Associative Learning: Characteristics, Advantages And Disadvantages, Examples

The  associative learning  is a way to learn or change behavior that occurs through the relationship between a stimulus and a response or course of action. In its broadest sense this term is used to refer to any learning other than habituation, but in other contexts it is only used to speak of classical and operant conditioning.

Learning is one of the most important processes for living beings, especially for the most evolved animals. Thanks to associative learning we are able to modify our behavior to adapt to the environment, in such a way that we can increase our chances of survival.

Associative learning processes were first studied by behavioral psychology. This discipline focused on trying to understand our behavior, leaving aside the content of our mind. Thus, behaviorists realized that it is possible to modify the behavior of a living being by associating certain behaviors with reinforcements or punishments.

Although behavioral psychology has lost its position as the mainstream in the study of human behavior, associative learning remains a fundamental tool in contexts such as education. In this article we will see exactly what it is and what its benefits are.

Associative learning characteristics

– It is present in numerous species

Unlike other types of typically human learning, associative is present in practically all complex animal species. In fact, some experiments suggest that even certain types of insects could use these same mechanisms to modify their behavior, although there is still some debate in this regard.

The reason that associative learning is so widespread is simple: it is the most useful mechanism for adapting to the environment. Through their tools, animals can learn very quickly what is harmful to them and what benefits them at the level of survival.

– It does not involve advanced cognitive processes

Unlike other more complex types of learning, associative learning occurs unconsciously and can be studied exclusively from the point of view of behavior. Thus, simply observing the behaviors of the individual and the responses of their environment we can predict what learning is going to take place.

In most cases, in addition, the individual himself is not aware of the changes that he is undergoing in his behavior as a result of associative learning. Even if you reflect on it, most of the time we are not able to fully understand the associations we have made without realizing it.

– It is based on our instincts

Despite having a multitude of applications, the basis of associative learning is actually very simple. Through different techniques, the individual relates a positive or negative innate response with a stimulus that does not cause any reaction a priori, in such a way that from that moment on it happens to cause a response that did not exist before.

For example, through a reinforcement process it is possible to get an animal to acquire behaviors that were not part of its habitual behavior before, such as getting a dog to relieve itself in a sandbox. For this, it will be necessary to award him prizes every time he acts as we want, until he associates the fact of using the sandbox with something positive.

Reinforcements and punishments must be based on the instincts of the animal to be effective. Thus, generally the rewards are related to elements such as positive attention, food or sex; the punishments have to do with physical or emotional pain.

– Forms very lasting learning

Associative learning is very different from other processes of behavior change or knowledge acquisition. On the one hand, the learning that is achieved through this method is acquired very slowly, since it is necessary to repeat the associations several times until the organism internalizes them.

By contrast, once a new learning has been carried out using this method, it is very difficult to get rid of it. The behavioral changes achieved with associative learning tend to last a long time, especially when the appropriate stimuli have been used.

The most extreme example of this is that of phobias. When a person associates very negative emotions with something that is harmless or neutral in principle, they will feel great discomfort every time they are exposed to it. Phobias often have to be treated in a therapy setting, as they don’t go away on their own.

Types of associative learning

Among the types of learning that exist, associative is one of the most different processes that include. It is generally said that all types of behavioral changes that can occur are part of this category, with the exception of habituation. Even so, some authors also name other processes that would be outside of this classification.

In any case, most authors consider that the basic processes within associative learning belong to two categories: classical and operant conditioning.

Classical conditioning

Associative learning is one of the most important tools of our brain to relate to the environment, which means that we can find it in a multitude of everyday situations. Some examples of associative learning are:

– When a person feels unwell after trying a certain food, they quickly learn to avoid it. This type of learning is called “acquired aversion to taste.”

– A dog learns that when he sits down he will receive a cookie. Associate sitting with the cookie.

– A child associates getting bad grades with punishment.

– In a more formal context, we have already seen that associative learning can be used to treat certain problems such as phobias or lack of motivation. Through the use of reinforcement and punishment, it is possible to permanently modify a person’s behaviors and attitudes. For example, a child is taught that after doing homework she will receive a snack.


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