A learned behavior is a behavior that is not natural but rather developed through socialization. Most behaviors, besides basic animalistic instincts, are learned from somewhere or someone.
For example, even going to the bathroom is a learned behavior. You don’t see monkeys getting on a toilet, do you? As we grow older, we learn additional behaviors like playing ball, saying please and thank you, and brushing our hair.
Even many animals learn behaviors. Dogs can learn to sit, parrots can learn to speak (or at least repeat) phrases, and rats can learn to run through mazes.
Definition of Learned Behavior
None of the activities described above come naturally. We are not born with the ability to play ball, use phones, go on the internet, or cook dinner.
So, the question is: How did we get here? The answer is: learned behaviors. The activities above are all the result of people developing skills over a long period of time. They may be developed through practice, coaching and trial and error, or simply through observational and latent learning.
If we want a precise definition of learned behavior, then we will say it is:
An action that has been developed through experience and observation over time.
A learned behavior is not innate. It has to be taught. And we can learn both ethical (such as manners) and unethical behaviors (such as bullying) from our culture.
Examples of Learned Behavior
1. Riding a Bike
Learning how to ride a bike is both a thrilling and scary feat. The bike represents freedom.
Knowing how to ride a bike means being able to explore the neighborhood and attempting dangerous stunts like jumping off ramps and trying to ride a wheely upstairs.
No matter what the eventual goal, getting there starts with the basics. First, you have to learn how to keep your balance. This usually involves starting with training wheels to get a feel for keeping the bike upright and learning how to steer.
Once the trainers come off, mom or dad will help us maintain balance by holding onto the seat as we pedal forward. A few seconds later and we are off on our own, and right into the neighbor’s mailbox. It might take a while to learn, but riding a bike is one of every child’s greatest accomplishments. Learned, and accomplished.
A lot of learned behaviors are derived from social norms. Manners are one of the best examples of culturally defined learned behaviors that help us live in a civilized society (also known as prosocial behaviors).
In some countries, making a loud belching noise after consuming a delicious meal is considered a compliment to the chef. In others, well, it might be considered a cultural taboo and one of the rudest gestures possible at the dinner table.
Standing in line is another example of ethical behaviors with cultural variations. In some countries, getting in line is not even a thought. Just push your way through; it’s survival of the pushiest.
In other cultures, people will stand in line in the supermarket just to get a chance to squeeze some fruit. Each person patiently waits their turn so they can choose the one they think is ripest.
The list of examples for learned manners could go on for many pages, even volumes.
3. Public Speaking
Anyone that has ever had to give a speech in front of an audience can attest to the fact that it is most definitely not an innate talent.
In fact, when asked about their biggest fears, a high percentage of people will put public speaking on their list above death.
Even for those that seem to be naturally gifted at speaking on stage, if we knew their history, we would discover that they had a lot of practice. The first step is to write down what will be said.
Then, that has to be analyzed carefully to see if it matches the audience and if they will understand the verbiage.
When it comes time for the delivery, most of us have to learn to project our voice with confidence, not to mumble, or speak too rapidly because we are so nervous. All of that takes time, and practice.
By far one of the most valuable skills any human being will learn is how to read. It is absolutely necessary for our entire futures. If a person doesn’t know how to read, then school will never happen.
Reading is actually so difficult to learn that it takes years. With the English language, most children will need several months just to learn the basic phonics. After that, reading simple three-letter words will be a challenge.
Once in primary school, slowly and steadily, a child will learn to read longer sentences. It may be a few more years of daily practice before a human being is capable of fully understanding a short-story.
Reading might seem easy to you now, as you read this article, but it actually took you many years to master.
5. Being a Warm and Caring Person
Social scientists are fairly confident that aggression and violence are innate. When it comes to the other side of the coin, there is a little more debate.
This much is certain however, most of us can learn to be warm and caring human beings. Our parents are mainly responsible for teaching us to be this way. Children observe their parents very intently and will naturally imitate what they see.
This is called observational learning. If the parents display feelings of warmth and love, then the child will internalize these characteristics. However, if parents are cold and distant, then the child will learn to understand that this is the way to act.
6. Gender Roles
Psychologists, sociologists, and anthropologists are fascinated with gender roles and gender stereotypes. There seem to be an endless number of cultural factors involved in how men and women are defined.
Every society is a bit different; sometimes vastly different. In fact, a list of genders from different cultures shows 80 different gender concepts around the world.
The prescription for how men and women should act also evolves across time. Even in the same society, the expectations of behavior can change dramatically in just a few decades.
In the West, women are now seen as strong and independent. They are capable of accomplishing the same athletic feats as their male counterparts, and equality in the boardroom is now a must, instead of an exception.
The fact that there is so much variation across cultures and time is why gender roles are considered to be learned behaviors.
7. Paying a Musical Instrument
Although the great joy of listening to music certainly seems innate, learning how to play a musical instrument certainly is not.
It can take weeks to learn the basic chords on a guitar, and playing any song on the piano doesn’t happen overnight.
Just about every culture in modern history has its own songs, and the forms that instruments take can vary as well. For example, Western cultures have string instruments, and so does the Far East. Crude wind instruments buried deep beneath the ground have been found on every continent except Antarctica.
Any behavior that requires practice is going to be considered a learned behavior. In this case, it is one that brings a lot of pleasure.
