Associative learning defines a learning situation when two stimuli become linked. The elements of one stimulus then become associated with the second stimulus.
For example, a dog comes to associate you opening the cupboard with dinner and dinner time.
Even when you open the cupboard not to feed the dog, it still comes running and barks with anticipation.
Here, the cupboard means “dinner time” out of pure association.
This is what it looks like graphically:
|1. Opening the cupboard door to feed the dog.||2. Soon, the dog associates the cupboard door with food.||3. Dog gets excited whenever you open the cupboard, even if there’s no food in there. Associative learning has occurred!|
For an example of associative learning in a human learning situation, you can train your student to associate the teacher standing at the front of the class with “time to be quiet”.
Associative Learning Definition
Associative learning occurs when two stimuli are paired so that a second stimulus is associated with the same events and situations as the first stimulus.
This is a fundamental way that people and animals learn. But it also has applications in nearly all aspects of life, including parenting, education, and work.
Here’s a simple scholarly definition:
“[Associative learning] refers to situations in which the combination of stimuli leads to changes in behavior” (Houwer & Hughes, 2020, p. 61)
Ivan Pavlov discovered the basic principles of associative learning while conducting experiments on animal digestive processes.
When presenting the test dog with food, it would salivate, which allowed Pavlov to study the chemical properties of the digestive system.
However, the dog began to salivate to other stimuli that had become associated with the food. For example, the footsteps of his assistant who usually brought the food.
See Also: Non-Associative Learning Definition and Examples
Associative Learning Examples
1. Celebrity Endorsements of Products
Brands pay celebrities to be in their advertisements so fans associate the brand with the beloved celebrity.
Stimulus: Beloved celebrity
Associated stimulus: Car
Result: Beloved car
Companies pay millions, sometimes tens of millions for celebrity endorsements. Usually, that investment pays off in tangible ways in terms of increased sales, and of course, increased profit.
However, big brands are also especially sensitive to scandal. They don’t want a celebrity scandal to be associated with their image or the products they offer.
This is why a company will cancel the deal it has with a celebrity right away if they become embroiled in any kind of scandal.
Many brands’ images was built based on celebrity association and can be destroyed if that association changes.
2. The Bicycle Bell
We all know what the sound of a bicycle bell approaching from behind means. It means, “watch out!” So, most people immediately step to the side or quickly turn around to see how near the danger is from running into us.
Stimulus: Bicycle bell
Associated stimulus: Potential danger
Result: Jumping out of the way
This scenario occurs all a result of associative learning. Experience has taught us to associate the sound of the bell with incoming danger.
The sound of the bell initially has no inherent meaning. It takes on meaning because of this association with danger.
Often, that conditioned association can happen with just one pairing of the bell and danger.
A phobia often occurs because people associate a harmless thing with a more dangerous thing due to a traumatic experience. Take the example below of the elevator phobia.
Stimulus: Negative elevator experience
Associated stimulus: The building that holds the elevator
Result: Walking the long way to work to avoid seeing the building
A phobia is when a person has an “irrational” fear of an object, place, or situation. Although the term “irrational” makes it sound like the person’s fear is not logical, if we look at the situation from an associative learning perspective, it makes perfect sense.
For example, if a person is riding an elevator one day and it suddenly stops, shakes, and drops a few feet, it can create a very strong fear response.
Even though everyone on the elevator may be rescued later, some may develop a phobia of elevators. Now, elevators have been associated with a very traumatic experience.
That phobia might even grow to become a fear of the building where the elevator is located. As soon as the building is in sight, a person might start to feel anxious.
Fortunately, there are ways of coping with phobias that involve relaxation techniques that can be quite effective.
4. Essential Oils
Some essential oils have no tangible scientific proof behind how they work. However, because of their pleasant smell, and the fact they’re used in relaxing spaces like spas, many people come to associate the smell with relaxation, which triggers a relaxation response.
Stimulus: Smell of essential oils
Associated stimulus: A memory of a relaxing environment like a spa
Result: Relaxation response
Essential oils are key compounds extracted from plants. Those compounds give the plant its aroma or medicinal properties. They are extracted through different methods, by using steam or a machine to press the compounds out of the plant.
Consumers like to place essential oils in places where they want to relax, such as a soaking tub or a special place in the home.
Over time, after using the oils in those areas repeatedly, those places will be associated with calm, relaxed feelings.
Even if a person is not using the oils in that moment, because the space has been associated with the pleasant feelings from the oils, it creates that pleasant feeling itself.
This is a classic case of associative learning.
