Academic journal article The Psychological Record

The Operant-Respondent Distinction Revisited: Toward an Understanding of Stimulus Equivalence

Academic journal article The Psychological Record

The Operant-Respondent Distinction Revisited: Toward an Understanding of Stimulus Equivalence

Article excerpt

Criticisms and critiques of two-factor learning theory are not new to behavior analysis. Over the course of the past several decades, periodic doubts have been raised regarding the distinction between the operant, a "class modifiable by the consequences of the responses in it" (Catania, 1992), and the respondent, a "class of responses defined in terms of stimuli that reliably produce them" (Catania, 1992), for a variety of empirical and theoretical reasons. For a lack of convincing evidence disclaiming the operant-respondent distinction (e.g., Herrnstein, 1977), and for the failure of behavior analysts to devise a more useful paradigm (e.g., Pear & Eldridge, 1984), some have supported the continued distinction between operant and respondent behavior. Despite the treatment received by this issue in behavior analytic literature, few resolutions have been proposed in recent years that have attracted much consensus. In light of a behavioral phenomenon which is well investigated yet not well understood, it is time to revisit this problem anew.

Stimulus equivalence is a research topic of this sort. In this area of study, stimulus classes consisting of previously unrelated stimuli can be developed by way of the conditional discrimination procedure known as matching-to-sample (Sidman, 1971; Sidman & Cresson, 1973; Sidman, Cresson, & Willson-Morris, 1974; Sidman & Tailby, 1982). Once such stimulus classes are developed, subjects are able to match members within each class although they have had no direct training on those matches, hence the use of the adjectives "derived" and "emergent" to describe such performances. Newer evidence indicates that when a particular function is trained to any one stimulus, that function will "transfer" to other stimuli that are related symmetrically or equivalently to the first stimulus (e.g., Barnes & Keenan, 1993; Dougher, Augustson, Markham, Greenway, & Wulfert, 1994; S. Hayes, Kohlenberg, & Hayes, 1991). In other words, stimuli can come to exert control that has not been explicitly established. The growing body of stimulus functions that have been shown to transfer in this way has extended the scope of "derived" responding, yet has also added more mystery to the equivalence phenomenon. This area of research has been problematic for behavior analysis mainly because the fact that behavior can be repeatedly emitted without ever contacting reinforcement contingencies questions the organism's history as being the primary determinant of behavior. A variety of theories, explanations, and descriptions (S. Hayes & Wilson, 1996; Horne & Lowe, 1996; Sidman, 1994) have been proposed to account for the formation of equivalence classes and the transfer of functions from class members to other class members, but much controversy surrounds each of these accounts. The larger problem of what equivalence is often reduced to procedural issues, such as whether matching-to-sample is the only means by which the relations can form (Leader, Barnes, & Smeets, 1996); what the largest possible number of "nodes" separating class members can be (Fields, Adams, Verhave, & Newman, 1990); and whether nonhumans can pass equivalence tests (K. J. Saunders & Spradlin, 1996; R. R. Saunders & Green, 1996). In short, the behavior analytic community has not reached any one answer as to what equivalence classes are, what behavioral processes underlie their formation, and what is their basic nature.

In the present paper, we suggest that our reluctance to do away with the distinction between operant and respondent learning may be impeding our ability to arrive at an explanation for stimulus equivalence. Equivalence has been investigated primarily as an operant problem, with few exceptions (L. Hayes, 1992; Leader et al., 1996). Given that an agreed-upon explanation for equivalence has not been forthcoming, we argue for a close examination of how respondent processes might be involved in the phenomenon. …

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