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Traditional Learning Theories. Chapter 2. Traditional Learning Theories. Two major theoretical approaches S-R (stimulus-response) theories state that learning occurs through the association of environmental stimuli

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traditional learning theories2
Traditional Learning Theories
  • Two major theoretical approaches
    • S-R (stimulus-response) theories state that learning occurs through the association of environmental stimuli
    • S-S (stimulus-stimulus) theories state that learning involves recognizing when important events are likely to occur and understanding how to obtain these events
  • Anti-theoretical (methodological)
s r versus s s theories
S-R versus S-S Theories
  • S-R theorists (Behaviorist)
    • inflexible view of behavior
    • stimulus environment controls behavior
    • very machine-like
  • S-S theorists (Cognitive)
    • somewhat flexible
    • internal processes control behavior
    • learn relationships which guides behavior

Types of S-R theories

  • Reinforcement is necessary to learn an S-R association (Reinforcement)
    • Thorndike’s law-of-effect proposed that reinforcement was a necessity
    • Also, Hull’s S-R theory of learning was the culmination of this line of thinking
  • Reinforcement is not necessary to learn an S-R association (Contiguity)
    • Guthrie
hull s reinforcement theory
Hull’s Reinforcement Theory
  • Proposed that primary drives (e.g., hunger, thirst) are produced by states of deprivation
    • We have biological needs and corresponding psychological drives
      • we have a biological need for water that is accompanied by a psychological drive called thirst

Theorized that drive motivates behavior

  • Drive reduction restores homeostasis
  • By restoring homeostasis, drive reduction leads to S-R associative learning

Excitatory potential reflects the likelihood that a specific event (S) will cause the occurrence of a specific behavior (R).





Hull believed that the intensity of instrumental activity is determined by the combined influence of several factors

    • Drive (D), e.g., vampire thirst
    • Incentive (K), e.g., amount of blood reward
    • Habit strength (H), # of previously rewarded lever-presses
    • Inhibition (I), # of previously unrewarded rewarded lever-presses
hull s formula
Hull’s Formula:

SER = drive (D) * incentive (K) * habit (H) – inhibition (I)




Excitatory potential is determined by:

    • Drive (D), the internal arousal state produced by deprivation (appetitive) or stimulation (aversive) , or stimuli associated with deprivation or stimulation.
    • Incentive motivation (K), the internal arousal produced by the reinforcer (e.g., it’s magnitude)
    • Habit strength (H), the strength of the connection between the stimulus and response.
    • Inhibition (I), suppression caused by previous responses failing to produce reward.
sources of drive
Sources of Drive
  • Events that threaten survival activate the internal drive states
    • sex partner
    • predator
  • Some events that do not threaten survival may also activate the drive state
    • Highly desirable stimuli, like saccharin, activate drive states
      • It tastes good but has no caloric value
    • Highly aversive stimuli, like mild footshock, activate drive states
      • Mild footshock is aversive, but it does not threaten survival

