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Module 1: Towards a Theory of Learning


Module Overview                                              

Welcome to our study of learning and behavior. As you will see, this book and class focus on the experimental analysis of behavior which reflects a pure/basic science approach. This is different from the applied analysis of behavior which reflects an applied science approach. To understand how we arrived at this distinction I will outline the historical development of psychology which led up to a science of behavior, and then its decline as a school of thought. I will also define key terms such as psychology, learning, memory, and behavior. I will conclude by showcasing a few professional societies and journals pertinent to the study of behavior, in its applied and pure science forms.


Module Outline


Module Learning Outcomes

  • Describe the development of behaviorism within the field of psychology.
  • Define and describe the characteristics of behavior.
  • Identify pertinent professional societies and peer-reviewed journals in the experimental analysis of behavior.


1.1. Historical Background


Section Learning Objectives

  • Define history and clarify its importance.
  • Define and describe philosophy.
  • Outline the contributions of the Greeks to the science of behavior.
  • Clarify the importance of Descartes’ contributions to science.
  • Define mechanism.
  • Define reductionism, determinism, and materialism.
  • Outline the contributions of the empiricists to the science of behavior.
  • Clarify how physiology contributed to the development of psychology as a field.
  • Clarify how biology contributed to the development of psychology as a field.
  • Identify when, where, and how psychology was established as a field.
  • Describe Wundt’s contributions to psychology.
  • Describe Ebbinghaus’ contributions to psychology.
  • Describe how structuralism contributed to the new science of behavior and learning.
  • Describe how functionalism contributed to the new science of behavior and learning.
  • Describe how Gestalt psychology contributed to the new science of behavior and learning.
  • Describe the rise of behaviorism in the field of psychology.
  • Clarify how psychology returned to a study of mental processes, in addition to behavior.


1.1.1. Why History?

This class, and the book for which it is written, is an investigation of learning and behavior. So why is our starting point a history lesson? First, history is the study of the past — the people, places, and events that make it up. We study the past so that in the future, we can repeat anything that worked or not make the same mistakes again. In other words, we want to learn from the events that occurred at an earlier time. By looking at the past we can see how we arrived at where we are today as a society, or as a person. Whether we want to admit it or not, our past makes us who we are today, and affects our future behavior.

So why is the past important to a psychologist? Consider a clinical psychologist. If a client is suffering from depression, anxiety, or post-traumatic stress disorder, there has to be a reason why. Maybe the client has had a series of deaths in the family and lost his job, leading to a major depressive disorder. Maybe an adult client was humiliated by their 5th grade teacher when giving a presentation and now has a bona fide fear of speaking in public and interacting with others, making any type of social interaction anxiety-producing. Or maybe we find out that the client is a veteran of the Gulf War or the War on Terrorism and was deployed numerous times to Iraq or Afghanistan. The frequent combat situations she was placed in, has led to PTSD. As such, an understanding of the past and how it affects the client is very important. It may even change the treatment approach the clinician takes or could help prevent any additional trauma from similar situations.
Now, what about for a behaviorist who studies learning and behavior? The past is essential to understanding why a dog salivates at the mere sound of a bell, and not necessarily the sight/smell/taste of food. Maybe we discover that the dog has come to realize that every time in the past when the bell was rung food came in shortly thereafter. Now at a future time, the bell rings again and the dog salivates because it believes, like in times past, food will be coming and sure enough, it does!!!! The past might also be important to a child who is about to talk back to a parent but quickly remembers that when he did that last Tuesday, his mother scolded him. Not wanting to repeat that aversive event, he engages in a different type of aversive event and bites his tongue…but not literally.

The past is important. Simple as that. And to understand the place behaviorism holds in the field of psychology, we have to understand events that led up to its creation, how it developed, and what happened as it slipped into the mainstream…of psychology that is. So we will discuss history.


1.1.2. Psychology’s Origins — Philosophy

Would it surprise you to learn that when Wilhelm Wundt established the first psychological laboratory at Leipzig, Germany in the late 1870s, it arose out of the disciplines of philosophy and physiology? It likely does. Who would have thought our field came from such different disciplines? What is philosophy? Philosophy is the love and pursuit of knowledge. Psychologists are all about gaining knowledge, so the connection between the two disciplines is made. Right? Not quite. Well yes, we gain knowledge, but the two fields are fundamentally distinct, so there have to be glaring differences between them. There should also be similarities since we arose from it. Philosophy had to leave some trace of its influence on the field of psychology.

Let’s start by briefly considering the four major areas of study in the field of philosophy. Metaphysics is the study of the nature of reality, what exists in the world, how it is ordered, and what it is like. It asks questions such as whether or not there is a God, what truth is, whether we have free will or if everything is pre-determined, what it means to be a person, and how one event causes another. Think about psychology now. We study how the mind works, look for universal patterns so that we can make cause and effect statements, explore what it means to be a person through concepts such as identity and self-esteem, and consider whether all we are going to be in life is determined in childhood or can later events change us… and alter our developmental trajectory.

Second is epistemology or the study of knowledge. Philosophers ask what knowledge is and how we know what we do. Psychologists, on the related hand, study thinking and its conscious and sub/unconscious forms. We also study knowledge as a cognitive process and discuss elements of cognition to include concepts, propositions, schemas, and mental images.

