tool use skill. Results revealed important sex- and age-related differences across largely heritable SBM components and associations between structural covariation and tool use skill. Further, shared genetic mechanisms appear to account for a heritable link between variation in both the capacity to use tools and variation in morphology of the superior limb of the superior temporal sulcus and adjacent parietal cortex. Findings represent the first evidence of heritability of structural covariation in gray matter among nonhuman primates.

    Hopkins, W., Latzman, R., Mareno, M., Schapiro, S., Gómez-Robles, A. and Sherwood, C. (2018). Heritability of Gray Matter Structural Covariation and Tool Use Skills in Chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes): A Source-Based Morphometry and Quantitative Genetic Analysis. Cerebral Cortex, 29(9), pp.3702-3711.

  3. ___________________________________

    Les abeilles sauvages (2017)


  4. L’aventure de la vie – Les Primates (2009)


    Loups Solitaires en toute Liberté (2016) / Extrait du Documentaire



    L’aventure de la vie – Les Reptiles et Les Amphibiens (2009)


    Floride: Au Royaume des Alligators (2014)


    La France Sauvage (2012)


    Cognitive performance during long-term residence in a polar environment


    The objective of this study was to determine whether there was significant change in cognitive performance by prolonged duration of residence in polar environment. We examined volunteers (N = 23, scientific and logistic personnel) who spent fourteen months of continuous stay at ‘Maitri’ – The Indian research base in Antarctica (70 °45′S, 11 °44′E). Cognitive measures (tests of task acquisition, delayed recognition, attention and concentration, and digit symbol substitution) were obtained at the beginning (second month), the middle (seventh month) and the final (twelfth month) phases of prolonged residence in Antarctica.

    A repeated-measures MANOVA was conducted and the findings indicated a significant increase in percent accuracy in performance of task acquisition, delayed recognition and digit symbol tests that assessed recognition memory and learning. The test of attention and concentration that measured short-term memory for digits showed stable performance over a long-duration of residence in polar environment.

    Findings indicated positive as well as neutral effect on cognitive performance of winter-over residents. The tasks measuring recognition memory and learning showed an increased accuracy over a long-duration. This finding is consistent with some of the previous reports that observed improvement in cognitive performance (for example, Defayolle et al., 1985, Suedfeld et al., 1987, Palinkas et al., 2005 and Mäkinen et al., 2006). However, the task measuring short-term memory for digit showed neither reduction nor improvement from the beginning to the final phases of long-duration of residence.

    This result is in line with the work by Suedfeld (1969) who upon reviewing some consistent findings concluded that no significant decrement occurs on digit span as a result of any of sensory deprivation. Further, quite a few studies reported similar finding that cognitive performance did not reduce over time in isolated and extreme environment (for instance, Brady and Emurian, 1978, Suedfeld, 1980 and Marrao et al., 2005).

    John Paul, F., Mandal, M., Ramachandran, K. and Panwar, M. (2010). Cognitive performance during long-term residence in a polar environment. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 30(1), pp.129-132.

  5. Clinical Psychology: Learning Disabilities, Anxiety, Depression & Schizophrenia and the Effectiveness of Psychotherapy

    CAMHS deal with the psychological issues of people under the age of 18. They are a non-specialist service and often refer to other more specialised departments following the initial assessment of patients. The most common cases tend to be adolescents with depression and anxiety whose manifestations are not different to those of adults and so are treated fairly similarly.

    Inclusivism in Learning Disabilities

    In 1969, Bengt Nirje adopted and developed the concept of normalisation in Sweden and beautifully described it as…
    “making available to all mentally retarded people patterns of life and conditions of everyday living which are as close as possible to the regular circumstances and ways of life of society.”

    – Nirje, 1980

    Learning Disability is not just an impairment in Cognition

    The social impairment of Learning Disabilities – US Statute 111 – 256: Rosa’s Law defines the factual impairment, the imposed or acquired disability and the awareness of being different.

    The Normalisation Theory

    This theory focuses on the mainstream social trends of social devaluation or deviancy making. Some categories of people tend to be valued negatively due to their behaviours, appearances and characteristics, and this places them at the risk of being devalued [according to the Normalisation Theory of Nirje on the societal processes he assumed] – people fulfil various social roles and stereotypes. As part of the deviancy making or social devaluation, the unsophisticated minds of the masses generally do not mean to stereotype, however they seem to do it unconsciously [the unconscious is a concept Sigmund Freud and Jacques Lacan acknowledged in their psychoanalytic theories of mental/psychological activity and its disorders land mental health problems linked to psychopathic tendencies in people towards others], i.e. deviant groups with social symbols or images that are at a higher risk of being devalued are the focus of the normalisation theory, which is believed to be done with the aim of providing them with the skills they need and eventually change the status of these deviant groups.

    Society tends to distance itself from deviant groups without any purpose or belonging, however psychologists provide support for the social integration and valued social participation of people with learning disabilities through exercises that involve learning through imitation. This challenges stereotypes within wider society through direct experiences of spending time with people who are affected by learning disabilities.

    While psychology evolves and sophisticated and modern theories about intelligence and communication such as our “Organic Theory” take shape, we hope that observations such as this one may be digested and understood by the masses, that is:

    “While the communicative patterns [language] in human primates vary with socio-behavioural and geographical patterns; creativity and IQ remain constant and do not change. Intelligence and creativity cannot be stopped because of linguistic differences, since talented and gifted humans do not choose the location of their birth nor their linguistic heritage but still contribute to the enhancement of our civilisation.”

    Which concludes that that the intelligence of an invidual when assessed on a range of variables [e.g. perception, fluid intelligence, reasoning, emotional intelligence, courage, etc] cannot be deduced by simply assessing their academic abilities, since human life has various sides to itself. Hence, the true worth and value of an individual may always remain a problem and a mystery to fully assess, and this seems to go in line with Jean Piaget’s deduction about the uniqueness of the human organism and mind.

    Full Article:

  6. Pingback: Essay // Developmental Psychology: The 3 Major Theories of Childhood Development | dpurb . com

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