Innate Habits

  • Habit strength can be
    • Innate: (SUR) or
    • Acquired through experience (SHR)
      • Habit strength increases each time a response produces drive reduction
elimination of behavior
Elimination of Behavior
  • Unsuccessful behavior causes a drive to persist.
  • If drive persists, all behavior inhibited.
  • Reactive inhibition IR: the temporary inhibition of behavior due to the persistence of a drive state after unsuccessful behavior
  • Conditioned inhibition SIR: the permanent inhibition of a specific behavior as a result of the continued failure of that response to reduce the drive state.
evaluation of drive theory
Evaluation of Drive Theory
  • Many of Hull’s ideas do accurately reflect important aspects of human behavior:
    • Intense arousal can reinforce behavior
    • Environmental stimuli can develop the ability to produce arousal, thereby motivating behavior (lead to Spence’s work on acquired drives)
    • Failure to distinguish learning and performance
acquired drives
Acquired Drives
  • Acquired drive: an internal drive state produced when an environmental stimulus is paired with an unconditioned source of drive
    • This system works through classical conditioning
    • Spence, one of Hull’s students, developed this approach
guthrie s contiguity theory
Guthrie’s Contiguity Theory
  • Guthrie proposed that contiguity, not drive reduction, was sufficient to establish an S-R connection.
    • He believed that learning is a simple process governed entirely by contiguity
    • Getting the response to occur (however this is done) in the situation was all that mattered
    • The last response to occur in the situation will be reproduced the next time
the impact of reward
The impact of Reward
  • Guthrie believed the last thing done in the old situation before the situation changed strengthened the S-R bond.
  • He believed that “stimulus change” produced learning. Rewards produce stimulus change
the impact of punishment
The Impact of Punishment
  • If the response terminates the punishment, the response will become conditioned to the stimulus context in which the punishment occurred.
  • Guthrie believed that punishment will eliminates ongoing behavior only if response elicited by punishment is incompatible with the inappropriate response.
    • e.g., spanking produces responses incompatible with most other responses
the importance of practice
The Importance of Practice
  • Guthrie proposed that learning is not gradual but occurs in a single trial.
    • The strength of an S-R association is at maximum value after a single pairing of the stimulus and response.
performance gradually improves
Performance gradually improves:
  • 1) Subjects attend to only some of the stimuli present during conditioning trials.
  • 2) Many stimuli have to become conditioned to produce a particular response.
  • 3) All behavior are complex are consists of many separate responses. For the behavior to be efficient, each response element must be conditioned.
breaking up a habit
Breaking Up a Habit
  • Guthrie believed that old habits could not be “forgotten”, but could only be replaced by a new habit
three methods of breaking habits
Three methods of breaking habits
  • 1) Fatigue method: The eliciting stimulus is presented so often that the person is so fatigued that the old habit cannot be performed. At that point, a new response will occur and a new S-R association will be learned, or no response will occur.
  • 2) Threshold method: the stimulus is presented at a level below threshold for eliciting the response. The intensity of the stimulus is gradually increased.
  • 3) Incompatible method: person is placed in a situation where the new habit replaces the old (Overcorrection)
valuable ideas
Valuable Ideas
  • 1) Punishment sometimes intensifies an inappropriate behavior when it elicits a behavior that is compatible with the punished response.
  • 2) Contiguity between a response and reward is critical to prevent acquisition of competing associations.
  • 3) Only a portion of the environmental stimuli are active at a given time.

Bad Ideas

  • 1) Some actions are not reproduced even though substantial stimulus change followed the action.
  • 2) Reward predicts responses better than either frequency or recency (last response).
  • 3) All learning is not single trial learning.
tolman s purposive behavior
Tolman’s Purposive Behavior
  • When Tolman proposed his cognitive theory in the 1930s and 1940s, most psychologists preferred Hull’s mechanistic theory.
  • By the 1950s, the cognitive view started to gain supporters.
flexibility of behavior
Flexibility of Behavior
  • Tolman proposed that behavior has both direction and purpose.
  • He believed that behavior is goal oriented.
    • We are motivated either to achieve a desired condition or to avoid an aversive situation.
  • He stated that certain events in the environment convey information about where our goals are located.
    • We can reach our goals only after we learn to read the signs leading to reward or punishment.
is reward necessary for learning
Is Reward Necessary for Learning?
  • Experience of two events is sufficient for learning (S-S)
    • Reward effects performance, not learning
  • The understanding of when events will occur can develop without a reward.
    • Presence of reward will motivate the organism to exhibit previously learned behavior.
evaluation of purposive behavior
Evaluation of Purposive Behavior
  • Tolman’s work caused Hull to make changes in drive theory.
  • Once the ideas were incorporated into drive theory, Tolman’s work did not have a big impact on learning theory.
  • When drive theory developed problems in the 60s and 70s, cognitive approach gained wider approval
skinner s methodological view
Skinner’sMethodological View
  • Skinner argued that the goal of behaviorism should be to identify and isolate the environmental factors that govern behavior.
  • He believed the goal of psychology was to predict and control behavior
    • Ability to do so depends on understanding the circumstances that govern the occurrence of the behavior
the importance of the environment
The Importance of the Environment
  • Most of Skinner’s research focused on the role of reinforcement.
    • Reinforcer: an event whose occurrence increases the frequency of the behavior that preceded the event.
    • Operant response: the behavior that controls the rate at which specific consequences occur.
  • Skinner’s work led to the development of Behavior Modification for treating behavior pathology.
the role of theory
The Role of Theory?
  • Skinner argued that the use of “hypothetical constructs” does not contribute to our understanding of behavior.
  • Many psychologists do not agree with Skinner’s atheoretical approach.
    • They say that theory guides research and leads to new findings and uses for information.