MCAT Social and Behavioral Sciences : Associative Learning

Study concepts, example questions & explanations for MCAT Social and Behavioral Sciences

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Example Question #1 : Classical Conditioning

Alice's dog is very anxious around cats; every time he sees one he whines. Alice began taking her dog for a walk every morning and passed the neighbor's house with cats that perched themselves on the windowsill. Her dog would whine until the cats were out of sight. Eventually, the cats disappeared from the windowsill; however, her dog continued to whine whenever he saw the neighbor's house. 

In this example, what is the unconditioned stimulus (US), unconditioned response (UR), neutral stimulus (NS), conditioned stimulus (CS), and conditioned response (CR)?

Possible Answers:

None of these

US: Cats; UR: Whining; NS: Cats; CS: The neighbor's house; CR: Whining

US: Cats; UR: Whining; NS: The neighbor's house; CS: The neighbor's house; CR: Whining

US: Whining; UR: Cats; NS: The neighbor's house; CS: The neighbor's house; CR: Whining

US: The neighbor's house; UR: Whining; NS: Cats; CS: Cats; CR: Whining

Correct answer:

US: Cats; UR: Whining; NS: The neighbor's house; CS: The neighbor's house; CR: Whining

Explanation:

The unconditioned stimulus is the cats and the unconditioned response is whining. This is because it is made clear that, from the beginning, the dog whines upon seeing cats. No conditioning has occurred to cause this behavior. The house represents the neutral stimulus, because it is being paired with the unconditioned stimulus (i.e. the cats). Walking past the house with the cats every morning represents the period of the dog's conditioning (i.e. he is repeatedly seeing the unconditioned stimulus paired with the neutral stimulus).

Eventually, the unconditioned stimulus (the cats) disappears. This is the period after conditioning, and if conditioned well, then the dog will continue to whine (which is now the conditioned response) when seeing the house (which is now the conditioned stimulus). 

For comparison, Pavlov's dogs always salivated (unconditioned response) in response to seeing food (unconditioned stimulus). During the conditioning period, a neutral stimulus (a bell) was rung while showing the food to the dogs (i.e. the neutral stimulus is paired with the unconditioned stimulus). Following the conditioning period, the bell alone (no food) triggered salivation in the dogs. The bell became the conditioned stimulus and the salivation became the conditioned response.

Example Question #2 : Classical Conditioning

Alice's dog hates vacuum cleaners. He has been conditioned to bark every time she opens the closet door, because usually this means she will begin vacuuming. She begins storing her shoes in the closet and keeps the vacuum in the basement; however, he continues to bark when she opens the closet door. Consider the given processes associated with the scenario.

Process A

If Alice continues to open the closet door without beginning to vacuum, then eventually the dog will stop barking.

Process B

If Alice then stops using the closet altogether for several months, and then suddenly opens it again, the dog will begin barking.

What are the two processes (A and B) that best describe this scenario?

Possible Answers:

Process A: Generalization

Process B: Discrimination

Process A: Discrimination

Process B: Acquisition

Process A: Extinction

Process B: Spontaneous recovery

Process A: Extinction

Process B: Acquisition

Process A: Spontaneous recovery

Process B: Generalization

Correct answer:

Process A: Extinction

Process B: Spontaneous recovery

Explanation:

The process of repeatedly seeing the conditioned stimulus (e.g., the opening of the closet door) without the unconditioned stimulus (e.g., vacuuming) is extinction. The dog has stopped associating the opening of the closet door with the frightening vacuum. 

If the subject is not exposed to the conditioned stimulus (e.g. opening the closet door) for a period of time (e.g. several months, though this could be shorter or longer depending on the situation) and then is suddenly re-exposed to the conditioned stimulus, then spontaneous recovery can occur. The conditioned response suddenly occurs again when exposed to the conditioned stimulus. In this case, Alice opens the door several months later and the dog barks again. If she continues to open the door again, without using the vacuum, the extinction process will occur again.

“Acquisition” is the initial process of conditioning, during which the neutral stimulus (e.g. opening of the closet door) is paired with the unconditioned stimulus (e.g. vacuuming). “Generalization” is when similar stimuli to the conditioned stimulus trigger the conditioned response. For example, if the dog began barking when Alice opened any door. “Discrimination” is when only the specific conditioned stimulus triggers the conditioned response (i.e. only the opening of the closet door, not any other, door) elicits the barking. 