Third, philosophy studies ethics or questions about what is right and what we ought to do. They wonder about what it means to be good, how we should treat one another, and what makes actions right. Psychologists study this too. Lawrence Kohlberg investigated moral development in children and across the life span and Stanley Milgram studied obedience to authority and its moral implications, such as related to the events of World War II and Nazi Germany. Psychologists also debate issues such as the improper and proper use of punishment (we will tackle this very issue later in the book),

Finally, logic covers the nature and structure of arguments, and what constitutes good or bad reasoning. Psychologists cover reasoning too, and its formal and informal manifestations, heuristics or mental shortcuts, and how we make decisions.

As you can see, there is a definite overlap between philosophy and psychology. Religion even factors into the discussion as it tackles the same general questions, but in the end, philosophy, psychology, and religion come up with different answers to these questions.

How do philosophy and psychology differ then? Simply, the methods used. Philosophy focuses on speculation, intuition, and generalization from personal observation. Its methods are subjective. Psychology, on the other hand, utilizes the scientific method — experimentation, observation, and measurement. Its methods are objective.

   The Greeks. When it comes to the birth of philosophy, we can thank the Greeks and their desire to understand the world around them. Initially though, they adopted two ways of looking at the world – animism or the idea that the world is alive and anthropomorphism or the practice of giving inanimate objects human attributes. Though these practices seem silly to us they did afford the Greeks, and other ancients, some degree of control over their life. Control also came through their religion and the explanations it provided. These helped to quell the uneasiness that living in a dangerous and uncertain world caused. Greek gods controlled all aspects of the universe, from lightning, the sea, earthquakes, time, the sun, the moon, death, the afterlife, the hunt, agriculture, and childbirth…to name a few. They also controlled love, war, wisdom, travel, pleasure, music, and hearth…to name a few more.

Early Greek philosophers moved beyond these mystical and magical explanations and offered the first, though not always correct, natural explanations of the universe. Many of their ideas were too simplistic but it was a good start. For instance, Heraclitus saw the universe as being in a constant state of flux or change and so assumed that fire was the primary substance. This ‘fact’ led him to question whether we can ever truly know anything if the world is constantly changing, and so we had to place doubt on the reliability of the senses. Pythagoras echoed his thoughts saying that the senses cannot provide knowledge and believed that experiences of the flesh were inferior to the mind. If you think you know him, you likely do. He believed the universe could be explained through numbers, and offered his Pythagorean Theorem, which states that the square of the hypotenuse of a right angle is equal to the sum of the squares of the other two sides.

Believing the senses can provide reliable information was the focus of the protopsychologists, such as Alcameon of Croton, who came to the conclusion that sensation and thought occur in the brain after dissecting the eye and tracing the optic nerve to the brain. Empedocles asserted that four fundamental substances made up the universe – earth, air, fire, and water – and that there were two causal powers – strife and love. He is credited with the first theory of perception that relied on our senses and also said that good health occurs when the four fundamental substances are in balance with one another. Otherwise, we become ill.

Though there are numerous other Greek philosophers we can discuss, one final individual needs to be mentioned. Aristotle, a student of Plato who was a student of Socrates, said that information about our world comes from our five senses and they can provide an accurate representation of it. He proposed his laws of association, which we see in modern-day learning theory. First, the law of contiguity says that we think of one thing and then think of things that go along with it. The law of similarity says that we think of one thing and then things similar to it. Related to this law is the law of contrast which asserts that we think of one thing and then things opposite of it. Finally, the law of frequency says the more often we experience things together the more likely we will be to make an association between them. Aristotle also investigated emotions, motivation, happiness, dreams, and imagination. Descartes and the mind-body problem. Fast forward to the 17th century and the prevailing thinking of the time that human behavior was governed by free will, conscious intent, and reason. Rene Descartes (1596-1650) shook up this view by suggesting that human behavior was a combination of freely executed actions and those that occur automatically and are elicited by stimuli outside us. What he called dualism, asserts that the body, as an extension of the physical world, functions much like a machine and produces these involuntary, reflexive responses to external events such as blinking when air hits the eye, while the mind has free will and produces voluntary behaviors such as you deciding to read this book. It is our mind that makes us more than mere machines but also what separates us from animals. According to Descartes, the mind and body mutually interact in the brain since all sensations travel there and movement originates from there. This occurs at the only single, unitary structure in the brain – the pineal gland or as he called it, the conarium. Descartes’s work helped to usher in the era of modern science and shifted us from a study of the soul to a study of the mind and mental processes.

He also proposed his reflex action theory or the idea that an external object can bring about an involuntary response such as a hammer hitting your knee causing it to jerk outward. Descartes said this process was completely mechanical or automatic, and governed by the laws of physics and mechanics.

