"I say, I say, I say! Why have you got a banana in your ear?"

    "To keep the elephants away."

    "But there aren't any elephants for miles."

    "I know — effective, isn't it?"

The above silly example illustrates the tenacity of learning in which the pay-off ("reinforcement" in behaviourist language) is that something does not happen. This is prophylactic, preventative behaviour, and no-one with any sense is going to abandon such learned behaviour just to see whether something terrible really does happen.

It is thus at the root of the learned component of obsessive-compulsive behaviour (although there is evidence for a genetic basis for predisposition to that disorder), Information about Obsessive-Compulsive Disorderof superstition, and of people's devotion to practices which allegedly preserve health ("Don't go out immediately after you have washed your hair — you'll catch cold"). It may also underpin the potency of some kinds of necessarily unverifiable religious belief.

The origin of such learning has often been authoritative injunctions from parents or others, but it is theirAn Evolutionary Hypothesis For Obsessive Compulsive Disorder: A Psychological Immune System? anticipatory-avoidance nature — their perceived contribution to survival — which keeps them in being. Such learning is notoriously resistant to change.

The classic demonstration was an experiment by Solomon and Wynne (1953), bearing a resemblance to Seligman's protocol. Dogs were confined to a cage, of which half the floor could be electrified to give a shock: they were free to jump over a low net to the other side. A buzzer was sounded just before the shock, and the dogs rapidly learned to jump at the sound of the buzzer. The shocks themselves were discontinued, but the dogs continued to jump. Normally such conditioning would eventually have been extinguished by the removal of the unconditioned stimulus, but not in this case: an informal account would say that the dogs had too much sense to wait around to find out if the shock was going to happen or not.

What has this got to do with mainstream learning in education? Isn't it just a curiosity?

It is more important than you might think:

  • Ideas which challenge conventional wisdom may well be resisted (perhaps particularly in health education): "You don't want to tempt fate, do you?"
  • Strategies which have minimised problems in the past, such as, "Suss out what the teacher is thinking and tell her what she wants to hear" persist long after their use-buy date—hence the intractability of surface learning strategies.
To reference this page copy and paste the text below:

Atherton J S (2013) Learning and Teaching; [On-line: UK] retrieved from

Original material by James Atherton: last up-dated overall 10 February 2013

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