Learning Theory, Personality Theory, and Clinical Research: The Kentucky Symposium

By Donald K. Adams; O. H. Mowrer et al. | Go to book overview

Learning: an Aspect of Personality Development

DONALD SNYGG

I must confess that when I came here I was worried about how some of the things I have to say would be received. When I began to consider the topic of this symposium some of the things I thought of seemed so extreme and so bad tempered even to me that I wondered if they could really be true. I am accordingly very grateful to the other participants for the reassurance I have received from their remarks. I am particularly grateful to Dr. Spence for his disarmingly frank and modest statement that his learning theory at the present time has no application to any but the most simple behavior. The other participants seem to be in substantial agreement, not only about Dr. Spence's theory but also about learning theories in general.

I suppose I should be happy about this situation because it removes much of what I have to say from the realm of controversy and consequently from the risk of emotion and hard feelings, but as a psychologist I find it somewhat depressing.

From any practical point of view the basic problem of psychology is the problem of learning. Most psychologists are paid to help people to learn. Whether we are academic psychologists, educational psychologists, clinical psychologists, or industrial psychologists we are supposed to be experts in learning. This is embarrassing because the truth is that nobody knows very much about learning. Hilgard, writing in 1948, sixty-two years after Ebbinghaus, said, "There are no laws of learning that can be taught with confidence. Even the more obvious facts . . . are matters of theoretical dispute" [3, p. 326]. In psychology theories of learning are taught and argued about but not used. The truth is that the main advantage the practicing psychologist has over an intelligent layman in dealing with learning is his greater experience.

The inadequacy of our current learning theories for practical purposes is clearly revealed by their failure to have any effect on educational practices and objectives. Only a few years ago the psychology

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