He also said that the mind held two types of ideas – innate and derived. Innate ideas arise from the mind or consciousness and include such concepts as God, the self, perfection, and infinity. It can also include geometrical principles such as the shortest distance between two points being a straight line. Derived ideas come from an object directly through our senses, such as hearing the sound of a bell, seeing the sight of a tree, or smelling the scent of a perfume. The rise of mechanism. Descartes had many contributions to the field of science but a lasting contribution to philosophy, and in turn psychology, was to help establish the philosophical worldview of mechanism. Simply, mechanism is the idea that the universe is a great machine. As the underlying philosophy of the 17th century, and an influential force for centuries later, it states that all natural processes are mechanically determined and could be explained through the principles of physics and chemistry. As the universe consists of atoms in motion (consistent with Galileo-Newtonian physics dominant at the time) then every physical effect has a direct cause which can be measured, and therefore should be predictable. Observation and experimentation were already cardinal features of science but now measurement was crucial too. People of the time became obsessed with defining and describing all phenomena and could assign a numerical value to it. Devices such as the thermometer, barometer, slide rule, and micrometer were created, but also the pivotal technological achievement of the time, the clock, was only rivaled by the development of the computer in the 20th century.

If the universe was a great machine, this begged the question of whether people were like machines? Many thought yes and mechanical contraptions called automata were created to mimic human movement and action. Descartes said that people were machines but more efficient and better. The mechanists agreed but, in the end, said we were still just machines. A few other important philosophical worldviews. Also worth noting is determinism which says that every act is determined or caused by past events (shout out to history again). Reductionism focuses on breaking things down to their basic components and it is this principle that early schools of thought in psychology battled, including behaviorism. More on this in a bit. Finally, materialism states that everything that makes up the universe could be described in physical terms and by explained by the properties of matter and energy. This includes the mind and mental processes which could be studied through anatomy and physiology. And….empiricism. Before we move on from philosophy, we need to discuss maybe the most important philosophical worldview for psychology and a study of learning and behavior — empiricism — which arose in the 18th and 19th centuries. Simply, empiricism states that knowledge arises from sensory experience. John Locke (1632-1704) said that we are born with a tabula rasa or blank slate, upon which this knowledge is written. Simple ideas are received passively by the mind but can be combined with other simple ideas to form complex ideas. He calls the process by which this occurs association. As you will come to see, learning theorists talk about associative learning or learning by linking together (combining) information from the environment. Also, most empiricists had a term for the concept of combining simple ideas to form more complex ones.

For instance, David Hume (1711-1776) said ideas were arranged in numerous ways through the process of imagination. Hume also, and similar to Aristotle, proposed three laws for how ideas are associated. His law of resemblance states that our thoughts flow from one idea to similar ones. This would approximate Aristotle’s law of similarity. Next, he discussed the law of contiguity which says that we link together events in time, such as remembering that when we told our parents we did well on a test, they delivered praise to us. Finally, Hume talked about a law of cause and effect which stays that when we think of one event, we can follow the sequence of prior events that led to it.

David Hartley (1706-1757), like his fellow empiricists, said that there were no innate associations but all knowledge was gained through childhood experience. He also proposed laws of association to include contiguity, or the idea that when sensations or ideas occur together in time, they become linked together, and the idea of repetition, or the more times that events occur together, the more likely they will be associated with one another. As you will soon see, these two laws are similar to the specific conditions for respondent conditioning — repeated pairings and moderate spacing in time.

One final empiricist deserves mention. Like his predecessors, John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) said that simple ideas are combined to form complex ones, but that the resultant complex idea is something more than the mere sum of simple ideas. Mill says that something more emerges and they take on new qualities not present in the individual ideas or elements themselves. He calls this a creative synthesis. Consider your learning in any class. You learn a bunch of facts (simple ideas) and then to really understand what you are being taught, combine them to form a more holistic or integrated body of knowledge. From these individual facts you see connections, both direct and indirect like in a web of knowledge, that are not present in the individual facts themselves. Something more emerged. For Mill, unlike Locke, this was an active process.


1.1.3. Psychology’s Origins – Physiology

As noted above, psychology arose out of philosophy and physiology. We might say philosophy presented us with some of our basic research questions for which we could apply the scientific method to arrive at an answer. Physiology then offered us some initial methods we could use to test our questions, though you will come to see shortly that philosophy gave us an important method too.

Before briefly discussing physiology, it is important to mention another philosophical idea that exists more in the realm of scientific philosophy — positivism. Proposed by Auguste Comte (1798-1857) positivism states that only natural phenomena or facts that are objectively observable should be pursued. Anything speculative, inferential, or metaphysical should be rejected as it is illusory. He believed that the physical sciences had reached a positivist stage, though the social sciences were still pursuing metaphysical questions. This emphasis on the observable will be important to behaviorism later, but at psychology’s inception, key figures such as Wundt, Titchener, and Ebbinghaus showed that the mind could be empirically studied.

To get us to that point, three key German physiologists conducted important research. First, Hermann von Helmholtz (1821-1894) followed a mechanist view of the human body and said that sense organs operated like machines. He studied the speed of the neural impulse and found it to be 90 feet per second and created a theory of color vision. In keeping with the tradition of materialism, he showed that we could study the mind by emphasizing anatomy and physiology.

Ernst Weber (1795-1878) proposed the concept of the two-point threshold or the point at which two separate sensations could be perceived. Take two fingers and put them together. If you push them against your arm, you will perceive one sensation. If you slowly separate them, what is the least amount of distance they need to be separated until we detect the two separate sensations? This distance he called the just noticeable difference.

Finally, Gustav Theodor Fechner (1801-1887) proposed the area of psychology called psychophysics or the scientific study of the relationship between mental and physical processes. He developed the concepts of absolute and difference threshold and offered three methods used in psychophysics today. Fechner is a key figure in psychology’s separation from physiology and sometimes is offered as the founder of the field, though this would be inaccurate as he never endeavored or had the motivation to found a discipline.


