Symbolization and learning ability

Symbolization and learning ability

We are facing a dilemma, we do not know whether to study medicine or art history. On the one hand, we think that medicine has more output. They are more years, it requires more effort, but the possibility of work is high. On the other hand, we are passionate about art history, but the labor market is not so wide. We begin to imagine what our life would be like studying a career. Then we imagine it while we study the other. We visualize ourselves within five and ten years. Finally we enroll in medicine. Our capacity for symbolization has allowed us to build different scenes and possibilities of our future and we have chosen the one we have considered best. Let's go deeper!


  • 1 Symbolization capacity
  • 2 Learning
  • 3 Experience and ability to symbolize

Symbolization capacity

The human being is able to structure a whole story in his head and make a decision based on it. When we face a situation that requires some kind of decision, we don't need to experience the results directly. What happens is that we take all the available information, we gather it, we "play" with it and we observe all the possible results (although perhaps we escape some).

As Bermúdez, Pérez and Sanjuán (2003) describe: "the individual can recreate the behavior scenario, try possible problem-solving strategies, take into consideration possible consequences associated with alternative behaviors, go through the entire sequence of contingencies necessary to achieve the plans and projects that you would like to achieve in your life ".

Through this capacity for symbolization, we largely direct our behavior. On a general level, we usually imagine what will happen if we carry out one action or another, so this ability allows us to decide what to do. For example, when we return home from work we find a big traffic jam. We know that there are several more accesses to our neighborhood, but we don't know if the streets will also be collapsed. What happens at that moment? We begin to imagine each of the possible situations and make a decision based on it.


Through the ability to symbolize, we can learn without having to experience a situation directly. As Bermúdez, Pérez and Sanjuán (2003) state, "Most of the learning in human beings is produced by observing the association of behavior-consequences in other people". If we observe a negative consequence in someone who carries out a certain behavior, we may avoid the same behavior in the future. The symbolization allows us to consider the possible consequences of our actions.

So, if we see someone getting intoxicated by eating a certain type of mushroom, we will not need to experience the same, it will be enough to know that the consequences of that food are negative. We will have learned that this type of mushroom is poisonous without the need to get intoxicated.

Romero, Forero and Cedano (2012), state that "the condition of symbolic thinking consists, in any of the cases, in establishing links and mediations of understanding of reality - that which somehow appears as an object in itself of apprehension and cognition - and consciousness, a link that is framed in the operations of thought ". Through the understanding of reality, we enjoy this adaptive learning capacity.

Experience and ability to symbolize

Each of us has a different learning history, that is, our experience conditions us when interpreting what happens around us. This experience shapes the way we can compose a scene to interpret different results. These differences are essential for each of us to obtain our own conclusions.. For example, when we are with two or three people and we have to solve a problem, how many times have we disagreed about the decisions to be made?

Three friends get lost in the forest. One of them chooses to remain in the same place until they find them. Another advocate that they should keep walking until they reach somewhere safe. The latter argues that it is best to try to return where they have come from. Each of them, through everything they have learned throughout their lives, compose different scenes of the situation and reach their own conclusions. Nevertheless, choosing the best option among all that we consider does not mean that it is the right option, but the one that we believe is the most appropriate. The implementation of the decision will show us if it was the most successful.

As Bermúdez, Pérez and Sanjuán (2003) describe, "people differ in the way they code and group the stimulation they receive; that is, people can differ in cognitive transformations (selective attention, interpretation and categorization) that they introduce in stimulation, whose impact on the individual is thus modulated by such cognitive strategies ". Through the explanation of these authors, we observe that the difference between each of us leads us to make different decisions.


Bermúdez, J., Pérez, A., and Sanjuán, P. (2005). Personality psychology: theory and research. Volume I. Madrid: UNED.

Romero, M., Forero, A. and Cedano, A. (2012). Symbolic thinking skills: warps of meaning, society and tic. Latin American History of Education Magazine, 14 (19), 11-136.

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