The Propositional Approach to Associative Learning as an Alternative for Association Formation Models

Article excerpt

Associative learning effects can be defined as changes in behavior that are due to relations between events in the world. Most often, these effects are explained in terms of the formation of unqualified associations in memory. I describe an alternative theoretical explanation, according to which associative learning effects are the result of the nonautomatic generation and evaluation of propositions about relations between events. This idea is supported by many studies showing that associative learning effects are determined not only by the direct experience of events but also by prior knowledge, instructions, intervention, and deductive reasoning. Moreover, evidence supports the assumption that associative learning effects depend on nonautomatic processes. Whereas a propositional approach thus offers many new insights, questions can be raised about what the idea of association formation adds to our understanding of associative learning.

In order to survive in an ever-changing world, organisms need to detect relations between events in their environment. This statement may be a commonplace, but it does raise an important question that has intrigued many philosophers and psychologists: How do organisms manage to adapt their behavior to relations in the environment (Bouton, 2007; Hume, 1739/1987; Kant, 1781/1965)? In psychology, research on this question has been dominated by association formation models, the basic idea underlying which is that associative learning is accomplished by the formation of associations between representations in memory. An "association . . . simply connects the mental images of a pair of events in such a way that activation of one image causes activation (or inhibition) of the other" (Shanks, 2007, p. 294). Different association formation models differ in the assumptions they make about the type of representations assumed to become linked and the conditions under which associations are formed or change (e.g., Denniston, Savastano, & Miller, 2001; Mackintosh, 1975; Pearce & Hall, 1980; Rescorla & Wagner, 1972; Wagner, 1985). The dominance of association formation models has been so strong that it is often not clear whether researchers use the term "associative learning" to refer to the empirical phenomenon that organisms adapt their behavior to the presence of relations in the world or to the assumed theoretical process that associations are formed between representations. In this article, I will argue that it is important to clearly distinguish between the empirical phenomenon of associative learning and the theoretical process of association formation. One of the main advantages of making that distinction is that it provides theoretical freedom. It allows one to consider the possibility that associative learning as an empirical fact could be due not only to association formation processes but also to other processes.

In the first part of this article, I discuss in more detail why it is important to distinguish between the level of the empirical phenomenon or effect and the level of theoretical processes. Although this discussion is rather abstract and conceptual, it does make clear why association formation should not be seen as the only possible process that can produce associative learning effects. Hence, other theoretical approaches can and should be considered. In the second and main part of this article, I describe and evaluate one such alternative: the propositional approach. This approach leads to a host of predictions, many of which have already been confirmed empirically. In the third and final part, I discuss whether the propositional and association formation approach each offer unique insights into associative learning.

PART I

Associative Learning As an Effect and As a Process

Associative learning can be defined as a behavioral phenomenon: a change in the behavior of an organism resulting from changes in the relations in the world.1 In other words, associative learning is regarded as an effect, an observation attributed to a core procedure. …