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Learning - Instrumental Conditioning

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Instrumental conditioning refers to the type of learning in which the probability of a response is altered by a change in the consequences for that response. When a grandmother smiles and says, "Good boy," right after her grandson feeds the dog, the probability that the boy will feed the dog again is increased. Relatively few attempts have been made to create animal models of learning, memory, and aging using instrumental conditioning, and less research has been carried out on aging and instrumental conditioning than has been carried out on aging and classical conditioning.

To summarize the results on instrumental conditioning in aging animals, it appears that there is a consistent deficit that is restricted to the early association of the response with its consequence, but there is less of a difference once a response is established to a criterion level. This may be analogous to small or nonexistent differences in memory between young and older humans once initial learning is equated.

These observations indicate that only under certain circumstances are age-related effects on learning significant. These effects may be overcome by additional training, and they appear to reflect quantitative rather than qualitative differences. In many instances there is intact memory and relearning of previously learned behaviors by older organisms. This result suggests that recent experience involving activation of the neurological elements contributing to learning and memory may ameliorate age-related differences in learning.


See also MEMORY.


GREEN, J. T., and WOODRUFF-PAK, D. S. "Eye-blink Classical Conditioning: Hippocampus is for Multiple Associations as Cerebellum is for Association-Response." Psychological Bulletin 126 (2000): 138–158.

HOUSTON, F. P.; STEVENSON, G. D.; MCNAUGHTON, B. L.; and BARNES, C. A. "Effects of Age on the Generalization and Incubation of Memory in the F344 Rat." Learning and Memory 6 (1999): 111–119.

PORT, R. L.; MURPHY, H. A.; and MAGEE, R. A. "Age-related Impairment in Instrumental Conditioning is Restricted to Initial Acquisition." Experimental Aging Research 22 (1996): 73–81.

WOODRUFF-PAK, D. S. Neuropsychology of Aging. Oxford, U.K.: Blackwell, 1997.

WOODRUFF-PAK, D. S.; GOLDENBERG, G.; DOWNEY-LAMB, M. M.; BOYKO, O. B.; and LEMIEUX, S. K. "Cerebellar Volume in Humans Related to Magnitude of Classical Conditioning." NeuroReport 14 (2000): 609–615.

WOODRUFF-PAK, D. S., and JAEGER, M. E. "Predictors of Eyeblink Classical Conditioning over the Adult Age Span." Psychology and Aging 13 (1998): 193–205.

WOODRUFF-PAK, D.S., and STEINMETZ, J. E., eds. Eyeblink Classical Conditioning. Vol. 1, Applications in Humans. Vol. 2, Animal Models. Boston: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 2000.

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