Academic journal article Journal of Social and Psychological Sciences

Human Experimental Psychology and Learning Theory: A Critical Review

Academic journal article Journal of Social and Psychological Sciences

Human Experimental Psychology and Learning Theory: A Critical Review

Article excerpt

The Decline of Classical Behaviourist Learning Theory

Understanding the process through which individuals learn and how behaviour and cognition may change as a consequence has generated much research, debate and scholarship. Early studies postulated that there is an inextricable link between learning and behaviour. In this respect, it is interesting to notice that in the 1960s, learning was thought to be directly related to change in behaviour (Mackintosh, 1997; 2009). Moreover, one can trace this link between behaviour and learning back to the work of Pavlov and Skinner on classical and operant conditioning respectively. Their theoretical assumptions informed much of classical learning theory. More specifically, learning was essentially regarded as an end product of some processes. In this way, research within the experimental psychology domain was characterised by its main focus on animal models derived from conditioning (stimulus-response) research. Such models are grounded on some Darwinian principles which postulate that organisms are inherently selfish, competitive and dependent on what is necessary for the species to survive. From this vantage point, behaviourists like Skinner aligned himself with Darwin's ideas and postulated that animals are born with a mind in a 'blank' state and that their learning and survival is a consequence of simple environmental adaptation. This is precisely the starting point of Mackintosh criticism, discussion, and analysis. Mackintosh (1997) argued that mental activity and human behaviour is far too complex to be understood in terms of highly reductionist behavioural experiments.

Thus, given the behaviourist paradigm failure to account for complexities surrounding necessary and sufficient conditions for the occurrence of successful conditioning and learning, there has been a paradigm shift from behaviourism to cognitivism (McLaren and Mackintosh, 1989). It follows that Mackintosh also exposed both behaviourism and cognitivism for failing to show adequate generalizability in human behaviour. In this respect, it would appear that, despite most experiments providing evidence for both operant conditioning and Pavlovian conditioning, these experiments were simply based on animals and their behaviour. There is an evident problem in assuming that general laws which are characteristic of animal behaviour can somehow describe the much more complex pattern of human, thought, behaviour and mental processes. Mackintosh also subtly touches upon the issue of completely dismissing mental processes as solely a product of stimulus-response dynamics and the lack of engagement in understanding cognitive processes shown by radical behaviourists.

Thus, Mackintosh (1997) article begins with a highly selective analysis and discussion of the most prominent historical origins of this research area and the way in which learning-performance distinction may in fact provide a useful framework for current and future theoretical analysis. Mackintosh goes on to discuss the extent to what instrumental and classical conditioning are actually separate processes. He, therefore, asserted that a common feature between them is the concern of defining the 'unit of learning' and the nature of the associative structure that results from animals being exposed to certain conditioning procedures. In this way, he essentially emphasises the importance of establishing a basic independent variable whilst at the same time he shows an unquestioning acceptance of associative learning principles. Thus, he essentially explores the nature of the fundamental independent variable for conditioning procedures. More specifically, he placed particular emphasis on conditioning procedures which are particularly crucial for studying choice. In this respect, it is also interesting to notice that Mackintosh situates such procedures under a more general umbrella of discrimination learning. Moreover, he asserted that behaviour is distributed through some sort of governing rule even after establishing the associative strengths of individual alternatives. …

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