Associationist theory: its authors and its psychological contributions

The ability to associate it is fundamental to be able to learn. We can know and react to certain stimuli because we are able to relate events.

We smell a certain scent and salivate, thinking that our favorite dish is waiting for us. We walk away from a meal that in previous experiences has made us vomit for hours.

Someone looks at us in a certain way and we infer that they are angry or attracted to us. The associationist theory of learning, Basis of behaviorism and from this basis many techniques and psychological schools, argues that what we respond in this way is given because we are able to relate phenomena and situations, by learning and acquiring this association.

What is associationist theory?

Based on the contributions of the Aristotelians and many philosophers such as Locke and Hume, this theory would be developed by David Hartley and John Stuart Mill, Those who postulated that all consciousness is a consequence of the combination of stimuli and elements captured by the senses. Thus, mental processes are constantly occurring on the basis of a series of laws with which we relate the stimuli of the environment.

In a simple and generic way, associationist theory can be summarized as that which proposes that knowledge is acquired through experience, mechanically linking the sensations produced by our presence and our interaction with stimuli and each time they encounter a series. of basic requirements called laws of association. As new associations are added, thinking and behavior become more and more complex, and human action can be explained from learning the connections between phenomena.

However, this theory would be considered only philosophical until the arrival of behaviorism, which through numerous experiments and empirical verifications they ended up elevating associationism to scientific theory.

Laws of association

Associationist theory considers that in order to link or link the different stimuli or phenomena, we follow a series of universal rules that are innately imposed on us. The main laws of association are as follows, although they are subsequently revised and reworked by the various authors who have worked from associationism and behaviorism.

1. Law of contiguity

Initially, according to the law of contiguity, two events or stimuli are associated when they occur very close to time and space. Over time and systematic study, this law has varied to refer to the need for the mental representation of these stimuli to appear jointly or near our mind, without specifying physical proximity as such.

2. Law of similars

For associationist theory, when two stimuli activate similar mental representations or have common characteristics are much more likely to be related to each other because of this resemblance.

3. Law of contrast

Two stimuli will also be associated if they are completely opposed, Because the existence of a contrast of the same stimulating quality is perceived.

4. Frequency law

The links between the most repeated events they tend to be stored more frequently, thus strengthening the association between these events or stimuli.

5. Right of review

According to the revision law, the most recent and least temporal distance between the two stimuli, The stronger the bond that is established between them.

6. Law of effect

This law was formulated by Edward Thorndike as the basis of instrumental conditioning (later renamed by BF Skinner as operant conditioning) in order to explain conduct and behavior.

According to this law, the answers given by a subject that they maintain relationships of contiguity with reinforcing consequences they will be strongly associated with the original stimulus that produced this response, thus increasing their likelihood of recurrence. If this response is followed by aversive consequences, the link with the stimulus will cause the response to be performed less frequently (initially it was proposed that because the association was weaker, but later this would be rectified).

Behaviorism and association between stimuli

The theory of association will eventually become one of the main pillars of behaviorism, which seeks to scientifically study human behavior from the observable. While behaviorism is evident in its study of human behavior and mental processes except for those directly observable, this stream has served as the basis for new ways of interpreting the human psyche, emerging from other schools and paradigms to both from their successes and their limitations and by integrating some of their basic techniques and beliefs.

Behavioralism uses associationist theory as a basis for considering that exposure to two contiguous stimuli produces a link between them. If a stimulus produces an effect on the body, a concrete response to that stimulation will be generated. If, in addition to this, a second stimulus appears at or near the time an effect occurs, that stimulus will be linked to the first, possibly generating a similar response.

Throughout the history of behaviorism, it has evolved, developing various perspectives based primarily on associationist theory. Some of the best known and most important are classical conditioning and operant conditioning.

classic packaging

Also known as Pavlovian conditioningThis perspective considers that the organism is capable of associating several stimuli with each other. Certain stimuli are capable of provoking a direct response in the individual, such as pain or pleasure, generating a physiological response.

Coinciding with associationist theory, classical conditioning considers that the contingent presentation of two stimuli causes them to be associated. For example, the presence of food (an unconditioned stimulus because it directly causes us a response) produces salivation (the unconditional response).

If each time they bring us food appears a stimulus which in itself does not produce an effect like the sonar of a bell, we will end up considering that the bell announces the arrival of food and we will end up. by salivating at the mere sound of it. , with the fact that we will have conditioned our response to the second stimulus (the neutral stimulus will have become conditioned). Through this conditioning, we learn about stimuli and their relationship.

operating conditioning

Classical conditioning can be used to explain associations between stimuli, but even if the stimuli are passively captured by human behavior. it is largely motivated by the consequences of our actions.

In this sense, operant conditioning continues to be based on associationist theory to indicate that the individual learns by relating what he does to the consequences of his actions. You learn the response to apply to certain stimuli.

This way, how we act depends on its consequences. If performing an action gives us a positive stimulus or eliminates or avoids a negative action, our behavior will be reinforced and performed more often, while if acting in a certain way causes harm or the elimination of gratification , we will see these consequences as a punishment. , we will therefore tend to decrease the frequency with which we act.

Associative learning

Associationist theory, especially since behaviorism, has been applied very frequently in the field of education. This is because the partner understands as such the change in behavior, attitude or thinking caused by the experience of certain experiences.

Associative learning is the process by which a subject is able to perceive the relationship between two specific facts from observation. These relationships can be generalized to similar stimuli, while being discriminatory compared to other phenomena. In other words, the relationship captured is specific between the two events, not being observed with other types of stimuli, unless there are similarities with the original situation.

In this learning process, the subject is primarily passive, capturing the relationship between stimuli and their intensity due to the characteristics of the events in question. Mental processes have little relevance for making associations, being more relevant the process of perceiving reality.

While associative learning is very useful in the realization of the learning of mechanical behaviorsThis type of learning has the disadvantage that the knowledge or skills acquired do not take into account previous experience or the different cognitive processes that may be involved in learning. The subject receives a totally decontextualized knowledge, in which the individual is not able to relate what has been learned now to the previous one.

It is learned through repetition, without allowing the subject to elaborate what he is learning and to give it meaning both to the content to be learned and to the learning process itself. For associationist theory, the subject is a passive being who is limited to receiving and retaining external stimulation, so that intrapsychic aspects are not taken into account. like motivation or expectationsIn addition to working from the point of view that different people may have different perspectives or skills in the same situation.

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