1.1.4. Psychology’s Origins – Biology

Psychology also has origins in the field of biology, though it affects some schools more than others. We can see this if we consider the work of Charles Darwin (1809-1882) who proposed the theory of evolution. Essentially, evolution centers on the notion of “descent with modification” or that species change over time, can bring about new species, and share a common ancestor. Central to the theory is the principle of natural selection which has three core propositions. First is the idea that traits can vary within a species and between species such that beetles vary in color (some are green while others are brown; intra-species variation) while some species are carnivores, others are herbivores, and still others are omnivores (inter-species variation). Organisms can vary on traits such as color, size, and shape, to name a few. Second, traits are heritable, meaning that a giraffe will pass down the trait of a long neck to its offspring if it aids in the survival of the species. Finally, there is a competition between organisms for limited resources and so not all individuals are able to reproduce to their fullest potential. This is actually beneficial as the environment cannot support unlimited population growth. Natural selection aids populations with becoming adapted to or better suited to their environment. There is also a survival of the fittest which means that the species which are better able to acquire the resources needed for survival will survive.
Darwin’s work was important because he introduced animals as a relevant research subject for psychologists, integrated methods from many fields, studied individual differences, and finally focused on function over structure. Keep this in mind as we begin our discussion of the evolution of schools of thought in psychology.


1.1.5. The Birth of Psychology and Its Evolution Over Time Germany — the birthplace of psychology. As noted, Wundt established the first psychology laboratory in the late 1870s, or more specifically, 1879 in Leipzig, Germany. Wundt had a tall order to fill early on. He had to show that the new discipline of psychology could empirically and experimentally study behavior and mental processes. Building off the work of the empiricists, Wundt and his followers had to show that the mind is truly composed of basic elements. The empiricists conducted no formal scientific investigations of their assertion, and so Wundt had to prove that the elements of conscious experience existed and for him were sensations and feelings. One way to prove the latter was to use a metronome and to record the feelings that accompanied the sensations. Wundt’s only research subject for these experiments on feelings was himself, and from them he arrived at his tridimensional theory of feelings which consisted of three independent dimensions – pleasure/displeasure, tension/relaxation, and excitement/depression. Wundt said that these elements could be organized or combined to give a sense of unity or wholeness, which he called apperception, and said that it was a creative synthesis. Similar to Mill, he said this process was active in nature. Wundt also popularized the use of introspection, or the examination of one’s mental state. This method arose out of philosophy and so was not new, though its use in an experimental fashion was new.

Fellow German, Hermann Ebbinghaus (1850-1909), introduced the scientific study of memory and published a book in 1885 called Memory: A Contribution to Experimental Psychology. Before Ebbinghaus, the focus was to study associations already formed, though he showed that the initial formation of associations could be studied as well. He showed that memory and forgetting could be studied experimentally, and he used what came to be called nonsense syllables, though he described them as a meaningless series of syllables, to do just that. These nonsense syllables were generally formed from two consonants surrounding a vowel. He found 2,300 such combinations and drew from this list randomly to create stimulus materials that he was to learn. How did he know he had successfully learned the list? Ebbinghaus determined that two perfect recalls were enough. Relying on just one perfect recall could mean that he recalled it correctly accidentally or by chance. A second perfect recall would likely not be due to anything but true learning. From his research, he discovered that it is easier to learn meaningful material and shorter material. He also arrived at his forgetting curve which showed that within just 19 minutes, most people only accurately recalled about 60% of what they took in. Within an hour this falls to about half and by one day this drops to under 40%. Recall after 2 days falls to about 30%, and this holds stable over the next month approximately. Psychology comes to the United States. Edward Bradford Titchener (1867-1927), originally from England, was a student of Wundt’s who, after completing his graduate studies, moved to the United States and became a Professor of Psychology at Cornell University. He offered his own approach to psychology, which he termed structuralism, was an effort to break down, or reduce, consciousness to its component parts and determine what its structure is. Like Wundt, he identified specific elements of conscious experience, which he said included sensations and affective states. He then went beyond Wundt to include what Oswald Kulpe (1862-1915) called imageless thoughts, and he later termed images. Images are experiences not present at the moment but derived from our memory of past events and encounters with these people, objects, ideas, etc. Titchener also used introspection, but a form developed by Kulpe called systematic experimental introspection. Where Wundt’s brand of introspection was objective and quantitative, Titchener/Kulpe’s was subjective and qualitative and used retrospective reports. Titchener’s structuralism, as well as Wundt’s system, was important for the field of psychology as it stringently used the scientific method, introduced introspection to the field, and had a clearly defined subject matter in terms of the study of consciousness. Since it was the first formal school in the field of psychology, it was subjected to obvious scrutiny, leading to genuine attempts to offer other views of human behavior and mental processes, but also calculated attempts to destroy it at its foundation. Offering another view of behavior. Late in the 1800s to early 1900s a new school of thought emerged in psychology called functionalism. Functionalism was heavily influenced by Darwin’s work and so sought to study how the mind works, how it helps the organism survive in its environment, and how what psychology was discovering could be used to the betterment of society. Wundt and Titchener had no interest in what was to become the applied side of psychology and stuck to science in its pure or basic form. Functionalism was important as it showed the applied side of psychology at a time when society was debating the usefulness of the new discipline. Functionalists took jobs in the education setting, military, business, and other organizations, doing such work as helping children with learning disabilities, determining the most effective ways to teach in the classroom, developing mental tests to quantify intelligence, figuring out the personality pattern and skillset of individuals successful in certain jobs so others like them could be fitted to a job that best suited them, helping train individuals in the use of sophisticated equipment used in the making of war, and helping soldiers returning from two world wars deal with physical impairments and mental illness.

