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Sensation and Perception

Organisms have evolved sensory organs to detect information in the environment relevant to that organism. The first stage of informational input is sensation, defined as stimulation of one or more of our senses (e.g., auditory, visual, tactile): this is a neurological act that is precursor to a cognitive act, but probably not yet recognizable as such. Perception serves as an immediate product of the situation and the person, which, in contrast to sensation, is usually defined as an active cognitive process of making sense of sensations or making meaning of them (e.g., Neisser, 1967). We can perceive many things directly (e.g., E. J. Gibson, 1967; J. J. Gibson, 1979), sometimes called perceiving to learn, but we also learn to perceive. Perception can benefit from prior knowledge or experience.

a Detailed GLM single short-term processes prior to behavioral response

Figure 9.2a Detailed GLM single short-term processes prior to behavioral response.

We therefore perceive using both bottom-up and top-down processes. In the GLM, this top-down aspect is represented by the input from the person in a given situation. In a learning situation, individuals gather information in the environment and summon relevant knowledge structures to help process and operate upon that information.

Several types of learning can occur immediately at this stage (Figure 9.2a). A single perception of an object, event, or stimulus (external or internal) could result in

• Discrimination, if the features salient to the learner at that moment are detect - ably different from the features of anything to which it might be compared, or if the features are made to be salient.

b Detailed GLM single short-term processes including behavioral response

Figure 9.2b Detailed GLM single short-term processes including behavioral response.

  • • Classical conditioning, if some reflex was triggered at the same time that the learner was perceiving something to which the reflexive behavior could be associated (e.g., seeing a white rat while simultaneously being scared by a loud noise).
  • • Cognitive learning of associations, if two percepts or concepts are perceived to go together. Advertising often relies on this form of learning, especially since people often only glance at an advertisement for a second or two (e.g., seeing the words “Microsoft works” or “M&Ms melt in your mouth, not in your hands”).
  • • Emotional learning of associations, whereby a percept/concept can be connected to an emotion. Advertising uses this approach even more than cognitive learning of associations, as when the tag line “A diamond is forever” is paired with a romantic and warm picture of attractive people in love.
  • • Observational learning, if some behavior in the environment is attended to. For example, seeing someone eat with chopsticks immediately teaches that it can be done, even if it isn’t clear exactly how.

All types of learning can happen very quickly within what Figure 9.1 displays simply as the present internal state—the set of cognitions, feelings, and physiological arousal that may be primed by the interaction of the person and the situation. There is no necessity for anything to be learned. Individuals may engage in the ongoing activity through automatic responding, or they may pay no attention, or they may be so engaged in their own thoughts that the learning opportunity is missed. The detailed view shown in Figure 9.2a, however, helps to demonstrate what can be learned in a very brief period of time. Any changes to thoughts, feelings, or arousal, however, can immediately feed back into the set of person and environmental variables. For example, if I insult you, your heart rate increases, and you may feel hurt and think angry thoughts. You might associate negative feelings with the sight of me (classical conditioning), or you might learn a new insult (observational and cognitive learning). The changes to your thoughts, feelings, and arousal modify your attention, motivations, and alter which concepts are primed, which might in turn influence how future events are perceived. Your face may flush and your body language may change, which provides new information in the environment for others to react to, beginning a new cycle.

After the present internal state has been influenced, the person may have an opportunity to appraise the situation and respond (Figure 9.2b). Depending on both the situational variables that are present and on the person’s motivations and available resources, the initial appraisal may be automatic or thoughtful. If the situation demands a fast response or the outcome is not sufficiently important to warrant careful consideration, the appraisal is likely to be made hastily (e.g., via an impulsive behavioral response) or automatically, based on heuristics (e.g., how easily a response comes to mind, which will be influenced by priming, chronic accessibility, and judgments such as the availability heuristic or hostile attribution biases). If the individual has the cognitive resources and time to reappraise the situation and possible actions, a thoughtful action (which could still be based on heuristic biases, and is not necessarily a “better” response) will result. Within this decision process are additional opportunities for learning.

If the actor has the time, motivation, and the cognitive resources necessary to reappraise, the reappraisal process itself may lead to cognitive learning (Figure 9.2b), as the actor considers the connections between ideas and likely operant outcomes of each option. If the actor takes a thoughtful action based on the reappraisal, the thoughts can reinforce the cognitive concepts that led to that action. Any associations and heuristics (which may have been learned previously or in the immediately prior present internal state) may be primed or reinforced by the decision process, especially if an impulsive action is taken based on heuristic processing. For example, if I insult you, a cognitive script could be activated whereby when provoked you should retaliate. If you do, it serves as a practice trial reinforcing the script.

Once an action is taken (including no response, which itself is an action), the action feeds back into the person factors, the situational factors, and the actor’s present internal state (Figure 9.2b). Both the situation and the present internal state provide opportunities for operant learning. Others in the environment may respond in a way that is reinforcing or punishing, by which the behaviors chosen by the actor may be shaped. Similarly, the actor may have a response to his or her own behavior, such as feeling happy or guilty about the action taken. These internal feelings and evaluations can act as operant reinforcers or punishments.

All of these opportunities for learning can occur in a single episode, but additional learning opportunities are afforded by multiple exposures to some situation or stimulus. After multiple exposures, the individual may demonstrate habituation to the stimulus. Perhaps more important, however, is the fact that after multiple exposures, discrimination learning becomes much more likely. After repeated experience, people can detect finer and finer differences and similarities between stimuli and categorize them differently. After the differences have been detected, both associative and observational learning mechanisms are enhanced.

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