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Learned behaviors

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Habituation, imprinting, classical conditioning, operant conditioning, and cognitive learning.

Key points

  • Habituation is a simple learned behavior in which an animal gradually stops responding to a repeated stimulus.
  • Imprinting is a specialized form of learning that occurs during a brief period in young animals—e.g., ducks imprinting on their mother.
  • In classical conditioning, a new stimulus is associated with a pre-existing response through repeated pairing of new and previously known stimuli.
  • In operant conditioning, an animal learns to perform a behavior more or less frequently through a reward or punishment that follows the behavior.
  • Some animals, especially primates, are capable of more complex forms of learning, such as problem-solving and the construction of mental maps.


If you own a dog—or have a friend who owns a dog—you probably know that dogs can be trained to do things like sit, beg, roll over, and play dead. These are examples of learned behaviors, and dogs can be capable of significant learning. By some estimates, a very clever dog has cognitive abilities on par with a two-and-a-half-year-old human!start superscript, 1, end superscript
In general, a learned behavior is one that an organism develops as a result of experience. Learned behaviors contrast with innate behaviors, which are genetically hardwired and can be performed without any prior experience or training. Of course, some behaviors have both learned and innate elements. For instance, zebra finches are genetically preprogrammed to learn a song, but the song they sing depends on what they hear from their fathers.
In this article, we'll take a look at some examples of learned behaviors in animals. We'll start with simple ones like habituation and imprinting, then work our way up to complex cases like operant conditioning and cognitive learning.

Simple learned behaviors

Learned behaviors, even though they may have innate components or underpinnings, allow an individual organism to adapt to changes in the environment. Learned behaviors are modified by previous experiences; examples of simple learned behaviors include habituation and imprinting.


Habituation is a simple form of learning in which an animal stops responding to a stimulus, or cue, after a period of repeated exposure. This is a form of non-associative learning, meaning that the stimulus is not linked with any punishment or reward.
For example, prairie dogs typically sound an alarm call when threatened by a predator. At first, they will give this alarm call in response to hearing human steps, which indicate the presence of a large and potentially hungry animal.
Image credit: Black-tailed prairie dogs by Mathae, CC BY-SA 3.0
However, the prairie dogs gradually become habituated to the sound of human footsteps, as they repeatedly experience the sound without anything bad happening. Eventually, they stop giving the alarm call in response to footsteps. In this example, habituation is specific to the sound of human footsteps, as the animals still respond to the sounds of potential predators.


Imprinting is a simple and highly specific type of learning that occurs at a particular age or life stage during the development of certain animals, such as ducks and geese. When ducklings hatch, they imprint on the first adult animal they see, typically their mother. Once a duckling has imprinted on its mother, the sight of the mother acts as a cue to trigger a suite of survival-promoting behaviors, such as following the mother around and imitating her.
Image credit: Behavioral biology: Figure 6 by OpenStax College, Biology, CC BY 4.0
How do we know this is not an innate behavior, in which the duckling is hardwired to follow around a female duck? That is, how do we know imprinting is a learning process conditioned by experience? If newborn ducks or geese see a human before they see their mother, they will imprint on the human and follow it around just as they would follow their real mother.
An interesting case of imprinting being used for good comes from efforts to rehabilitate the endangered whooping crane by raising chicks in captivity. Biologists dress up in full whooping crane costume while caring for the young birds, ensuring that they don't imprint on humans but rather on the bird dummies that are part of the costume. Eventually, they teach the birds to migrate using an ultralight aircraft, preparing them for release into the wild.start superscript, 2, comma, 3, end superscript
Image credits: left, Costumed human by Steve Hillebrand/USFWS, CC BY 2.0; right, Whooping crane ultralight migration by USFWS, CC BY 2.0

Conditioned behaviors

Conditioned behaviors are the result of associative learning, which takes two forms: classical conditioning and operant conditioning.

