They Didn’t Teach Us This — Surprising things people learn
Published 7:37 am Wednesday, November 1, 2023
By Jo Weaver
The vastness of human learning beyond formal education sometimes boggles my mind.
So many of our attitudes, emotions and even our biological processes can be learned. And they can feel so intrinsic to us that we would swear they were innate. “Anyone would think this way, feel this way, react this way.” And yet, they were acquired, put in place with some form of classical and/or operant conditioning.
Classical conditioning relies on the making of an association between a neutral entity (object, sight, sound, smell, etc.) and a naturally occurring stimulus/response pairing. Thus, Pavlov’s dogs came to associate the sound of a bell with getting meat powder and subsequent salivation. Over time, the dogs would reliably respond to the bell with salivation without the presence of meat powder.
Operant conditioning, on the other hand, relies on what follows a behavior, thought, feeling and whether the consequent situation is neutral, reinforcing or punishing. Is eating a second helping followed by, “Oh, that was really good,” (reinforcing) or a stomachache (punishing), or somewhere in between. It is important to remember that what is reinforcing to one person may be punishing to another.
An amazing piece of research focused on the body learning to suppress its immune response through classical conditioning. Subjects were given a distinctive tasting liquid with an immunosuppressant in it. The subjects’ immune systems were subsequently suppressed.
After several trials, subjects were given the distinctive tasting liquid without the immunosuppressant, and their immune systems were suppressed. The body learned to associate the distinctive taste with immunosuppression and did it on its own. Similar studies have shown that a non-allergenic substance can be associated with an allergenic substance and subsequently initiate an allergic reaction on its own. People can have reactions to goldenrod, even though it is ragweed that has the allergen. In line with Pavlov’s dogs salivating at meat powder, and later a bell, if I think about dill pickles, I reliably salivate now.
Emotions can also be put in place with similar associations. If we had a sibling who liked to scare us as we entered a darkened room, we might become fearful of the dark. Feelings around holiday time can be holdovers from our experience as children, and things that remind us of holidays (sights, sounds, smells) can bring up similar feelings. If we experienced warm fuzzy holidays, we could have warm, fuzzy feelings connected to the sights, sounds and smells of a holiday time. If we grew up in a household that was tense during the holiday time, we could feel tense at the sights, sounds and smells. And if we grew up in a place where holidays deteriorated into physical altercations, we could feel dread at those same cues.
Attitudes seem a bit trickier. I always loved the definition of an attitude that was included in one of the texts we used: “Attitudes locate objects of thought on dimensions of feeling.”
While there can be a biological basis for some attitudes, the biological basis for liberalism/conservatism for example, the fine tuning of them, the vehemence with which they are held can be affected by learning. As we observe attitudes in others that are close to us or who we admire, we may take on those attitudes. And then, if people praise us for an attitude, its presence is reinforced. The more we hear an attitude, the more likely we are to take it on. Attitudes can also have a sense of right and wrong when it is how we “feel” about some thing, some way of looking at things. And thinking about feelings as right or wrong tends to be problematic.
Learned aspects are so prevalent and entrenched in our sense of self that we often fail to see them or think about them. Just as 40%-60% of who we are is based on our biology, 60%-40% is shaped by our environment and the sense we make of it. Learning is the vehicle for much of that environmental shaping.
One of my working theories, developed over the years is, “Much of what causes us difficulty in adulthood are things we did and didn’t learn growing up.” Since we were capable of learning at one point, it seems logical to me that we are capable of learning now. Different ways of thinking, behaving and having emotional reactions can be learned.
One of the primary treatments for depression is learning to think differently. Learning is inextricably tied into who we are, and mostly unbeknownst to us. And yet, it is an area so full of possibility and adventure.
Jo Weaver of Zuni worked for 22 years in behavioral medicine and 18 years teaching psychology to college students. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org