Example Question #3 : Classical Conditioning

Diana takes the subway to and from school every day. Her family’s apartment, situated in a low-income neighborhood of New York City, is a thirty-minute walk from the subway station. During her trips to the subway, Diana loves to watch people work, play, and socialize. She feels very safe in her community because she trusts the people around her. 

On a different occasion, Diana stumbles on a set of stairs and crashes towards the pavement. She reaches out to break her fall and feels a crackling sensation as her hand hits the ground. She finds a large scrape across her palm that does not completely heal for weeks. For months after this event, Diana feels anxious whenever she sees a set of stairs. In terms of classical conditioning, the sight of stairs would be described as which of the following?

Possible Answers:

Unconditioned stimulus

Conditioned stimulus

Conditioned response

Unconditioned response

Correct answer:

Conditioned stimulus

Explanation:

When Diana sees a set of stairs, they act as a stimulus to induce anxiety. Since she did not feel this way before the accident, the sight of stairs would be a “conditioned stimulus.” Anxiety is the “conditioned response.” The initial stumble and injury would be the “unconditioned stimulus” and “response,” respectively.

Example Question #4 : Classical Conditioning

Russian psychologist Ivan Pavlov extensively studied learning in animals. Most significantly, he contributed to the idea that is currently referred to as classical conditioning. Many know him from the popularly cited Pavlovian dog study from the greater experiment known as Lectures on the Function of the Principle Digestive Glands (1897).

In the Pavlovian dog experiment, Pavlov paired a neutral stimulus with a pleasurable one. The neutral stimulus was the ringing sound of a metronome, while the pleasurable stimulus was food. Pavlov never fed his dogs without ringing the metronome first, and as a result, his dogs would later salivate upon hearing the sound of the metronome. This learning process is known as conditioning, and this this specific instance, classical conditioning.

Later, Pavlov began ringing the metronome without feeding the dogs. As a result, the dogs eventually stopped salivating upon hearing the metronome. This is known as extinction. Finally, upon reintroducing the metronome/food pairing, the dogs quickly began salivating again, which is known as spontaneous recovery.

The passage describes classical conditioning, which of the following best describes the relationship between classical conditioning and operant conditioning.

Possible Answers:

Both operant and classical conditioning pair a behavior with a punishment or a reward.

Operant conditioning pairs a behavior with an arbitrary stimulus, while classical conditioning pairs a behavior with a punishment or a reward.

Both operant and classical conditioning pair a behavior with an arbitrary stimulus.

Classical conditioning pairs a behavior with an arbitrary stimulus, while operant conditioning pairs a behavior with a punishment or a reward.

Correct answer:

Classical conditioning pairs a behavior with an arbitrary stimulus, while operant conditioning pairs a behavior with a punishment or a reward.

Explanation:

Classical conditioning, as described in the passage, pairs a stimulus (e.g. the sound of a bell) with another behavior (e.g. receiving food). Eventually, according to the precepts of classical conditioning the bell will elicit a response (e.g. salivating in anticipation of receiving food). On the other hand, operant conditioning is a type of learning that is mediated by punishments and rewards/reinforcements. The punishment or reinforcement either encourages or discourages the learner from repeating a certain behavior.

Example Question #5 : Classical Conditioning

Russian psychologist Ivan Pavlov extensively studied learning in animals. Most significantly, he contributed to the idea that is currently referred to as classical conditioning. Many know him from the popularly cited Pavlovian dog study from the greater experiment known as Lectures on the Function of the Principle Digestive Glands (1897).

In the Pavlovian dog experiment, Pavlov paired a neutral stimulus with a pleasurable one. The neutral stimulus was the ringing sound of a metronome, while the pleasurable stimulus was food. Pavlov never fed his dogs without ringing the metronome first, and as a result, his dogs would later salivate upon hearing the sound of the metronome. This learning process is known as conditioning, and this this specific instance, classical conditioning.