Classical conditioning

In classical conditioning, a response already associated with one stimulus is associated with a second stimulus to which it had no previous connection. The most famous example of classical conditioning comes from Ivan Pavlov’s experiments in which dogs were conditioned to drool—a response previously associated with food—upon hearing the sound of a bell.
As Pavlov observed, and as you may have noticed too, dogs salivate, or drool, in response to the sight or smell of food. This is something dogs do innately, without any need for learning. In the language of classical conditioning, this existing stimulus-response pair can be broken into an unconditioned stimulus, the sight or smell of food, and an unconditioned response, drooling.
Image credit: Behavioral biology: Figure 7 by OpenStax College, Biology, CC BY 4.0
In Pavlov's experiments, every time a dog was given food, another stimulus was provided alongside the unconditioned stimulus. Specifically, a bell was rung at the same time the dog received food. This ringing of the bell, paired with food, is an example of a conditioning stimulus—a new stimulus delivered in parallel with the unconditioned stimulus.
Image credit: Behavioral biology: Figure 7 by OpenStax College, Biology, CC BY 4.0
Over time, the dogs learned to associate the ringing of the bell with food and to respond by drooling. Eventually, they would respond with drool when the bell was rung, even when the unconditioned stimulus, the food, was absent. This new, artificially formed stimulus-response pair consists of a conditioned stimulus, the bell ringing, and a conditioned response, drooling.
Image credit: Behavioral biology: Figure 7 by OpenStax College, Biology, CC BY 4.0
Is the unconditioned response, drooling in response to food, exactly identical to the conditioned response, drooling in response to the bell? Not necessarily. Pavlov discovered that the saliva in the conditioned dogs was actually different in composition than the saliva of unconditioned dogs.

Operant conditioning

Operant conditioning is a bit different than classical conditioning in that it does not rely on an existing stimulus-response pair. Instead, whenever an organism performs a behavior—or an intermediate step on the way to the complete behavior—it is given a reward or a punishment. At first, the organism may perform the behavior—e.g., pressing a lever—purely by chance. Through reinforcement, the organism is induced to perform the behavior more or less frequently.
One prominent early investigator of operant conditioning was the psychologist B. F. Skinner, the inventor of the Skinner box, see image below. Skinner put rats in boxes containing a lever that would dispense food when pushed by the rat. The rat would initially push the lever a few times by accident, and would then begin to associate pushing the lever with getting the food. Over time, the rat would push the lever more and more frequently in order to obtain the food.
Image credit: modified from Skinner box by Andreas1, CC BY-SA 3.0; the modified image is licensed under a CC BY-SA 3.0 license
Not all of Skinner's experiments involved pleasant treats. The bottom of the box consisted of a metal grid that could deliver an electric shock to rats as a punishment. When the rat got an electric shock each time it performed a certain behavior, it quickly learned to stop performing the behavior. As these examples show, both positive and negative reinforcement can be used to shape an organism's behavior in operant conditioning. Ouch! Poor rats!
Operant conditioning is the basis of most animal training. For instance, you might give your dog a biscuit or a "Good dog!" every time it sits, rolls over, or refrains from barking. On the other hand, cows in a field surrounded by an electrified fence will quickly learn to avoid brushing up against the fence.start superscript, 4, end superscript
As these examples illustrate, operant conditioning through reinforcement can cause animals to engage in behaviors they would not have naturally performed or to avoid behaviors that are normally part of their repertoire.

Learning and cognition

Humans, other primates, and some non-primate animals are capable of sophisticated learning that does not fit under the heading of classical or operant conditioning. Let's look at some examples of problem-solving and complex spatial learning in nonhuman animals.

Problem-solving in chimpanzees

The German scientist Wolfgang Köhler did some of the earliest studies on problem-solving in chimpanzees. He found that the chimps were capable of abstract thought and could think their way through possible solutions to a puzzle, envisioning the result of a solution even before they carried it out.
For example, in one experiment, Köhler hung a banana in the chimpanzees' cage, too high for them to reach. Several boxes were also placed randomly on the floor. Faced with this dilemma, some of the chimps—after a few false starts and some frustration—stacked the boxes one on top of the other, climbed on top of them, and got the banana. This behavior suggests they could visualize the result of stacking the boxes before they actually carried out the action.start superscript, 5, end superscript