Also important was the fact that Darwin said there was no sharp distinction between human and animal minds. Lower animals dreamed, experienced pleasure and pain, were happy, sad, and had imaginations just like human beings. This led men such as George John Romanes (1848-1894) to formalize the study of animal intelligence. He published his book Animal Intelligence in 1882 and proposed the concept of the mental ladder, that all animal species could be arranged in order from lowest mental functioning to highest, like rungs on a ladder. He also proposed the use of a technique called the anecdotal method, which included casual reports about animal behavior from untrained observers such as pet owners, and what he called introspection by analogy, meaning that when trying to determine a reason for an animal’s behavior, we need to look no further than ourselves. Since animals are capable of the same mental processes that humans are, if we go to the window to see what made a noise and our dog does it at the same time, it’s safe to say that Fido went out of curiosity or concern just like we did.

C. Lloyd Morgan (1852-1936) was another key proponent of the use of animals in research and conducted the first large scale experimental studies with animals. He also proposed the law of parsimony which states that when explaining an animal’s behavior (or human for that matter) a simple explanation sometimes suffices and we do not need to implicate a higher mental process. He said that animal behavior results from learning or making associations between sensory experiences. Morgan will come to exert greater influence on the school of behaviorism because his methods were objective, unlike Romanes whose methods were subjective.

Another key functionalist was John Dewey (1859-1952) who attacked the concept of the reflex arc and replaced it with his concept of a reflex circle. How so? The reflex arc says when we experience a stimulus we then respond to it, much like a child seeing a dog (stimulus) and moving to touch it (the motor response). Dewey said it was not that simple. The child, or any person, can change their perception of a stimulus based on their experience with it. If the child touches the dog and is bitten, in the future, the child will hesitate to touch a dog. The child alters his or her perception of the dog and moves from initially being attracted to dogs to being repelled by them. A reflex circle is formed and reflects the possibility that our perception of a stimulus can change and affect future interactions with similar stimuli.

Before moving on, understand that learning was a topic of great import to the functionalists. Since they were interested in the function of the mind and how it helps the organism adapt to its environment, learning, as the child does in Dewey’s reflex arc, is incredibly important and they further introduced animals as relevant subjects in research studies and to learn about consciousness. Bringing down the house — in Germany. As noted, one of the principal contributions of Wundt’s and Titchener’s systems was that they gave all who came afterward something to debate or fight against. Functionalism was an example of an attempt to offer a different view of behavior or to help the field of psychology evolve. In Germany, a new school rose in 1912, and about 30 years after Wundt founded psychology, to do more than just evolve the field. It intentionally tried to dismantle what Wundt had built. Called Gestalt psychology, it focuses on wholes or looking at consciousness itself and not elements. In this light, the school is very anti-reductionist. This is the fundamental point on which Gestalt psychology disagreed with, and fought Wundt, on. They were fine with the study of consciousness as the subject matter of psychology and the use of introspection as a research method. Gestalt psychology was founded by Max Wertheimer (1880-1943) with his publication of the 1912 article, Experimental Studies of the Perception of Movement, but the contributions of Kurt Koffka (1886-1941) and Wolfgang Kohler (1887-1967) were equally important.

In fact, Kohler has relevance to a study of learning as he proposed what he called insight learning, or the spontaneous understanding of relationships between objects or ideas. He tasked chimpanzees with solving a simple problem — obtaining bananas hung high up overhead — and gave them props such as sticks, boxes, and the bars of the cage to get them. There was one issue. No one prop by itself could reach the bananas, so the animals had to figure out a way to combine the props to solve the problem. According to Gestalt psychologists, this could only be done by restructuring the perceptual field, or as Wertheimer said, to perceive a problem downward. The parts of the problem could be examined, such as the individual props, but only as they related to the whole problem/total situation. As you will see throughout this book, this differed from behaviorism which asked animals to engage in what is called trial and error learning or learning through the making of mistakes until the solution is discovered. The Gestalt psychologists said that for effective problem solving to occur, a person or animal must be able to perceive the whole situation and the relationships between stimuli.

Gestalt psychology was not to last due to the rise of the Nazis and Hitler in the early 1930s. Their anti-intellectualism and anti-Semitism led many scholars, including Wertheimer, Koffka, and Kohler, to flee Germany and flock to the United States. Once here, they resumed their attack of Wundt’s system which, if you recall, took the form of Titchener’s structuralism. There was just one issue. Bringing down the house — in the United States. In 1913, a man you will become intimately familiar with throughout this book and course, John B. Watson (1878-1958), published his article, Psychology as the Behaviorist Views It, in Psychological Review. It was this article that gave birth to the school of behaviorism. Watson was clearly anti-structuralism (and Wundt’s system). Why? Recall that there was an ongoing debate in the field of psychology about the use of introspection, whether we should be pure or applied in focus, and whether we should study elements, wholes, or function. At this point, psychology had the schools of structuralism, functionalism, Gestalt psychology, and now behaviorism. Oh yeah. Though we have not discussed it, Freud gave birth to psychoanalysis in 1895 and focused on psychopathology, the study of the unconscious, and the importance of nature-oriented explanations for behavior and personality. So at this time, five different schools of thought were debating these issues.