Later, Pavlov began ringing the metronome without feeding the dogs. As a result, the dogs eventually stopped salivating upon hearing the metronome. This is known as extinction. Finally, upon reintroducing the metronome/food pairing, the dogs quickly began salivating again, which is known as spontaneous recovery.

Prior to feeding his hamster, a young boy flicks the side of the hamster's cage so that the hamster hears a "bang" noise. He does this every time before feeding the hamster. Based on the passage and the idea of generalization, what behavior can we expect the hamster to perform upon hearing someone knock on the cage, instead of flicking the cage?

Possible Answers:

The hamster will ignore the stimulus altogether

The hamster will proceed to run on his wheel

The hamster will run to his food dish

The hamster will become fearful and try to escape

Correct answer:

The hamster will run to his food dish

Explanation:

According to the idea of generalization, a stimulus similar to the conditioned stimulus will elicit the conditioned response. If this hamster has generalized the stimulus, then he will recognize the knock on his cage as being similar (or the same) as the flick on his cage. As a result, we can expect the hamster to run to his food dish in anticipation of being fed. If the hamster ignored the stimulus, then that would be a good example of discrimination, not generalization. Additionally, while it is possible, we have no reason to believe that the hamster would become fearful or would run on his wheel based on the idea of generalization.

Example Question #6 : Classical Conditioning

Russian psychologist Ivan Pavlov extensively studied learning in animals. Most significantly, he contributed to the idea that is currently referred to as classical conditioning. Many know him from the popularly cited Pavlovian dog study from the greater experiment known as Lectures on the Function of the Principle Digestive Glands (1897).

In the Pavlovian dog experiment, Pavlov paired a neutral stimulus with a pleasurable one. The neutral stimulus was the ringing sound of a metronome, while the pleasurable stimulus was food. Pavlov never fed his dogs without ringing the metronome first, and as a result, his dogs would later salivate upon hearing the sound of the metronome. This learning process is known as conditioning, and this this specific instance, classical conditioning.

Later, Pavlov began ringing the metronome without feeding the dogs. As a result, the dogs eventually stopped salivating upon hearing the metronome. This is known as extinction. Finally, upon reintroducing the metronome/food pairing, the dogs quickly began salivating again, which is known as spontaneous recovery.

Prior to feeding his hamster, a young boy flicks the side of the hamster's cage so that the hamster hears a "bang" noise. He does this every time before feeding the hamster. Based on the passage and the idea of discrimination, what behavior can we expect the hamster to perform upon hearing someone knock on the cage, instead of flicking the cage?

Possible Answers:

The hamster will run to his food dish

The hamster will proceed to run on his wheel

The hamster will become fearful and try to escape

The hamster will ignore the stimulus altogether

Correct answer:

The hamster will ignore the stimulus altogether

Explanation:

According to the idea of discrimination, a conditioned stimulus can be distinguished from other stimuli. If the hamster has been able to discriminate, then it is likely that he will ignore the knock on the cage, and recognize that the knock sound is not the same as a flick sound. On the other hand, if the hamster generalizes the stimulus, then he will respond to the knock in the same way that he responds to the flick, and run to his food dish. Based on the idea of discrimination, we have no reason to expect the hamster to run on his wheel, or to try to escape in fear.

Example Question #7 : Classical Conditioning

Russian psychologist Ivan Pavlov extensively studied learning in animals. Most significantly, he contributed to the idea that is currently referred to as classical conditioning. Many know him from the popularly cited Pavlovian dog study from the greater experiment known as Lectures on the Function of the Principle Digestive Glands (1897).

In the Pavlovian dog experiment, Pavlov paired a neutral stimulus with a pleasurable one. The neutral stimulus was the ringing sound of a metronome, while the pleasurable stimulus was food. Pavlov never fed his dogs without ringing the metronome first, and as a result, his dogs would later salivate upon hearing the sound of the metronome. This learning process is known as conditioning, and this this specific instance, classical conditioning.

Later, Pavlov began ringing the metronome without feeding the dogs. As a result, the dogs eventually stopped salivating upon hearing the metronome. This is known as extinction. Finally, upon reintroducing the metronome/food pairing, the dogs quickly began salivating again, which is known as spontaneous recovery.

