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What is associative learning?

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Definition of associative learning

Charles Abramson. Picture courtesy of the Public Information Office, Oklahoma State University.

Abramson (1994, p. 38) defines associative learning as:

a form of behaviour modification involving the association of two or more events, such as between two stimuli, or between a stimulus and a response. In associative learning, an animal does learn to do something new or better (1994, p. 38, italics mine).

There are two broad categories of associative learning:

Classical conditioning refers to the modification of behavior in which an originally neutral stimulus - known as a conditioned stimulus (CS) - is paired with a second stimulus that elicits a particular response - known as the unconditioned stimulus (US). The response which the US elicits is known as the unconditioned response (UR). An organism exposed to repeated pairings of the CS and the US will often respond to the originally neutral stimulus as it did to the US (Abramson, 1994, p. 39). It should be noted that if the CS and US occur simultaneously, or if the CS occurs after the US, virtually no conditioning will occur. The CS needs to precede the US and be predictive of it. An animal obtains no biological advantage in learning an association between a CS and a US unless the CS can be used to predict the US.

Instrumental and operant conditioning are gexamples of associative learning in which the behavior of the animal is controlled by the consequences of its actions... [Whereas] classical conditioning describes how animals make associations between stimuli, ... instrumental and operant conditioning describe how animals associate stimuli with their own motor actions ... Animals learn new behaviours in order to obtain or avoid some stimulus (reinforcement)" (Abramson, 1994, p. 151).

Biological significance of associative learning

Bjorn Brembs. Photo courtesy of Department of Neurobiology and Anatomy, The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston.

The biological relevance of these kinds of associative learning is discussed by Brembs (2000). He argues that classical conditioning enables organisms in the wild to associate biologically neutral stimuli with significant ones, enabling them to make better predictions about their environment, while operant conditioning reinforces behaviour that satisfies their appetites or enables them to avoid aversive stimuli (2000, p. 2).

The significance of associative learning with regard to agency

The significance of associative learning from the standpoint of intentional agency is that it allows an individual to associate acts with consequences. In the absence of such an association, it is difficult to envisage how agency could occur at all.

Associative learning qualifies as flexible behaviour

Associative learning certainly qualifies as flexible behaviour according to the definition we have given. It is not fixed, as the value of the output variable (i.e. the response) for the same input variable (stimulus) does not remain the same over time. There is genuine novelty here, which cannot be treated as a temporal extension of an existing pattern of activity within the organism by introducing extra historical variables, as we did with habituation. Instead, what we see here are either new conditions for activating an existing behaviour pattern (classical conditioning), or the emergence of a new behaviour pattern (instrumental or operant conditioning). In a simple case of classical conditioning, the organism learns to respond to a new stimulus (the conditioned stimulus) in the same way as it does to an existing one (the unconditioned stimulus). This is flexible behaviour, because one of the programs governing an organism's behaviour changes over time: there is a change in the conditions under which one of its behaviour function(s) is activated. In operant conditioning, the organism acquires a new behavioural function through "trial-and-error learning". Once again, this requires a program change.

Associative learning qualifies as internally generated flexible behaviour

The program governing a bacterium's response to mercury (see above) does not modify itself: it receives new, pre-packaged instructions from an outside source (another bacterium). This is flexible behaviour but not learning. As we argued above, the lack of an internal mechanism for acquiring information rules out a mentalistic explanation.

L.6 The occurrence in an organism of flexible behaviour is not a sufficient condition for learning. (Corollary of Conclusion F.5.)

In the case of associative learning, however, the new behaviour is acquired through an internal learning mechanism. This in-built mechanism for acquiring information allows the individual to modify its response to a stimulus. We have established the following conclusion about learning:

L.7 The capacity for associative learning in an organism is a sufficient condition for its being able to engage in internally generated flexible behaviour.

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