The essence of Watson’s protest was on the study of consciousness and the use of introspection. His behaviorism was to focus on observable acts and events that could be described objectively. He used terms such as stimulus and response. Watson said psychology should discard all mentalistic ideas and to be a science of behavior. Specifically, that psychology be concerned with the prediction and control of behavior. Though the field was slow to receive his ideas, change did come and behaviorism remained a major player and influenced the field for almost 50 years.

To understand behaviorism, and its eventual clash with Gestalt psychology, you have to bear in mind that behaviorism went through three general stages, starting with Watson’s version of behaviorism, which was dominant from about 1913 to 1930. After this, behaviorism slid into what could be called Neobehaviorism from 1930 to 1960 and was influenced by such figures as Skinner, Tolman, and Hull. Finally, from 1960 to 1990 behaviorism espoused a sociobehaviorism view of Bandura and Rotter. We will tackle all of these individuals throughout the book and cover very influential figures on the school to include Pavlov and Thorndike.

So back to Gestalt psychology for a bit. In the 1920s its key figures visited the U.S. often and were generally well-received. Or so they thought. After Hitler’s rise and their emigration from Germany to the United States, they resumed their attacks on elements. The issue was that behaviorism was in its second stage of development and Titchener’s structuralism and its focus on the elements of conscious experience was gone. The Gestalt psychologists were attacking an enemy that no longer existed. Remember their principal disagreement was on breaking down consciousness into parts. They were fine with Wundt’s study of consciousness and use of introspection. Once they turned their attention to behaviorism, they found a new natural enemy. The source of their disagreement with behaviorism was on its removal of the study of consciousness, its dismissal of introspection as a viable research method, and they claimed that behaviorism was equally reductionist. Instead of breaking down consciousness into parts, it instead broke down behavior into S-R or stimulus-response units. And so, Gestalt continued its revolutionary ways and went after behaviorism, but it was too firmly established in the United States at that point to do any good. Gestalt psychology began to fade away from psychology as a player, though never completely.

Behaviorism, with its redirection of the field to be just the scientific study of behavior, left the study of consciousness or mental processes off the table for discussion. Gestalt and others did maintain some interest in this area of study, which gave time for things to change as we entered the 1960s. When psychology returned to its roots. Behaviorism established itself and its hold on psychology for about 50 years before the field returned to a study of behavior and mental processes. In the mid-1950s George Miller (born 1920) concluded that behaviorism was “not going to work out” and proceeded to challenge its hold. He is best known for his work on the limits of short-term memory and in 1956 published the paper, “The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on our Capacity for Processing Information.” He proposed the concept of cognition and its study along with Jerome Bruner at the Center for Cognitive Studies. Moving forward to 1976, Ulric Neisser (born 1928) published his book Cognitive Psychology, and the APA president of the time said psychology needed to become human and not mechanical, representing a breakdown in the hold mechanism had for several centuries. Psychology returned to a study of consciousness and in 1979 the article entitled, Behaviorism and the Mind: A (Limited) Call for a Return to Introspection, was published in the American Psychologist. Introspection became a widely used method again and it was believed that conscious states revealed by it are good, and accurate, predictors of behavior. Interestingly, even Watson did not completely discard the idea of introspection. In his system, he utilized what was called the verbal report method which was a form of introspection. Watson finally conceded and said that the method could be used in limited situations such as when what the person is reporting could be verified. An example is psychophysics research. If a person says that it is becoming dimmer or brighter in the room, such as in a test of the difference threshold, then this could be confirmed by looking at how the experimenter was affecting the lighting.

Again, consider that the almost completely defeated Gestalt psychology kept at least a token interest in consciousness going and did work in learning and memory in the years leading up to the rise of cognitive psychology, and the beginnings of the downfall of behaviorism. Within behaviorism itself, the school underwent a metamorphosis as sociobehaviorism arose in the 1960s with its emphasis on nurture and less on nature, emphasized the importance of social experiences, and noted that responses were self-activated or initiated and not automatic and direct. They also attacked the idea of people as machines, investigated modeling, identified self-efficacy and locus of control as psychological constructs, talked about vicarious reinforcement, or learning by observing others and seeing the consequences of their behavior, and studied human subjects in social interactions with the same degree of scientific rigor and experimental control used by the likes of Watson and Skinner.



Today, behaviorism along with other schools such as cognitive psychology, are part of what is called mainstream psychology. We do not use terms such as schools anymore, but their existence early in our history was important and helps us to see how we arrived at where we are today. It also shows us how the study of learning and behavior began and evolved which is what we turn our attention to now.

1.2. What is Learning?


Section Learning Objectives

  • Define psychology.
  • Define learning.
  • Clarify the role of memory.
  • Define and exemplify behavior.
  • Differentiate overt and covert behavior.
  • Describe how behavior impacts the environment.
  • Contrast basic and applied science.


