Academic journal article The Psychological Record

Decrease of Precurrent Behavior as Training Increases: Effects of Task Complexity

Academic journal article The Psychological Record

Decrease of Precurrent Behavior as Training Increases: Effects of Task Complexity

Article excerpt

In ordinary language, people are often described as doing things in the head. When someone makes mental calculations, we say that the person solved the problems in his or her head, or mentally, and the numbers are said to have been added or multiplied in his or her head. After I sing a particular tune for a while, the melody may keep running through my head. Analyzing the use of the expression in my head in ordinary language, Ryle (1949) emphasized two important characteristics of such use. First, the concept has an undeniably metaphorical function. When someone makes mental calculations or has a melody playing in his or her head, no one would expect the numbers to appear on an x-ray of his or her brain or to hear a muffled melody by applying a stethoscope to his or her cranium.

Secondly, the concept has an indispensable negative function, which Ryle (1949) illustrated through an example. When the wheel-noises of the train make a melody run in my head, the wheel-noises are audible to the other passengers, but the melody is not (p. 36). To assert that I have a melody running through my head is a way of denying that there is really any music being played by an orchestra or a record player. This negative function of the use of in my head indicates that when we say, in ordinary language, that the boy solved the arithmetic problems in his head or mentally, we are asserting that the boy solved the problems without writing down or looking at the numbers on paper or blackboard; neither has he spoken nor heard the numbers. One of the main functions of the expression in the head, in this context, is to indicate that some things did not occur. By the same token, when someone is described as keeping a phone number in his or her head, part of what is being said is that the person is capable of saying, writing down, or dialing the number, without looking it up in the directory or asking someone else. Although looking the number up or asking someone may have been a necessary condition for correct dialing at some point during the learning process, this type of behavior ceased to be necessary and stopped occurring. Examples of this kind of behavior can be identified in almost any task, such as looking at the pedals when learning to drive a car, or looking at the keyboard when learning to type, or listening to the teacher when learning to pronounce a new foreign word, or looking at a multiplication table when solving arithmetic problems. In all these cases, correct responding may occur, after some training, without the emission of such responses, which may drop out from the original response sequence (Oliveira-Castro, 1992, 1993).

In operant terms, this type of behavior may be interpreted as a kind of precurrent (or mediating) behavior, a concept used by Skinner (1953, 1957, 1968, 1969) to refer to responses that increase the likelihood of other response (current) occurring or being reinforced. These responses, such as looking up a phone number in the directory, may increase, at least at the beginning of training, the likelihood of other (current) responses being reinforced, such as dialing the correct number. Considering, moreover, that precurrent contingencies may differ with respect to several characteristics, as suggested by Polson and Parsons (1994), these responses may be described as signaled, for they produce stimulus changes (e.g., the number in the directory) correlated with changes in the reinforcement parameters for the current response (e.g., dialing the number) and are not required by the programmed contingencies (e.g., dialing could be reinforced without looking up the number). This type of behavior could be then characterized as signaled and nonrequired precurrent responses that may, with increased training, decrease and stop occurring without disrupting current responding.

Experimental investigations of precurrent behavior have been, for the most part, concerned with the influence of precurrent responses on current responding in temporally defined reinforcement schedules (cf. …

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