Spatial learning in rats

Learning that extends beyond simple association is not limited to primates. For instance, maze-running experiments done in the 1920s—maze shown below—demonstrated that rats were capable of complex spatial learning.start superscript, 6, comma, 7, end superscript
Image credit: modified from Behavioral biology: Figure 9 by OpenStax College, Biology, CC BY 4.0; based on original publication by Blodgettstart superscript, 6, end superscript, reproduced by Tolmanstart superscript, 7, end superscript
In these experiments, rats were divided into three groups:
  • Group I: Rats got food at the end of the maze from day one.
  • Group II: Rats were placed in the maze on six consecutive days before receiving food at the end of the maze.
  • Group III: Rats were placed in the maze for three consecutive days before receiving food at the end of the maze.
Not surprisingly, rats given a food reward from day one appeared to learn faster—had a more rapid drop in their number of errors while running the maze—than rats not given an initial reward. What was most striking, however, was what happened after the Group II and III rats were given food.
Image credit: modified from Behavioral biology: Figure 9 by OpenStax College, Biology, CC BY 4.0; based on original publication by Blodgettstart superscript, 8, end superscript, reproduced by Tolmanstart superscript, 9, end superscript
In both groups, the day after the food had been provided, the rats showed a sharp drop in number of errors, almost catching up to the Group I rats. This pattern suggested that the Group II and III rats had, in fact, been learning efficiently, building a mental map, in the previous days. They just didn't have much reason to demonstrate their learning until the food showed up!
These results show that rats are capable of complex spatial learning, even in the absence of a direct reward, in other words, without reinforcement. Later experiments confirmed that the rats make a representation of the maze in their minds—a cognitive map—rather than simply learning a conditioned series of turns.

Want to join the conversation?

  • blobby green style avatar for user Alan 208282
    Through training, can we improve the gorilla's IQ?
    (6 votes)
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    • female robot grace style avatar for user Trash Panda
      Yes probably we could. But gorillas have a lot of IQ of their own and we can't change that through boxes and bananas. In other words we can't train them out of their Innate behaviors. Its sort of like this: When you go to the doctors do they use a small hammer to bump your knee? They probably do. They are supposed to anyway. Do you flinch? If so this is one of the Innate responses and you can't be trained to stop doing it.
      (9 votes)
  • spunky sam green style avatar for user Bonney, Sierra; 200609208
    why are animals are alert when they are getting food?
    (5 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user hassairighada1
    why is habituation considered as a learned behavior ? I mean if the ducks recognize their "mother" the moment they hatch ( 0 experience), shouldn't it be an innate behavior?
    (2 votes)
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    • aqualine ultimate style avatar for user Nele Utermöhlen
      First of all habituation is not the same as imprinting (just be careful not to confuse the terms).
      Secondly: the interesting thing about imprinting is, that it actually combines innate parts with learned ones. It is innate for ducks to follow objects that move and make noises. But the ducks can't know how their mother locks exactly and have to learn a picture of her first (13-16 hours after they hatch).
      So sure, it is inborn for ducks to learn the picture of their mother - but they have to learn it first (it is actually obligatory for them to learn as they have to be able to distinguish between their mother and other adult ducks).
      (8 votes)
  • blobby purple style avatar for user Ravyn
    if you raised a baby whooping crane in captivity, by humans, how would you teach it to fly?
    (4 votes)
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  • starky sapling style avatar for user Addie
    So how does the mat maze work?
    Do they let them see the maze from above or what?
    (3 votes)
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  • boggle green style avatar for user yibo
    Can you give an example of a human expressing habituation because I can't think of anything.
    (1 vote)
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    • boggle blue style avatar for user Davin V Jones
      Where do you live? If you live in a city, do traffic noises bother you at night when you're sleeping? Or if you live near train tracks, do trains in the middle of the night disturb your sleep? Someone living in a rural area, or away from trains, may find those sounds disturbing.
      (2 votes)
  • boggle green style avatar for user yibo
    So is imprinting getting closer to their mother or getting more independent and away from their parents? I'm just a little confused. :/
    (1 vote)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user Nifemi Abikoye
    is specific phobia a learned behavior or are they influenced by other factors
    (1 vote)
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    • piceratops ultimate style avatar for user Hecretary Bird
      It varies. You can develop a phobia of men wearing sunglasses if a man wearing sunglasses beat you up and that was a very traumatic experience. You could also have a phobia of lions, because people that ran away from lions may have had a higher chance to pass their genes along than people that stood looking at lions.
      (2 votes)
  • blobby green style avatar for user faarehas2000
    What about observational learning?
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  • male robot donald style avatar for user Charlie W
    How is imprinting a learned behaviour if it's the first thing birds do on hatching? They can't have learnt it from anywhere if it's the first thing they do. I thought that the imprinting itself is innate, but the mother they imprint upon enables them to acquire many more behaviours by learning.
    (1 vote)
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