1.2.1. Defining Terms

To start things off, let’s take a step back in time. The study of learning and behavior is an area in the field of psychology. Think back to when you took your introduction to psychology course. How did the text, and your professor, define psychology? If you cannot remember, how would you define psychology now that you have likely taken several psychology courses? After giving this some thought, consider the official definition — the scientific study of behavior and mental processes.  Let’s examine this definition before we go on.

  • First, psychology is scientific. Yes, that is correct. Psychology utilizes the same scientific process or method used by disciplines such as biology and chemistry. We will discuss this in more detail in Module 2, so please just keep this in the back of your mind for now.
  • Second, it is the study of behavior and mental processes. Psychology desires to not only understand why people engage in the behavior that they do, but also how. What is going on in the brain to control the movement of our arms and legs when running downfield to catch the game-winning touchdown, what affects the words we choose to say when madly in love, how do we interpret an event as benign or a threat when a loud sound is heard, and what makes an individual view another group in less than favorable terms? These are just a few of the questions that we ask.

So, our discussion focuses on the scientific study of behavior and specifically the cognitive process of learning. What is learning then? Learning is any relatively permanent change in behavior due to experience and practice. Fortunately, learning is only a relatively permanent change in behavior. Nothing is set in stone and what is learned can be unlearned. Consider a fear for instance. Maybe a young child enjoys playing with a rat, but each time the rat is present a loud sound occurs. The sound is frightening for the child, and after several instances of the sound and rat being paired, the child comes to expect a loud sound at the sight of the rat and cries. What has occurred is that an association has been realized, stored in long term memory, and retrieved to working memory when a rat is in view. As you will come to see, this was the premise of Watson and Rayner’s study with Little Albert. More on this later. Memory plays an important role in the learning process too and is defined as the ability to retain and retrieve information. The memory of the loud sound has been retained and retrieved in the future when the rat is present. But, memories change. With time and new learning, the child can come to see rats in a positive light and replace the existing scary memory with a pleasant one. This will affect future interactions with white rats. We will discuss the complementary cognitive process of memory in Module 10.

Our definition of both psychology and learning included the word behavior, but what is it? Essentially, behavior is what people do, say, or think/feel. Consider the case of corporal punishment, or spanking, which is what we do. In terms of what we say, we may berate the child verbally. In terms of what we think or feel, we may tell ourselves that by using corporal punishment we are maintaining order. Behavior can be overt or covert. Overt is behavior that is observable while covert behavior cannot be observed. We might even call covert behavior private events. When a behavior is observable, it can be described, recorded, and measured. Behavior also impacts the environment or serves a function. If we go to the bathroom and turn on the water, we are then able to brush our teeth. If we scream at our daughter for walking into the street without looking, we could create fear in her or raise her awareness of proper street crossing procedure.  In either situation, we have impacted the environment either physically as in the example of the faucet or socially as with the street incident. Here’s one more example you might relate to — your professor enters the classroom and says, “Put away your books for a pop quiz.”


1.2.2. The Study and Application of Learning Theory

Science has two forms — pure/basic or applied. Basic science is concerned with the acquisition of knowledge for the sake of the knowledge and nothing else, while applied science desires to find solutions to real-world problems. You might think of it like this — the researcher decides on his own question to investigate in pure science, but an outside source identifies the research question/problem in applied science. Of course, this is not always the case.

In terms of the study of learning, the pure/basic science approach is covered under the experimental analysis of behavior, while the applied science approach is represented by applied behavior analysis (ABA). This course/book represents the former while a course on behavior modification would represent the latter. We will discuss the experimental analysis of behavior in the rest of this book.


1.3. Societies and Journals


Section Learning Objectives

  • Clarify what it means to communicate findings.
  • Identify professional societies in the experimental analysis of behavior.
  • Identify publications in the experimental analysis of behavior.


One of the functions of science is to communicate findings. Testing hypotheses, developing sound methodology, accurately analyzing data, and drawing cogent conclusions are important, but you must tell others what you have done too. This is accomplished by joining professional societies and submitting articles to peer-reviewed journals. Below are some of the societies and journals important to the experimental analysis of behavior.


1.3.1. Professional Societies

  • American Psychological Association Division 25: Behavior Analysis
    • Website — https://www.apadivisions.org/division-25/index?_ga=2.1553396.479667280.1554429079-113573048.1548900905
    • Mission Statement — “Div. 25 (Behavior Analysis) promotes basic research, both animal and human, in the experimental analysis of behavior and the application of the results of such research to human affairs. The division was founded in 1964 to promote basic and applied research to stimulate the exchange of information concerning such research, and to work with other disciplines whose interests overlap those of Div. 25.”
    • Publication — Division 25 Recorder
    • Other Information — “Along with these original objectives, today’s division addresses contemporary issues related to the philosophy, research, and applied practice of Behavior Analysis. Originally intended to serve as a voice for behavior analysis within the APA, Div. 25 also is involved with promoting behavior analysis within the larger society.”


