Operant Conditioning: Escape & Avoidance Learning- MCAT Psychology | MedSchoolCoach

Operant Conditioning: Escape & Avoidance Learning

MCAT Psychology - Chapter 5- Section 1 - Learning - Associative Learning
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Sample MCAT Question - Operant Conditioning: Escape & Avoidance Learning

Escape and avoidance learning differ because:


I. escape results from positive punishment.

II. adverse stimuli do not have to be present in avoidance.

III. adverse stimuli stop in both.

a) I only

b) II only

c) II and III only

d) I, II, and III

B is correct. Escape learning and avoidance learning result from negative reinforcement because they are both forms of behavior used to stop a negative stimulus. Therefore, I is incorrect (choice A and D are incorrect). Avoidance learning is behavior that prevents a forthcoming negative stimulus. Therefore, an adverse stimulus does not have to be present in avoidance learning for it to occur, because the behavior will occur to avoid this adverse stimulus. Escape learning is different as it is distancing oneself from an ongoing stimulus. Consequently, choice II is a difference between escape and avoidance learning and is correct. Choice III is a true statement, as escape learning derives from negative reinforcement. However, an adverse stimulus is also stopped in avoidance learning, so this choice is not a difference between the two types of conditioning. So, even though choice III is true, it is not a difference between escape and avoidance learning and is not correct (choice C is incorrect). Therefore, choice II is the only correct answer (choice B is correct, choice D is incorrect). 

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Escape & Avoidance Learning for the MCAT

Operant conditioning encompasses a wide array of learning processes, among which escape and avoidance learning hold significant importance. Building upon the foundational work of psychologist B.F. Skinner, escape and avoidance learning are forms of negative reinforcement, in which an individual acts to terminate a undesired stimulus or avoid it all together. Escape learning occurs when an organism learns to terminate an unpleasant stimulus by engaging in a specific behavior, while avoidance learning involves acquiring the ability to prevent the occurrence of the aversive stimulus altogether. This post will explore what you need to know about escape and avoidance learning for the MCAT.


Escape Learning

Escape learning is a type of negative reinforcement in which one distances themself once they are presented with an undesirable stimulus or performs a behavior to stop that stimulus once it begins to occur. In other words, the animal or individual understands that a negative stimulus is being presented, and makes a conscious decision to stop the stimulus. For example, say you have a rodent in a two compartment box. If each compartment is designed to shock the rodent while the other compartment is off, then the rodent will learn that if it is shocked in one compartment, it needs to move to the other compartment to terminate the negative stimulus. This negatively reinforces the animal to move to the next compartment when it is shocked.

Avoidance Learning

Avoidance learning occurs when an animal or individual performs a behavior that prevents a forthcoming negative stimulus. In this case, the animal or individual needs to learn how to predict that the negative stimulus will occur, and then learn to perform a behavior that prevents the negative stimulus from occurring. For example, if the rodent is placed in the two compartment box used in the previous example, but, instead of no warning, a light flashed before the compartment’s shock capacity is turned on, the rodent can learn to respond to the light, avoiding the shock.

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