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Behaviourist and cognitive approaches to consumer learning theory

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‘Describe behaviourist and cognitive approaches to consumer learning theory and discuss the implications of these theories for marketing practice’

Learning is one of the major determinants of human behavior. Psychologists are of the opinion that all human behavior involves some form of learning. Human beings are not born with the knowledge or skills that could be used as guidelines of how to behave for their daily life. Knowledge or skills are obtained from learning. Learning is an unconscious activity that occurs frequently. Most of us learn something everyday. The casual, unintentional acquisition of knowledge is known as incidental learning. Learning is an ongoing process. The concept of learning covers a vast amount of ground, ranging from a consumers simple association between a stimuli such as a product logo (E.g. Coca-Cola) and a response (e.g. ‘refreshing soft drink’) to a complex series of cognitive activities. (E.g. just what I am doing now, writing an essay. I hope I am learning from thisƒº!!). All this information can be closely associated with an important aspect of consumer behaviour.

Psychologists have studied learning using a variety of approaches, and have tried to explain learning with a variety of different accounts. On the modern scene, these different approaches can be roughly organized into two broad categories, behavior theory or learning theory, and cognitive theory. These two approaches to learning are often regarded as quite separate from each other. Each has its own complexities, emphases and methods. They were concerned with entirely different problems and topics.

A few definitions from different sources.


“Knowledge or skill acquired through experience or study or being taught.” (Concise Oxford English Dictionary. 2003)

“a process in which behavior capabilities are changed as the result of experience, provided the change cannot be accounted for by native response tendencies, maturation, or temporary states of the organism due to fatigue, drugs, or other temporary factors” (Runyon, 1977)

Behavioural Learning theory

“Behavioral learning theories assume that learning takes place as the result of responses to external events. Psychologists who subscribe to this viewpoint do not focus on internal thought processes. Instead, they approach the mind as a ‘black box’ and emphasize aspects consist of things that go into the box (stimulus, or events perceived from the outside world) and things that come out of the box (response, or reactions to these stimulus)” (Solomon 1992)

“Behavioral learning theory has focused on the role played by environmental events in learning processes, and has taken chance in behavior to be the primary evidence that learning has occurred” (Schwartz & Reisberg, 1991)

Classical Conditioning

Classical conditioning occurs when a stimulus that elicits a response is paired with another stimulus that initially does not elicit a response in its own. Over time, the second stimulus causes a similar response because it is associated with the first stimulus. This phenomenon was first demonstrated in dogs by Ivan Pavlov, a Russian physiologist doing research in digestion of animals. He noticed that his dogs would salivate (drool) at the sight of food at feeding time. Pavlov spoke of an unconditioned stimulus (UCS) (food) eliciting an unconditional response (UCR).

Classical conditioning utilizes an innate response.

Operant Conditioning (Instrumental Conditioning)

In addition to classical conditioning, instrumental conditioning is the other major approach to learning. Theoretical analyses of instrumental conditioning began with the work of E.L.Thorndike. Thorndike conducted an experiment to investigate an animals response to response in certain situations. “He would place a hungry cat (or dog or chicken) in the puzzle box with some food left outside on plain view. The task for the cat was to learn to escape from the box and obtain the food”. On the basis of the evidence, Thorndike concluded that the animal did not suddenly realise what was going on, but the process was one of repudiating incorrect responses and repeating correct ones (Kerby, 1975)

Thorndike also studied the effect of punishment, but seemed to feel that “positive rather than negative incentives were the key to learning” (Kerby, 1975).

In all instrumental conditioning situations, the subjects behaviour results in some type of environmental consequence. Instrumental conditioning procedures can be categorised according to the nature of the event controlled by the behaviour. Instrumental conditioning fundamentally involves three elements: a response, an outcome, and a relation, or contingency, between the response and the outcome.

Difference between Classical and Operant Conditioning

There are two main differences between operant and classical conditioning.

Operant conditioning reinforces responses that are presumed to be under the conscious control of the individual, while classical conditioning reinforces involuntary responses.

