Edwin R. Guthrie

For almost 45 years, Edwin R. Guthrie was a major force in learning theory. Like Watson, Guthrie focused on observable behavior. Unlike Watson, Guthrie held that learning was a one-shot process of association.

In contrast to classical conditioning , Guthrie’s associationism followed Aristotle’s concept of contiguity. Basically, Guthrie held that people tend to do what they did in a similar situation in the past. That is, the situation provides cues about how to behave. Unlike Thorndike, Guthrie did not hypothesize a law of effect. It was simply a matter of contiguity. When a stimulus situation reoccurs, it tends to be followed by the same movement which followed it before.

Guthrie’s one-shot learning did not preclude improvement. He maintained that practice doesn’t improve performance because of repetition but because new S-R associations are being made. Although any single movement is learned in one trial, there is an infinite number of stimulus combinations possible. Each minute “movement” is learned one at a time but there are so many combinations to learn that one gets better at basketball.

A movement is a collection or pattern of motor responses. Movement produces stimuli (proprioceptive stimuli) in the muscles and tendons which help produce the next movement. An “act” is a collection of movements. Well-established movements and acts are called habits.

For 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.

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. For Guthrie, the more stimuli which can be associated with a response the stronger the habit becomes. A director should not add more rehearsals to improve performance but more dress rehearsals.

There are four ways to break connections: sidetracking, fatigue, threshold, and incompatible response. 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). 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).


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