Unless you eat your meat raw, straight off the bone, then you must utilize a practiced skill to prepare your dinner.
Cooking might be one of the oldest learned behaviors known to human civilization.
In its most basic form, cooking means just putting something on a stick and holding it over a fire. However, as soon as people discovered the magic of herbs and spices, it started to evolve into an elaborate exercise in chemistry.
In modern times we have an abundance of cooking shows and literally thousands and thousands of books full of recipes. You can even go to a culinary school to learn how to make fantastic meals that might only be served in the world’s most posh five-star restaurants. Cooking has come a long way since those early days of sticks and fire.
There are various definitions of self-discipline. Generally speaking, they all involve developing the ability to control one’s behavior.
This includes avoiding unhealthy habits and working towards goals independently. Those goals can be short-term oriented or ones that may take years to reach.
Self-discipline is most definitely a learned behavior. Impulsivity is a very strong internal drive that exerts its influence on our actions nearly every second of our waking lives. It requires a constant struggle to overcome.
However, in order to accomplish anything in modern times, we need self-discipline. Learning to thwart our impulses is a life-long battle, but a necessary one to say the least.
10. Scientific Reasoning
It can take 8 years of university study to accumulate enough knowledge and skills to be called a scientist; and that’s after 12 years of k-12 education.
Being a scientist requires the ability to think logically and critically. It is in fact, the very antithesis to our gut instincts that give us intuitive hunches. Thinking guided by the gut can lead to some pretty crazy conclusions. Remember when people thought the Earth was flat and if you sailed a ship far enough, it would fall off? Those days were not that long ago.
Scientific reasoning takes a lot of time and practice to acquire. For this reason, it is one of the most advanced learned behaviors that exist among homo sapiens.
Becoming a great athlete requires great effort. No matter what the sport, be it basketball, tennis, or soccer, it is a pursuit that takes years of dedication.
Professional athletes often start at a young age. They might attend special training camps to learn more advanced techniques. Some will hire a personal coach that works with them solely for the benefit of refining their skills.
Each year their abilities improve because they are learning. Sometimes, unfortunately, no matter how much effort they expend, they fail to attain success. It can be a sad story, but only a very, very small percentage of athletes actually make it to the level of become a professional.
Being a professional athlete is an example of a learned behavior that can extend for decades, but still result in failure.
Learned Behavior in Animals
Learned behavior can also be observed in animals. Below are four examples.
12. Dogs Learning to Sit
Dogs can learn a range of tricks through classical conditioning. Trainers give them continuous positive reinforcements for good behavior, such as a treat when a dog sits.
Other common behaviors that dogs learn through direct training include roll, fetch, come, and follow.
Working dogs also learn advanced behaviors such as how to round-up sheep. These behaviors are learned both through training from a farmer as well as socialization with other working dogs. Similarly, hunting dogs learn to chase down rabbits and other animals, as well as how to withhold themselves from harming the animals once they are cornered.
We can also see sad examples of learned behavior in dogs, such as when a dog that was abused as a pup is scared of humans and may even bit it approached. This behavior was learned as a result of the dogs’ fear of humans who they have learned to be afraid of.
13. Rat Conditioning
A quintessential example of learned behavior in animals is the conditioning of rats by B.F. Skinner. This psychologist taught rats to run through mazes and hit triggers to collect food.
Early on in Skinner’s tests, the rats were very slow to run the mazes and pull the triggers. But as the animals were given repeated exposure to the same conditioned stimuli, the rats developed conditioned responses. They would run the maze perfectly and hit the trigger, knowing exactly what would happen: they would get food!
Skinner even taught pigeons to play ping-pong! Today, people repeat his tests all the time, even teaching cats to play piano. Of course, these animals are not using advanced cognition or critical thinking skills. Rather, they are learning basic behaviors through reward and punishment.
14. Wolf Packs
Wolves are some of the most intelligent animals who have the capacity to learn social behaviors.
For example, young wolves will be taught pack hunting tactics by following the elder wolves during a hunt. They will learn to wait for cues from more advanced wolves before attacking, to listen out for sound signals from other wolves, and to stalk around their prey before attacking.
But wolves also learn individualized behaviors based upon their social position in the pack. A beta male will learn to show submission to alpha males and will learn his own roles based upon his hierarchical position in the pack.
15. Bears Returning for Food
Campers would know that you need to hide your food from bears so they don’t return to the campground looking for food every day.
In this example, the learned behavior is related to humans inadvertently teaching bears about the locations of food. If a bear knows a spot (such as a campground) will be a good source of food, it will come back over and over again.
Bears can also learn to avoid hunters (aka avoidance learning). Studies have shown that during hunting season, bears (as well as deer) develop more nocturnal behaviors to move around in relative safety. They will hide during peak hunting time and even avoid popular hunting locations.
We have seen that learned behaviors comprise many of our most cherished activities: from learning how to ride a bike, to playing piano, to preparing a delicious meal. These are activities that we thoroughly enjoy, but do not come naturally at all. They must be acquired through practice.
At the same time, some of our biggest hurdles in life are overcome by learning. This can be conquering the fear of public speaking, developing the self-discipline to sit in a classroom and study for 12 years (or more), or battling the impulsivity of thinking we know it all at first glance.
Learned behaviors are what really sets homo sapiens apart from other primates. We have evolved to the point way beyond even our own imagination, and will hopefully continue on this path far into the future.
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