Classical responses occur as a result of stimuli that occur prior to the response, whereas operant responses are reinforced by consequences that occur after the behaviour.

Cognitive Learning Theory

Cognition – The mental action or process of acquiring knowledge through thought experience and senses. A perception sensation or intuition resulting from this. (Concise Oxford English Dictionary, 2003)

“Cognitive learning occurs as a result of mental processes. In contrast to behavioral theories of learning, cognitive learning theory stresses the importance of internal mental processes. This perspective views people as problem solvers who actively use information from the world around them to master their environment” (Solomon, 1992)

The problem with cognitive theory is the issue of whether or when people are aware of their learning processes. It is sometimes believed that even simple effects of learning are based on cognitive factors: that is, expectations are created that a stimulus will be followed by a response.

People do apparently do process at least some information in an automatic, passive way, which is a condition that has been termed mindlessness. Probably the best example to use is when we encounter a new product. We have a tendency to respond to the stimulus in terms of existing categories, rather than taking the trouble to formulate different ones. For example, men in one study rated a car in an ad superior on a variety of characteristics if a seductive woman was present in the ad, despite the fact that the men did not believe that the woman’s presence actually had an influence.

Observational Learning

Observational learning occurs when people watch the actions of others and note the reinforcements they receive for their behaviours.

For example, a woman shopping for a new kind of perfume may remember the reactions a friend received when wearing a certain brand several months earlier, and she will base her behaviour on her friend’s actions. In order for observational learning in the form of modelling to occur, four conditions must be met. The conditions are:

The Attention

The Retention

The Production Process

The Motivation.

I have drawn a diagram above which shows the conditions (Figure A).


Memory involves a process of acquiring information and storing it over time so that it will be available when needed. This process is similar to that of how a computer stores information. There are three main stages. The memory process is drawn below. (Figure B)




Many of out experiences are locked inside our heads, and we maintain those memories and recall those experiences if prompted by the right cues. This is a major implication of the cognitive approach to consumer learning theory. Marketers rely on consumers to retain information they have learned about products and service, trusting that it be later applied in situations where purchase decisions must be made.

Types of memory

Semantic meaning: This type of memory refers to symbolic associations, such as the idea that rich people drink champagne.

Episodic memories: those that relate to events that are personally relevant, something like buying a new computer. As a result, a person’s motivation to retain these memories will be strong.

Commercials sometimes attempt to activate episodic memories. The thought behind this type of tactic by marketers is in the hope that the commercial will trigger a person’s memory. This could link to going out and buying something that reminds the consumer of a pleasurable experience. There are many ways of achieving this sort of action but a common way is by conveying product information through a narrative or a story. Narratives persuade people to construct a mental representation of the information they are viewing.

Differences between Behavioural and Cognitive Learning

As discussed earlier on, learning theories, at both the individual and group level, can be broadly divided into behaviorism and cognitive theories. However, as Hendry wrote:

“These are linked by the principle of feedback. In behavioral conditioning, feedback works to reinforce particular responses through a system of rewards supposedly without a conscious mind intervening. In the various forms of cognitive theories, people form plans and images based on their needs, motives, values, and beliefs about themselves; they act on these; get feedback about the effects or consequences; and then actively modify perceptions, plans, and behavior accordingly” (Hendry, 1996).

As you can imagine from reading my report, there is a great deal to know. And excuse the joke, ‘learn’. Marketers, if they are aware of this information are able to adapt marketing campaigns to change people’s attitudes to different products and services. In looking the way a consumer feels about his/her identity it is clear to see that marketers are using this knowledge to a great extent. Marketers are aiming their campaigns at younger people now so that they will grow believing the ideas that marketers have planted. An example of this being, primary school children. A survey was carried out and the results showed that primary school children believed that being obese was worse than being disabled. If a child has this thought in his head from an early age he is always going to believe it. This could result in detrimental effects. It my not end there either. This effect could lead to more harmful things than being obese. I think this is a major implication for marketing practice. The problem being knowing where to draw the line.

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