Elements of Animal Learning: Applicable to Human Learning?

thoughts by Carl Wenning, Illinois State University


Rescorla-Wagner Model

Behavioral psychology's Rescorla-Wagner (R-W) model (Rescorla & Wagner, 1972) enunciates an interesting rule for animal learning that can be reduced to a simple equation. The model explains all sorts of psychological phenomena observed in animal learning -- acquisition, overshadowing, blocking, extinction, conditioned inhibition, and the overexpectation effect. Whether or not the R-W model for animal learning can be applied to humans is uncertain. Nonetheless, it provides us with some interesting insights. The mathematical form of the R-W model is as follows:

That is, Delta V, the change in learning, is equal to the motivation to learn (a) times the saliency (b) of the stimulus times the difference between what has already been learned (VSUM) and what constitutes peak learning (Lambda). Recall that behaviorism defines learning as an observable difference in behavior. Motivation to behaviorists is entirely physical and relates to basic needs (food, sex, safety, etc.), not a cognitive process.

First, the greatest amount of learning will be achieved when the learner's motivation level is high. Motivation (as contrasted with coercion) will be highest when the students' best interests and needs are served, and the subject is relevant to students' day-to-day lives. Second, the greatest amount of learning occurs when the salience of the stimulus is high. Using surprise, mystery, and bedazzlement can serve to increase the salience of a phenomenon. Third, the maximum learning will occur when students are learning something entirely new. This should tell us to avoid reteaching that with which students are already familiar. Sounds reasonable!


The Matching Law

Behavioral psychology's Matching Law in its original form was due to Herrnstein (1961). In essence, the Matching Law says that the proportion of a subject's actions matches the proportion of various rewards available. That is, when two-thirds of the rewards come from a particular action, then two-thirds of a subject's responses are related to that particular action. The mathematical form of this law is somewhat complex and will not be dealt with here. The law was derived from experiments with pigeons in an effort to answer the question, "After the birds have learned all they can about this choice situation, how will they distribute their responses?" Is the application of the Matching Law to humans reasonable in light of the fact that this law was derived from the study of pigeons? In all likelihood, this is probably so as craft wisdom suggests.

Students will spend more time preparing for a large test than a small quiz. If there are no rewards (or punishments) associated with doing homework or reading the course textbook, it is unlikely that there will be much doing of homework or reading of textbooks. Students, unless highly motivated, will tend to go after only the rewarded work. Students may do "brain checking" if a class is dull and the rewards associated with paying attention are small. If there is a greater reward for disrupting a class and playing the class clown, then that is what a student will do. This leads us to Premack's Principle.


Premack's Principle

Premack's Principle (Premack, 1959, 1963) states simply that a more probable behaviors will reinforce less probable behaviors. Premack's Principle was derived from a study of Cebus monkeys, but certainly has explanatory and predictatory power when applied to humans. This is evidenced by the fact that therapists use the principle most effectively in behavior modification. In pedestrian terms Premack's Principle suggests that if a student wants to perform a given activity, the student will perform a less desirable activity to get at the more desirable activity. In behaviorist terms, activities become reinforcers. Students will be more motivated to perform a particular activity if they know that they will be able to partake of a more desirable activity as a consequence. If high probability behaviors (more desirable behaviors) are made contingent upon lower probability behaviors (less desirable behaviors), then the lower probability behaviors are more likely to occur. More desirable behaviors are those students spend more time doing if permitted; less desirable behaviors are those students spend less time doing when free to act.

This psychological principle can be used effectively in certain controllable situations to dramatically affect the behaviors of students. This may seem like common sense to the parent of a three year old child (if you want dessert, you'll have to eat your vegetables first), but many novice teachers find Premack's Principle to be quite a revelation.

The Rescorla-Wagner model, the Matching Law, and Premack's Principle all appear to have explanatory power if not predictive power. It would behoove the student to consider referring to these theories when confronted with a confounding situation dealing with motivation and/or discipline.



Herrnstein, R. J. (1961). Relative and absolute strength of response as a function of frequency of reinforcement. Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior, 4, 267-272.

Premack, D. (1959). Toward empirical behavioral laws: I. Positive reinforcement. Psychological Review, 66, 219-233.

Premack, D. (1963). Rate differential reinforcement in monkey manipulation. Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior, 6, 81-89.

Rescorla, R. A., & Wagner, A. R. (1972). A theory of Pavlovian conditioning: Variations in the effectiveness of reinforcement and nonreinforcement. In A. H. Black and W. F. Prokasy (Eds.), Classical Conditioning II: Current Research and Theory. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts.

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