What’s the associative learning definition in psychology?

In this brief guide we are going to talk about associative learning in psychology. We will explain what it is, what are the types and characteristics of this type of learning.

What’s the associative learning definition in psychology?

In psychology, the definition of associative learning is the process when we associate stimuli, ideas or thoughts with certain actions and, as a result, our behavior changes.

In the search for greater well-being for individuals, science has given no respite to find a solution to the different conditions that can reduce the quality of life of human beings. For this reason it is good to take into account and know what associative learning is and its different types.

Our own experiences are learning, and we can use them to solve any situation that may arise. Knowing how to handle a scenario in our life can be association with past episodes.

Associative learning is that which we associate or relate to experiences already lived and this heals us so to speak or trains us to solve increasingly stronger blows and learn from each experience taking advantage of even the bad to turn it into good, or at least into something manageable.

The ability to associate stems behaviorism, or what is also known as learned behavior. So far 13 types of learning have emerged, through this type of associative learning, people can almost predict what comes after a situation and also learn how to handle or avoid it if possible.

What is associative learning for?

Associative learning basically serves to learn to foresee adverse situations that may arise if we act in one way or another, for example, if I eat too much I will have heartburn.

By association, people can modify their behavior at a given moment to avoid an unpleasant scene or condition. It is necessary for people to become habituated to a type of reaction in order to know how to avoid unpleasant situations.

A person who has never been through a certain situation may provoke an adverse reaction to a certain scenario, but as soon as he/she has the experience, he/she will have better expertise and may be able to avoid it, this is due to associative learning.

In short, conductive learning allows us to develop mechanisms or strategies to cope with different situations. Associative learning can be subdivided into two different but closely related styles.

Then we have observational learning, which is also based on what we know as learned behavior, but not from our own experience, but from observing what happens with other people. This type of learning is uncommon because almost no one experiments on someone else’s head. You have to take your own blows in the flesh to be able to experiment.

Types of associative learning

There are actually two types of associative learning, namely classical conditioning, which is related to the cause-effect relationship, and operant conditioning, which is based on the relationship between the behavior of living beings and its consequences.

This type of conditioning results in an animal being able to get out of a labyrinth by means of a trial-and-error method, derived from the punishment-reward relationship. In any case, doctors Edward Thorndike and Burrhus F. Skinner, put in evidence scientific proofs that proved its effectiveness.

As it has been stated, associative learning has been the cause of different controversies as to its application, since some detractors of the same psychological specialty differ as to the techniques and methods used to typify these two types of learning.

However, psychologists, in general, continue to go deeper and deeper into the techniques they use to reach conclusions when applying a treatment to a person, which in psychology does not admit treatments based on drugs but rather on therapies.

Differences between classical and operant conditioning

The distinction between these conditioning systems can be made on the basis of different components:

  • The association: in classical conditioning, an involuntary response is associated with a stimulus. In operant conditioning, the association is established between a voluntary response and its consequences.
  • Learning: in classical conditioning, learning occurs through the association of an initial stimulus that elicits a regular unconditioned response in the organism. In operant conditioning, learning is due to the association of rewards and punishments with a given behavior.
  • Acquisition of behavior: to acquire a behavior in classical conditioning, it is sufficient to simultaneously present a neutral stimulus with an unconditioned stimulus. On the contrary, in order to acquire a behavior in operant conditioning, it is necessary to reinforce and punish.
  • The process: In classical conditioning, the conditioning process is based on the association of neutral stimulus with unconditioned stimuli on the basis of unconditioned responses. On the other hand, in operant conditioning, learning is based on the consequences of behaviors.
  • The type of behavior: classical conditioning is based on involuntary behaviors, while operant conditioning is based on voluntary behaviors, on active responses.
  • The sequence of events: in classical conditioning, the natural response or behavior occurs after the stimulus. In operant conditioning, the behavior comes before the reward or punishment.
  • The purpose: for classical conditioning, the purpose is to relate stimuli, so that some allow us to anticipate all of them. Whereas, for operant conditioning, the purpose is to associate a stimulus to a response with the objective that the response is more or less produced.

Characteristics of associative learning

Associative learning stands out because its main characteristic is that people learn by association. In this way we see that people can know what a sign says even if they do not understand the language, because they see a picture. For example, they see a cowboy boot and they know that the letters say “Boot”.

On the other hand, we can associate punishments or rewards with experience, which is nothing more than learning from what has already been experienced or lived in other previous scenarios.

If I touch the bare wire, I will get the current, if I bathe in cold water I will catch a cold, if I speak too loudly I will be called to attention, and so on, there are countless examples that could be given.

The intelligence of living beings leads them to know what to do and what not to do, even in this way it is possible to educate an animal and in these training rewards and punishments are used. Human beings also learn when a punishment can come as a punishment or a reward as a pleasant sensation after a warm bath.

Examples of an associative learning test

The brain learns by association which objects, people or animals can be pleasant and which ones, on the contrary, we hate. If we assume that a white coat can be worn by a dentist and we associate this with a puncture in the gum, a child may hate these white coats.

Conversely, if we associate a white coat with a seller of creamy ice cream, then the brain sends the signal by association that a white coat is synonymous with a pleasant taste on the palate.

A honking horn may indicate that we should hurry because transportation is waiting for us very early in the morning, while the same may also announce Dad’s arrival in the evening, when he comes home from work carrying dinner.

These types of associative learning are tools used by professionals to reach deeper and faster to obtain better results with children with learning disabilities. These children associate rewards with pleasant objects such as a bowl of ice cream and punishments with unpleasant objects such as an injection.

From the experiments of Pavlov, a prominent Russian psychologist, the association of ideas based on lived experiences or on images, sounds, aromas, music, can yield surprising results in learning and also in the behavior of living beings.

So, what’s the definition of Associative learning?

Learning from our experiences based on what we have previously experienced is fundamental for survival. This allows the execution of increasingly adaptive patterns of behavior, and even predicts possible outcomes of our actions: for example, we learn to avoid certain stimuli and actively seek out others because we have previously been able to link them with some kind of consequence.

Why we act as we do and how we have learned to do so is something that has intrigued mankind for centuries and has led to the exploration and investigation of the subject by different disciplines such as psychology, generating different currents and theories. 

Among these theoretical currents we can find behaviorism, for which the main basis and explanation of behavior is found in the capacity of association and associative learning.

In this brief guide we talked about associative learning in psychology. We explained what it is, what are the types and characteristics of this type of learning.

If you have any questions or comments please let us know!


Dickinson, A. (1980). Contemporary animal learning theory. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Thompson, R. F., Bao, S., Chen, L., Cipriano, B. D., Grethe, J. S., Kim, J. J., … & Krupa, D. J. (1997). Associative learning. International review of neurobiology, 41, 151-189.

Shanks, D. R. (1995). The psychology of associative learning. Cambridge University Press.