Academic journal article International Journal of Psychology and Psychological Therapy

On the Nature of Relations Learned in Pavlovian Conditioning

Academic journal article International Journal of Psychology and Psychological Therapy

On the Nature of Relations Learned in Pavlovian Conditioning

Article excerpt

Several modern authors (Dickinson, 1980; Mackintosh, 1977; Rescorla & Holland, 1976; Testa, 1974) seem to agree in the description or conceptualization of Pavlovian conditioning as a kind of experience by which an animal learns or establishes causal relations between stimuli. There are two parts to this conceptualization: On the one hand, that the animal establishes some relation between the stimuli and, on the other hand, that the relation thus established is a causal one. Leaving aside the first part, that is, taking for granted that in Pavlovian conditioning the animal learns about a relation between stimuli, the second part raises the question about the type of relation learned or established. The following words are to be understood as an attempt to draw attention to a particular aspect of this issue, namely, the kind of relation between stimuli effectively occurring in the Pavlovian conditioning situation.


Within the framework of a cognitive concept of conditioning, many modern writers have adopted what, for lack of a better term, could be called a causal relation hypothesis. According to this hypothesis, in Pavlovian conditioning, animals establish a relation of causality between the conditioned stimulus and the unconditioned stimulus or reinforcer. By contrast, previous authors of various conceptual outlooks had opted for a different point of view, describing conditioning as the establishment of a signal relation between the conditioned and unconditioned stimuli.

The Causal Relation Hypothesis

In Rescorla & Holland (1976) appears what can be called the emblematic expression of the causal hypothesis, which not only includes this hypothesis but also the noncognitive hypothesis that Rescorla and Holland considered to be the opposite. Claiming to belong to the "psychological associationism tradition," which opposes the "physiological tradition of reflexology," they wrote that: "[W]e view conditioning (more) as the way in which the organism learns about the causal relations in his environment (what Tolman & Brunswik [1935] called the «causal texture») than as the transfer of control of a reflex from one stimulus to another" (p. 172).

In a brief review of the causal hypothesis, it can be mentioned that its first modern formulation is to be found in the work of Testa (1974), whom subsequent authors have quoted as a source of inspiration. Testa argued that the stimuli that the animal experiences in a conditioning situation are related through a mechanical causality and that the conditioning procedures could therefore be described as an "exposed causal relationship" and the association as an "internalized causal relationship" (pp.493-495).

Mackinstoh (1977), on the other hand, considers the effect of contingency on the selectivity of the stimulus in Pavlovian conditioning to conclude that: "By conditioning selectively in the way we have seen, laboratory rats succeed in attributing the occurrence of reinforcers to their most probable causes" (p.247). In other words: "We know (...) that two events will be associated only to the extent that the first is a better predictor of the second than any other event is, and thus that associative learning is nicely designed to allow animals to keep track of the causal structure of their world" (Mackintosh, 1997, p.881). Lastly, it can be noted that in his influential Contemporary Animal Learning Theory, Dickinson (1980) embraced the causal hypothesis and turned it into a distinctive trait of this "contemporary animal learning theory." As though to eliminate any trace of a doubt when describing Pavlovian conditioning, Dickinson avoided the terms conditioned stimulus and unconditioned stimulus, using instead those of cause and effect, respectively: "In the typical classical conditioning experiment, E1, the potential cause, is usually a neutral stimulus and E2, the potential effect, is typically a motivationally significant stimulus" (p. …

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