It was the 1960s, and everyone was interested in self discovery, cross-disciplinary education, and making-love-not-war. In this environment, old theories were explained in new terms, often by adding a social dimension. One such effort at Yale, found John Dollard (anthropologist) and Neal Miller (psychologist) joining forces to explain psychoanalytic principles in more modern terms. The result was Dollard-Miller’s psychoanalytic learning theory.
They combined Sigmund Freud and Clark Hull. Hull maintained that behavior is reinforced by drive reduction. Drives are strong stimuli that produce discomfort (hunger, thirst, etc.). A drive impels us to action when we encounter a cue. You’re already hungry (drive) when you hear your tummy growl (cue). The cue triggers a behavior designed to reduce the drive (get up and go to the kitchen). If you are successful in reducing the drive (you find a bag of cookies), the reduction in hunger reinforces that sequence, making it more likely to happen next time you’re hungry and hear your tummy growl.
Primary reinforcers are events that reduce primary drives (physiological processes). Secondary reinforcers are events that reduce learned drives (acquired drives). That’s why eating a cookie doesn’t make you feel better about being lonely. Cookies can reduce the primary drive of hunger but not the secondary drive of feeling loved.
For Dollard & Miller, learning combines four processes: drive, cue, response and reinforcement. Drive is the engine. The cue tells you when, where and how to respond. Your response is any behavior or sequence of behaviors you perform. And reinforcement is the consequence of drive being reduced. If your behavior isn’t reinforced, that behavior will be extinguished (disappear). But the process doesn’t stop there. You keep trying different responses until one of them satisfies the drive. Like most drive theories, Dollard and Miller don’t explain where the drives come from; they settle for its being a given.
The best way to understand Dollard and Miller is to pretend you are a mouse in a maze. Having run this maze before, you quickly head toward to food but discover that the path you usually take has been blocked. This is Dollard and Miller’s definition of frustration: a blocked attempt to reduce drive. As a mouse, you scratch at the floor, try to climb the maze, bite at the blockage, and rush around in an agitated state. As a human, you do pretty much the same when your goals are blocked. If you lock your keys in the car, you stomp on the ground, yell at the car and pound on its window. All because your goal is blocked.
Frustration can also come from being unable to do two things at once. When the frustration is severe, Dollard and Miller call it conflict. Conflict is having incompatible responses that occur at the same time. It is the inability to respond simply to the drives that have been trigger. Conflict is trying to do two incompatible things at the same time.
There are four types of conflicts. Approach-approach is the choice between two things you like. It is the choice between cake and ice cream. In this situation, you tend to chose whichever is closer. Mice do the same thing. If you’re the mouse and put in the center of a straight maze with food at one end and food at the other end, you go to which ever goal is closer. People choose grocery stores, banks and gas stations this way. Assuming they are about equal value, you choose on the basis of convenience (immediacy of drive reduction).
In approach-avoidance, you’re at one end of a straight maze (no turns). At the other end is both food and electric shock. An experienced mouse runs toward the food but slows down as it gets closer to the food-shock combination. Conflict is wanting your food and avoiding the shock: two incompatible responses.
Let me put it in cognitive terms. This is completely un-Dollard & Miller) but it will help you remember it. You are in a straight maze. From where you are, the food looks pretty good, so you head toward it. But as you get closer to the target, you remember (having been here before) about the shock. The more you think about the shock, the slower you run toward the food. Thinking about the food is an “approach gradient.” The closer you get to a goal, the more exciting it is. Thinking about the shock is an “avoidance gradient.” The closer you get to something you dread, the less exciting it is.
We love approach gradients. Anticipating going to a big event, looking forward to your birthday, or thinking ahead to getting a new car. Remember how excited you were to get your driver’s license? The closer you got to that day, the more excited you were. People underestimate the value of an approach gradient. Children in particular love anticipation. If you want to get your kids excited, don’t surprise them by taking them to Disneyland. About two weeks before the day, tell them you’re going to take them. And then every day, when they ask “Is this the day?,” say “No, but it will be soon.” When the day actually comes, they’ll be super-excited.
The same is true of adults. Adults don’t really like surprise parties either. Surprise parties are the most fun for those putting on the surprise. Most recipients look confused and startled, more than happy and pleased. We look forward to vacation. We look forward to holidays. We love to anticipate events. It’s the approach gradient in us. We also dread visiting relatives, attending meetings and going to the dentist. And the closer we get to negative events, the worse they look. It’s our built-in avoidance gradient.
One of Dollard and Miller’s key principles is that avoidance gradients are steeped than approach gradients. When we’re happy to have a date but sorry we got stuck with a loser, we’re in an approach-avoidance conflict. Blind dates don’t sound too bad from a distance. But the closer we get to the day of the event, the worse it seems. “Why did I ever agree to do this.”
When you back out of something you previously agreed to, your avoidance gradient became steeper than the approach gradient. As long as the avoidance is small (something irritating but not overwhelming) when compared to the approach, we perform the behavior. But when avoidance exceeds approach, we opt out of the situation. We take back the clothes we can’t afford. We try to get out of the car lease we signed the day before. When avoidance is greater than approach, we call off the wedding.
Avoidance-avoidance conflicts occur when we’re stuck between two things we don’t want. Given a choice between a toothache and the dentist stabbing you with a needle, we try to do neither. When given the chose between two political candidates, neither of whom you like, many people choose not to vote. They hover in indecision and opt for “none of the above.” In such conflicts, we tend to choose whichever is the least objectionable. Or we avoid whichever is closer.
Conflicts don’t have to be simple, either. In “double approach-avoidance” conflicts, it is the choice between two ends of the maze, each with its own approach-avoidance conflict. For the mouse, this would be food & shock at one end of the maze, and food & shock at the other end too. The mouse begins running toward one end but slows at it gets closer. It then turns and runs toward the other end, where it slows down, turns and runs back. The mouse spends most of its time running back and forth in the maze, never getting shocked but never reducing its hunger. The human version is similar. It is the choice between going home for Thanksgiving to be with your dysfunctional family and staying where you but being lonely.
Dollard & Miller include unconscious behavior in their model. Although behaviorists typically believe that behavior is automatic, they tend to view the head as being empty. The mind either doesn’t do anything but produce behaviors or it is a black box of unknown processes. In contrast, Dollard & Miller make unconscious behavior a central theme of their model. According to their view, behaviors are unconscious because when we’re unaware of the cues that trigger the drive, or unaware of the drive itself. Unconscious simply means unlabeled. When a cognitive label is present, the behavior, drive or emotion is no longer unconscious.
Labeling plays an important part in making us less neurotic. According to Dollard & Miller, neurosis is better understood as the stupidity-misery syndrome. When we are neurotic, we are experiencing a strong, unconscious (unlabeled) emotional conflict. The result of our experience is that we can’t discriminate effectively and make bad decisions. That is, when we are unaware of our conflict (stupid), we make bad decisions that make us miserable. Our misery is a result of not labeling our conflicts. The solution is to discover the proper label. Like the fairy tale of Rumpelstiltskin (who put a curse on a family which could only be lifted if they guessed his name), we have to guess what we’re feeling and label it. Once labeled, the curse is broken: we are no longer stupid (unaware) and won’t make ourselves miserable.
Here’s a video lecture on Dollard & Miller.