  • American Psychological Association Division 6: Society for Behavioral Neuroscience and Comparative Psychology
    • Website — https://www.apadivisions.org/division-6/index?_ga=2.265335626.479667280.1554429079-113573048.1548900905
    • Mission Statement — “Division 6: Society for Behavioral Neuroscience and Comparative Psychology members are devoted to studying the biology of behavior. Their focus is on behavior and its relation to perception, learning, memory, cognition, motivation, and emotion. Behavioral neuroscientists study the brain in relation to behavior, its evolution, functions, abnormalities, and repair, as well as its interactions with the immune system, cardiovascular system, and energy regulation systems. Comparative psychologists study the behavior of humans and other animals, with a special eye on similarities and differences that may shed light on evolutionary and developmental processes.”
    • Publication — The Behavioral Neuroscientist and Comparative Psychologist
    • Other Information — “Current members remain dedicated to enhancing knowledge of the nervous system and its mediation of behavior across species. The forums for achieving this commitment are meetings, publications, and involvement with APA’s Science Directorate and Governing Board.”


  • The Society for the Advancement of Behavior Analysis (SABA)
    • Website — http://saba.abainternational.org/
    • Mission Statement — “SABA was chartered in 1980 as a nonprofit corporation devoted to the welfare and future of behavior analysis. The society secures and administers private funds in support of the field. Your donations are used to provide grants, to support the advancement of basic knowledge about behavior analysis, and to ensure the future of the field through the sponsorship of student presenters at ABAI’s annual convention.”
    • Other Information — “For more than 30 years SABA has been promoting the field of behavior analysis by supporting talented students, encouraging global dissemination of the science, and recognizing our most inspiring leaders and giving them a platform to reach an even bigger audience.”


  • Association for Behavior Analysis International (ABAI)
    • Website — https://www.abainternational.org/welcome.aspx
    • Mission Statement — “Since 1974, the Association for Behavior Analysis International (ABAI) has been the primary membership organization for those interested in the philosophy, science, application, and teaching of behavior analysis.”
    • Publication — ABAI publishes four behavior analysis journals: The Analysis of Verbal Behavior, Behavior Analysis in Practice, Perspectives on Behavior Science, and The Psychological Record, which are overseen by the Publication Board.


  • Society for the Quantitative Analyses of Behavior
    • ▪ Website — https://www.sqab.org/
    • ▪ Mission Statement — “The Society for the Quantitative Analyses of Behavior (SQAB) was founded in 1978 by M. L. Commons and J. A. Nevin to present symposia and publish material which brings a quantitative analysis to bear on the understanding of behavior.”
    • ▪ Publication — Behavioral Processes
    • ▪ Other Information — “The International Society holds its annual meeting in conjunction with the Association for Behavior Analysis International (ABAI). Talks at SQAB focus on the development and use of mathematical formulations to characterize one or more dimensions of an obtained data set, derive predictions to be compared with data, and generate novel data analyses.”


1.3.2. Publications

  • Division 25 Recorder
    • Website — https://www.apadivisions.org/division-25/publications/newsletters/recorder
    • Published by — American Psychological Association
    • Description — “The Division 25 Recorder is the official Div. 25 newsletter that informs readers about the division and APA governance and membership activities. It publishes letters to the editor, open letters to the division’s executive committee, news and notes about experimental, applied, and conceptual analyses of behavior.”



  • Journal of Comparative Psychology
    • Website — https://www.apa.org/pubs/journals/com
    • Published by — American Psychological Association
    • Description — “The Journal of Comparative Psychology® publishes original empirical and theoretical research from a comparative perspective on the behavior, cognition, perception, and social relationships of diverse species.”


  • Animal Behavior and Cognition
    • Website — http://animalbehaviorandcognition.org/
    • Description — “Animal Behavior and Cognition publishes original empirical research, replication reports, target review articles, opposing viewpoints, brief reports, and theoretical reviews on all aspects of animal behavior and cognition. The journal is multi-disciplinary, and so welcomes submissions from those studying animal behavior, behavioral ecology, ethology, cognitive science, and comparative psychology.”


  • Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior
    • Website — https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/journal/19383711
    • Published by — Wiley
    • Description — “Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior (JEAB) is primarily for the original publication of experiments relevant to the behavior of individual organisms.”


  • Perspectives on Behavioral Science
    • Website — https://www.abainternational.org/journals/pobs.aspx
    • Published by — Association for Behavior Analysis International
    • Description — “In addition to articles on theoretical, experimental, and applied topics in behavior analysis, it included literature reviews, re-interpretations of published data, and articles on behaviorism as a philosophy.”


Module Recap

Well, that’s it. In the first module of this book, I shared a generous overview of the formation of psychology as a discipline from the fields of philosophy, physiology, and biology. To arrive at a science of behavior it took the contributions of these fields, but also early schools of thought in the field of psychology to include Wundt’s system, structuralism, functionalism, and Gestalt psychology. Psychoanalysis even had some effect. Once established, behaviorism maintained its hold on psychology for about five decades before the next round of schools arose and shifted the field back to a study of behavior and consciousness or mental processes. With an understanding of the development of behaviorism firmly established, we then moved to defining learning, memory, and behavior which will be discussed ad nauseum in the remaining modules. The point of scientific research is to communicate findings which is done through professional societies and journals.

In Module 2, I will outline the scientific method and designs used in the experimental analysis of behavior. Module 3 will conclude Part 3 with a discussion of elicited behaviors and more. I hope you enjoy the material to come.

2nd edition


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