5. Mindfulness Meditation
Mindfulness meditation involves associative learning because it teaches you to associate rising heart rates and negative self-talk with rising stress levels. By heightening awareness of this association, mindfulness practitioners can shut down stress before it fully occurs.
Stimulus: Rising heart rate
Associative stimulus: Stress
Result: Rapid identification and suppression of stress
Mindfulness meditation is a relaxation technique that helps people reduce stress in their lives. The technique involves learning how to spot signs of stress before they escalate.
Those signs can either be mental in terms of our thoughts, or a bodily sensation like increased heart rate. Once you have trained yourself to identify signs of stress, the next step is to then practice slow, deep breathing.
The heightened awareness of the thoughts that generate the body’s stress response will eventually become automatic. There won’t be a need to consciously identify the source of the stress because the mind has been trained to pick-up on those signals naturally.
When signs of stress have been identified, then the person focuses their mind on relaxing. This can be done by paying attention to the rise and fall of the lungs, or the flaring of the nostrils as the person inhales and exhales slowly.
Over time, it will become much easier to spot those anxiety-laden thoughts before they get out of control. Those thoughts can then be replaced with more constructive patterns of thinking and relaxation.
Additional Case Studies
- School bell and freedom: Maria can’t wait to hear the end-of-the-day school bell. The sound of that bell means she is free to run home and play. The bell is associated with fun times. Even when she hears a bell on weekends, her mind instantly thinks of playtime.
- Phobia of red: Javier does not like the color red. Once, when he was a child, he was almost hit by a red truck. From that day forward, he associates anything red with fear.
- Coy fish and food: The Singh family visits a coy pond at their neighbor’s house. As soon as the fish see them, they all crowd around and start opening and closing their mouths. That’s because the Singhs usually bring bread crumbs and enjoy feeding the fish.
- Dogs and doors: Whenever Jamal walks near the back door, his dog gets excited and comes running. That’s because the dog has associated going outside to play with opening the door.
- The sound of the manager’s voice: Peggy starts to feel anxiety whenever she sees her grumpy old boss. She’s never had a pleasant interaction with him, so just the sound of his voice can make her nervous.
- Jill means ‘trouble’: Jack doesn’t play with Jill at preschool anymore. She always pulls his hair and tries to steal his cookies. So, he makes sure not to sit next to her in class or go near her on the playground. In his mind, Jill is synonymous with trouble.
- The happy teacher and learning: Kumar used to hate chemistry. But now that he is in Mrs. Montgomery’s class, he’s become more interested. Mrs. Montgomery is always in a cheery mood and shows a lot of patience with students that don’t learn quickly.
- Generalized dislike of cheese: Maria doesn’t like cheesecake and avoids eating any kind of cheese, even when it’s on pizza. The first time she tried her neighbor’s cheesecake, her stomach hurt and she felt nauseous for hours.
- Love of the flag: Whenever Dimitriv sees the Canadian flag, he gets a warm feeling inside. Ever since his family moved to Canada their lives have been so peaceful. The air is clean and the people have greeted his family with open arms.
Classical Conditioning Examples
Operant Conditioning Examples
Behaviorism in Education
Associative learning is at the core of our everyday lives. People associate two stimuli so the meaning of one gets passed on to the meaning of the other.
For example, we know the bell means danger is approaching because the two have been linked; even just once is sufficient.
Associative learning is at the heart of celebrity advertising and marketing campaigns. It can explain how and why we like certain people, but not others. It can explain phobias, and our likes and dislikes of certain foods.
It can even explain the reason behind a multi-billion-dollar industry that is based on smashed plants.
Davey, G. C. (1992). Classical conditioning and the acquisition of human fears and phobias: A review and synthesis of the literature. Advances in Behaviour Research and Therapy, 14(1), 29-66.
De Houwer, J. & Hughes, S. (2020). The Psychology of Learning: An Introduction from a Functional-Cognitive Perspective. Cambridge: MIT Press.
Pavlov, I.P. Conditioned Reflexes. London: Oxford University Press; 1927.
Rossiter, J. R., & Percy, L. (1980). Attitude change through visual imagery in advertising. Journal of Advertising, 9(2), 10-16. https://doi.org/10.1080/00913367.1980.10673313
Zeidan, F., Grant, J. A., Brown, C. A., McHaffie, J. G., & Coghill, R. C. (2012). Mindfulness meditation-related pain relief: Evidence for unique brain mechanisms in the regulation of pain. Neuroscience Letters, 520(2), 165–173. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neulet.2012.03.082