Contiguous Conditioning (Edwin R. Guthrie – 1930)

In contrast to the complexity of Hull’s theory, Edwin R. Guthrie proposed a theory that was intentionally simplistic:

It is here being suggested that the development of a scientific psychology requires that we investigate learning in its simplest forms. What happens as the result of one pairing of a stimulus pattern with a response that alters the previous effect of that pattern? (1946, p. 17)

Guthrie believed that the scientific research of Thorndike and others was wrongly influenced by social values such as economy of time. He felt that this was missing the mark, and was a distraction from the truly valuable search to understand learning itself. In his view, the central problem of learning had been neglected, namely, “what change occurs in behavior as the result of a single action” (1946, p. 16). By fitting the experimental science of learning to satisfy necessary assumptions for running statistical models of analysis, the true essence of learning was entirely overlooked:

In the laboratory we glory in experiments with fifty to fifteen hundred repetitions and their resulting curves. In nature these repetitions, as exactly duplicated as possible, simple do not occur. But learning does occur. The experimental results with a long series of repetitions have all the desirable characteristics of scientific fact…In the field of learning this very commendable effort to be scientific has led us toward studies of success, the trend of errors with repetition, the reduction of time with practice. But it is a characteristic of a score of total errors (in a maze, for instance) to omit examination of the successive changes that constitute learning (Guthrie, 1946, p. 16).

Guthrie was very much interested in getting at “the facts of learning” and used this phrase quite frequently in his writing (e.g., 1930, p. 416; 1946). These ‘facts’ were to be found not in the latches of the puzzle box, but by turning attention to the organism itself:

My first suggestion for directing our attention toward facts that will lead to the development of good theory applies chiefly to the field of learning. It is that we look for facts in the behavior of the organism rather than in the operation of a latch, an arrival at a goal, the “learning” of a lesson. We should transfer our interest from the goal achievement to the behaving organism. It is the muscles of the organism that are innervated, and not the lever of the problem box. The machinery through which solutions are arrived at is contained within the skin of the solver (Guthrie, 1946, p. 6).

Guthrie was concerned not with goals and accomplishments but with movements (responses to stimuli), regardless of whether they led to success or failure.[1] Guthrie posited that movements are learned in a single trial, and that “a stimulus pattern gains its full associative strength on the occasion of its first pairing with a response” (1942, p. 30). The idea that learning happens in only one trial runs counter to common intuition. Guthrie offered resolution to this apparent conflict by saying,

In the psychology of learning we often confuse the effects of repetition on a single association of stimulus and response with the effects of practice on the development of skill, which is something quite different. In learning any skill, what must be acquired is not an association or any series of associations, but many thousands of associations that will connect specific movements with specific situations. One lesson or trial is all that is necessary to learn to depress the brake pedal on a car. Learning to drive the car requires a varied experience which will cause the pedal to be depressed in many situations and left severely alone in many others. (p. 36)

Guthrie also stated that, “the subject will use that one of his practiced movements that was last in evidence when on some former occasion he solved his problem in circumstances like those now prevailing” (1940, p. 145). This came to be known as the recency principle (Hergenhahn, 1982, p. 199).

Practice, he acknowledged, does improve performance, but the performance improved is the performance of acts. He did not believe that practice plays any role in the learning of movements (Guthrie & Horton, 1946, as cited in Hergenhahn, 1982, p. 200):

We have taken the position that the acts are made up of movements that result from muscular contraction, and that it is these muscular contractions that are directly predicted by the principle of association. We are assuming that such movements are subject to conditioning or associative learning and that this conditioning is in itself an “all or none” affair, and its degree is not dependent on practice. One experience is sufficient to establish an association.

But the learning of an act does take practice. We assume that the reason for this is that the act names an end result that is attained under varied circumstances and by movements varied to suit the circumstances. Learning an act as distinguished from a movement does require practice because it requires that the proper movement has been associated with its own cues. Even so simple an act as grasping a rattle requires different movements according to the distance and direction and position of the object. One successful experience is not sufficient to equip the infant with an act because the one movement acquired on that occasion might never again be successful.

Another important concept in Guthrie’s explanation of learning is movement-produced stimuli. Movement-produced stimuli are stimuli that are caused by the movements of the body. “If we hear a sound and turn toward it, for example, the muscles, tendons, and joints produce stimuli that are distinctly different from the external stimulation that caused us to move” (Hergenhahn, 1982, p. 199, cf. Aristotle’s chains of recollection). Guthrie leveraged the idea of movement-produced stimuli to explain how an environmental stimulus might be connected to a response that is not manifest immediately following the stimulus. As an example he cited the sequence of events following a telephone ring (Guthrie, 1935, as cited in Hergenhahn, 1982, p. 199):

The movement, once started, maintains itself by the stimuli it furnishes. When the telephone bell rings we rise and make our way to the instrument. Long before we have reached the telephone the sound has ceased to act as a stimulus. We are kept in action by the stimuli from our own movements toward the telephone. One movement starts another, then a third, the third a fourth, and so on. Our movements form series, very often stereotyped in the form of a habit. These movements and their movement-produced stimuli make possible a far-reaching extension of association or conditioning.

One point on which Guthrie differed greatly from Skinner, and the practitioner’s general theory of behaviorism today, is the role of reward in learning. Rather than intensifying the behavior preceding the reward, he felt the reward protected the behavior from being unlearned by removing the opportunity for interfering associations to be made:

What I am here urging is that the food reward does not intensify the latch opening. This is the erroneous assumption made by Thorndike in his argument for a law of effect. What encountering the food does is not to intensify a previous item of behavior but to protect that item from being un-learned. The whole situation and action of the animal is so changed by the food that the pre-food situation is shielded from new associations. (Guthrie, 1940, p. 144)

It was under this same reasoning that Guthrie accounted for forgetting. In his words, “Forgetting is not a passive fading of stimulus-response associations contingent upon the lapse of time, but requires active unlearning, which consists in learning to do something else under the circumstances” (Guthrie, 1942, p. 29)

Based on his ideas of learning, Guthrie suggested three methods for breaking a habit. The threshold method is executed by “introducing the stimulus at such weak strengths that it will not cause the response and then gradually increasing the intensity of the stimulus” (1938, p. 60). Using the fatigue method the undesirable behavior is allowed, or forced, to continue to the point that it is no longer fun. The third method, the incompatible response method, establishes a condition in which the stimulus or stimuli for the undesirable response are presented in conjunction with other stimuli that produce a response that is incompatible with the undesired response. To break a habit, not only must one avoid the cues that elicit the undesirable behavior, but they must become associated with other behavior.

The core of Guthrie’s theory was simple and was surrounded by many excellent observations on learning. It was motivated by the desire to understand how learning occurs by looking at the acquisition of movements rather than focusing on the success or failure of acts.  Guthrie felt that “we shall never learn how skills are acquired if we confine our-attention to ‘improvement’ in behavior” (Guthrie, 1946, p. 5). It was a call to look for answers in “the behavior of the organism rather than in the operation of the latch” (Guthrie, 1946, p. 6).

[1] This, perhaps, is one reason Guthrie’s theory does not commonly influence today’s design of instruction, and is hardly, if ever, discussed in college-level learning psychology textbooks. In a world where educational achievement is defined in terms of measurable learning outcomes, a theory focused only on movements is of little utility to practitioners.


Mathematico-Deductive Theory (Clark L. Hull – 1943)Stimulus Sampling Theory (William K. Estes – 1950) >

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