In the example of Pavlov's dogs, which of the following could be considered as the neutral stimulus?

Possible Answers:

The dogs salivating after they learned to respond

The dogs salivating before learning to respond

The metronome prior to the dogs learning to respond

The metronome after the dogs learned to respond

Correct answer:

The metronome prior to the dogs learning to respond

Explanation:

The neutral stimulus is defined as the stimulus that does not initially elicit a response. After conditioning takes place, the neutral stimulus turns into the conditioned stimulus. In this example, the metronome initially elicited no response; however, it elicited the response of salivation, post conditioning. The dogs did not salivate prior to conditioning, and after conditioning the salivation can be considered a conditioned response.

Example Question #21 : Individual Behavior And Learning

Diana takes the subway to and from school every day. Her family’s apartment, situated in a low-income neighborhood of New York City, is a thirty-minute walk from the subway station. During her trips to the subway, Diana loves to watch people work, play, and socialize. She feels very safe in her community because she trusts the people around her. 

On a different occasion, Diana stumbles on a set of stairs and crashes towards the pavement. She reaches out to break her fall and feels a crackling sensation as her hand hits the ground. She finds a large scrape across her palm that does not completely heal for weeks. For months after this event, Diana feels anxious whenever she sees a set of stairs. In terms of classical conditioning, the sight of stairs would be described as which of the following?

Possible Answers:

Conditioned response

Unconditioned response

Conditioned stimulus

Unconditioned stimulus

Correct answer:

Conditioned stimulus

Explanation:

When Diana sees a set of stairs, they act as a stimulus to induce anxiety. Since she did not feel this way before the accident, the sight of stairs would be a “conditioned stimulus.” Anxiety is the “conditioned response.” The initial stumble and injury would be the “unconditioned stimulus” and “response,” respectively.

Example Question #22 : Individual Behavior And Learning

Alice is watching videos on her cellular phone during math class and her teacher notices. Her teacher scolds her to stop and tells her she must write an essay about why math is important.

Which type of operant conditioning is the teacher using?

Possible Answers:

Negative reinforcement

Positive punishment

Positive reinforcement

Negative punishment

None of these

Correct answer:

Positive punishment

Explanation:

The correct answer is “positive punishment.” The teacher is adding the essay assignment making it positive, and she is aiming to decrease the behavior of watching videos in class making it a punishment. As shown in the figure, if something is removed (e.g. loss of computer privileges) this would be negative, and if the aim is to increase the behavior (e.g., a parent trying to make a student study more) it is considered to be reinforcement. 

 Operant conditioning

 

Classical conditioning involves the pairing of a new stimulus to the desired response. A famous example is Pavlov's dogs that salivated (i.e. unconditioned response) in response to seeing food (i.e. unconditioned stimulus). During the conditioning period, a neutral stimulus (e.g. a bell) is rung while showing the food to the dogs; that is, the neutral stimulus is paired with the unconditioned stimulus. Following the conditioning period, the bell alone (i.e. without the presence of food) triggers salivation in the dogs. The bell becomes the conditioned stimulus and the salivation becomes the conditioned response

Example Question #23 : Individual Behavior And Learning

Alice is trying to train her dog to sit on command before her in-laws come over. She does not care if the behavior lasts after their visit; she just wants him to learn the trick quickly. She plans to use dog biscuits at first to reinforce the behavior. 

Based on her situation and desires, what type of reinforcement schedule should Alice follow?

Possible Answers:

Intermittent reinforcement

Continuous reinforcement

None of these

Intermittent punishment

Continuous punishment 

Correct answer:

Continuous reinforcement

Explanation:

The question specifies that Alice wants the dog to learn quickly; regardless if he loses the skill quickly. This describes the result of following a continuous reinforcement schedule (i.e. rewarding the dog with a biscuit every time he sits after the command. There is rapid acquisition of the desired behavior; however, continuous reinforcement results in rapid extinction.

In contrast, intermittent reinforcement results in slow acquisition yet slow extinction of the behavior. If Alice were determined for her dog to acquire this skill for the long-term, this schedule would be more appropriate. That is, she should sometimes reward the dog with a biscuit and sometimes not. It will take longer for the dog to learn to sit on command, but the behavior will last longer. 

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