Ecological Perspectives on Learning

While studying various procedures in learning, such as classical and operant
conditioning, some scientists have questioned the role of artificial laboratory models and
have thus assumed a more ecological perspective in understanding the learning process.
Some behaviors that are more complex than Pavlov's simple reflexes appear to require no
learning at all, such as beavers building dams or birds building nests. Other behaviors
appear to be extremely easy or difficult for a given species to learn (Seligman, 1970).
Still other behaviors can be demonstrated to develop, and sometimes very quickly or
easily (Seligman, 1971), with some developing at any time while other developing only
during ''critical periods'' of an organism's development.
Such variations call into question a key assumption of early learning theorists:
that all forms of behavior are governed equally by the broadly applicable principles of
learning (Seligman, 1970) -- whether those principles are based on classical, operant, or
even cognitive procedures and interpretations. Those taking a more ecological
perspective on learning focus on the effects of environmental context as well as the
characteristics of a given species being conditioned. As such, ecological researchers
assert that the generalized principles of learning must be contextually interpreted and are
thus more limited in how, and to what behaviors, such principles apply.
For example, early operant scientists (Breland |_2 Breland, 1961) noticed that
when shaping or training organisms to do complex tasks, many would revert to natural
(that is, apparently unlearned) behaviors seen in all members of the species. Thus when
teaching pigeons to pull a string for food, many would sporadically peck the string
instead of pull it. From a review of such literatures Seligman (1970) concluded that this is
due to the fact that a pigeon is much more biologically ''prepared to learn'' (thus defining
what Seligman calls...