Contemporary Learning Theories: Pavlovian Conditioning and the Status of Traditional Learning Theory

By Stephen B. Klein; Robert R. Mowrer | Go to book overview

4
Attention, Retrospective Processing and Cognitive Representations

A. G. Baker
McGill University

Pierre Mercier
Laval University


I. HISTORICAL CONTEXT

It is easy to forget that the traditional associationist theories of learning, like those of Thorndike, Hull, and Guthrie were theories of knowledge as well as of behavior. These theories attempted to specify the mechanism by which stimuli came to influence responses. The stimuli and responses studied were chosen for their simplicity1 partly because that is a good place to start but mostly because it was believed that an understanding of more complex behaviors could later be achieved by building from the simpler level. These theorists never denied that language is a complex behavior or that insight and creativity required an elaborate knowledge structure. What they did deny was that these phenomena were to be primitives in a theoretical system. To use modern terminology they would argue that these phenomena were perhaps emergent properties of simpler processes.

This attempt to explain very complex phenomena with very simple elements was the main beauty of the theories. They were originally very elegant and parsimonious. But, as we soon argue, this simplicity was also their downfall. It is often said that S-R psychologists did not believe in memory. This is not logically possible because a theory of learning must also be a theory of memory as illustrated in the three necessary stages of learning shown in Fig. 4.1. The animal is first trained (the input stage), something about the training is stored (memory), and then learning is assessed in the test (output) phase of the experiment.

Nevertheless, this criticism does get at an essential feature of the models. A simple S-R approach such as that of Guthrie ( 1959) claims that learning, in the

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1
The organisms chosen for study, mostly nonhumans, is also an issue but we defer discussion of this point until we come to evolutionary considerations at the end of the chapter.

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