Edwin R Guthrie (1886-1959) believed learning is a one-shot process that connects situational cues with the correct response. He proposed four methods to break connections: sidetracking, fatigue, threshold, and incompatible response

 

 

For almost 45 years, Edwin Guthrie was a major force in learning theory. Like other behaviorists, he focused on observable behavior but held that learning was a one-shot process of association. His associationism was Aristotelian contiguity: the simple occurrence to two things in time. For Guthrie, however, the two items being associated are a stimulus and a response.

Guthrie believed that stimuli elicit responses. He held that the strength of an S-R connection is at full force on the initial pairing. The S-R connection doesn’t get stronger with pairings, it is a one shot process. For Guthrie the connections are minute “movements” which form a chain of responses (an “act”). Although any single movement is learned in one trial, there is an infinite number of stimulus combinations possible, each minute connection learned one at a time. So improvement doesn’t come from repetition but from forming new S-R associations between an infinite number of stimuli and many miniature movements.

For Guthrie, life is a dynamic and reiterative process. Movement is inherent in learning (people learn by doing), and every response produces stimuli that in turn produce more movements. Movement produces proprioceptive stimuli in the muscles and tendons which help produce the next movement. Well-established movements and acts are called habits.

Guthrie described four ways to break connections: sidetracking, fatigue, threshold, and incompatible response. In sidetracking, the person avoids the cues which produce the unwanted response (start jogging while on vacation). The fatigue method presents a stimulus so often that response is impossible (eat candy until sick of it). The threshold method presents the stimulus in increasing increments (start with small amounts of vegetables and gradually increase their intake). In the third method, an incompatible response is substituted (can't eat carrots and candy bars at the same time).

 

 

Edwin Guthrie (1886-1959)


Born and raised in Lincoln, Nebraska, Guthrie received his BA in mathematics and a masters in philosophy from the University of Nebraska. In 1912, he earned a doctorate in philosophy and logic from the University of Pennsylvania. In 1914, Guthrie moved to the University of Washington where he stayed until his retirement 42 years later.

Guthrie rejected both Watson’s classical conditioning and Skinner’s operant conditioning. Watson held that conditioning gradually builds strength; the more the unconditioned and the conditioned stimulus are associated with each other, the stronger the conditioning. Guthrie maintained that learning was a one-shot process; it occurred at full strength on the initial pairing. Although new S-R associations are made at full strength, there are many stimuli in a situation and each must be connected with the response. Improvement has the illusion of building strength but is the process of relating a large number of stimuli with a specific response. Although any single movement is learned in one trial, there is an infinite number of stimulus combinations possible. Throwing a ball through a basketball hoop, for example, is composed of a number of movements. Each minute "movement" is learned one at a time but there are so many combinations to learn that one gets better at basketball. Guthrie's one shot learning did not preclude improvement but insisted that practice doesn't improve performance because of repetition but because new S-R associations are being made.

In contrast Skinner, Guthrie wasn’t concerned with what happened after a behavior. He believed that behavior is the result of stimuli; the stimulus causes the response. Starting with the observation that people tend to do the same thing in similar situations, Guthrie concluded that it is the circumstances (all of the situational cues) that elicit behavior. Anything that changes the situation, any shifts of stimuli, impact behavior. His model was deterministic but learner centered. For Guthrie, the more stimuli which can be associated with a response the stronger the habit becomes. Consequently, he was an advocate of learn by doing. Ideally behavior should be practiced under the same conditions where performance is required. A theater director should not add more rehearsals to improve performance but more dress rehearsals. A coach would schedule more games and exhibition matches.

For Guthrie, an act (a learned behavior) is a collection of movements (small S-R combinations) and these movements form a chain of association. Life is a reiterative process, and any response produces stimuli that in turn produce more movements. Movement produces proprioceptive stimuli in the muscles and tendons which help produce the next movement. Well-established movements and acts are called habits.

According to Guthrie, each S-R connection is created at full strength and remains in full force until it is replaced by new learning. Habit strength is determined by the number of stimuli which can produce a response. For example, to increase the strength of a habit (hanging up a coat), the proper cues must be associated with that response. According to Guthrie's theory, the best way to teach children to hang up their coats when coming in from play is not to make them do it after they forget. Instead, they should practice the whole sequence by going back outside, coming in, and hanging up their coats.

Guthrie described four ways to break connections: sidetracking, fatigue, threshold, and incompatible response. In sidetracking, he assumes that avoiding habits is easier than breaking them. Instead of allowing the child to play with a breakable vase, it is easier to sidetrack her away from vase-playing and into rolling a ball. In sidetracking the person avoids the cues which produce the unwanted response (give up smoking while on vacation). The fatigue method presents a stimulus so often that response is impossible (ride a horse until it can't buck, smoke until sick of it). The threshold method presents the stimulus in increasing increments (don't throw into the pool; get use to the water gradually). In the third method, an incompatible response is substituted (can't chew gum and smoke at the same time).

Like Aristotle, Guthrie’s associationism was based on contiguity; two things that occur about the same time are associated together. No other conditions are required. Once the association of a stimulus and a response has been established, the same sequence of movements is repeated. Working with cats in puzzle boxes, Guthrie found that the entire chain of responses (including the unsuccessful components) tried prior to a successful solution was repeated. What Skinner would have called superstitious behavior, Guthrie called stereotyping. Skinner would have said that the extraneous behaviors were the result of reinforcement; Guthrie held stereotyping to be proof that the chain of movements was learned and not simply a single response.