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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 Theories

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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

    • 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 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

  • 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:

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

  • 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

  • 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

  • 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 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 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

  • 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

  • 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

  • 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:

  • 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

  • Guthrie believed that old habits could not be “forgotten”, but could only be replaced by a new habit

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

  • 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

  • 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

  • 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.

Learning or Performance?

Learning versus Performance

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

  • 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’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

“Some Boxes”

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?

  • 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.

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