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Associationist theory: its authors and psychological contributions

Associationist theory: its authors and psychological contributions

November 27, 2021

The association capacity It is basic when it comes to learning. We can know and react to certain stimuli because we are able to link events.

We smell a certain fragrance and salivate thinking that our favorite dish awaits us. We move away from a meal that in previous experiences has had us vomiting for hours.

Someone looks at us in a certain way and we infer that he is angry or that he is attracted to us. The associationist theory of learning , base of the behaviorism and from this base of numerous psychological schools and techniques, defends that the one that we respond of that way comes given because we are able to link phenomena and situations, learning and acquiring this association.


What is the Association Theory?

Based on Aristotelian contributions and numerous philosophers such as Locke and Hume, this theory It would be developed by David Hartley and John Stuart Mill , who postulated that all consciousness is a consequence of the combination of stimuli and elements captured through the senses. Thus, mental processes are produced continuously based on a series of laws with which we link the stimuli of the environment.

In a simple and generic way the associationist theory can be summarized as that which proposes that knowledge is acquired by experience, linking the sensations that the presence and interaction with the stimuli produces mechanically and whenever a series of basic requirements known as association laws . As new associations are added, thought and behavior become increasingly complex, and human performance can be explained on the basis of learning the links between phenomena.


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

The laws of the association

The associationist theory considers that when it comes to linking or relating the different stimuli or phenomena, we follow a series of universal rules that are innately imposed on us . The main laws of the association are the following, although later they would be revised and reworked by the various authors who worked from the 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 in time and space . With time and systematic study, this law varied to refer to the need for the mental representation of these stimuli to appear together or closely in our mind, without specifying a physical proximity as such.


2. Law of similarity

For the associationist theory, when two stimuli activate similar mental representations or they have common characteristics they are much more likely to be linked together from such similarity.

3. Law of contrast

Two stimuli will also be associated if they are completely contrary , because it is perceived the existence of a contrast in the same quality stimulate.

4. Law of frequency

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

5. Law of the recencia

According to the law of the recension, The more recent and less temporary distance there is between both stimuli , the stronger the link established between them will be.

6. Law of effect

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

According to said law, the responses made by a subject that maintain relations of contiguity with reinforcing consequences they will be associated with great force to the original stimulus that produced this response, increasing their probability of repetition. If this response is followed by aversive consequences, the link with the stimulus will cause the response to be made less frequently (initially it was proposed that because the association was smaller, but later this would be rectified).

Behaviorism and the association between stimuli

The theory of the association would happen with time to be one of the main pillars of the behaviorism, which pretends to investigate the human conduct of scientific form from the observable thing.Although behavioralism ignores mental processes in their study of human behavior, since they are not directly observable, this current has served as a basis for new ways of interpreting the human psyche, with other schools and paradigms emerging both from their successes and their limitations. integrating part of their basic techniques and beliefs.

Behaviorism uses the associationist theory as a basis, considering that the exposure to two contiguous stimuli produces a link between them . If a stimulus produces an effect on the organism, a specific response to that stimulation will be generated. If, in addition to this, a second stimulus appears at the moment or close to the moment when an effect occurs, this stimulus will be linked to the first, ending up generating a similar response.

Throughout the history of behaviorism it has been evolving, developing diverse perspectives based mostly on the associationist theory. Some of the best known and most prominent are classical conditioning and operant conditioning.

Classical conditioning

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

Coinciding with the 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 provokes a response directly) produces salivation (the unconditioned response).

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

Operant conditioning

Classical conditioning can serve to explain associations between stimuli, but even if the stimuli are passively captured human behavior is for the most part motivated by the consequences of our actions .

In this sense, operant conditioning continues to be based on association theory to indicate that the individual learns by linking what he does with the consequences of his actions. You learn the answer to apply to certain stimulation.

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

The associative learning

The associationist theory, especially from behaviorism, has been applied with great frequency in the field of education. This is because the association Understanding as such the change of behavior, attitude or thought caused by the experience of certain experiences

Associative learning is understood as the process by which a subject is capable of perceive the relationship between two concrete facts from the observation . These relationships can become generalized to similar stimuli, while they are discriminative in relation to other phenomena. In other words, the relationship captured is specific between the two events, not observed with another type of stimulus unless there are relations of similarity with the original situation.

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

Although associative learning is very useful in achieving the learning of mechanical behavior This type of learning has the disadvantage that the knowledge or skill obtained does not take into account previous experience or the different cognitive processes that can mediate learning. The subject receives a completely decontextualized knowledge, in which the individual is not able to relate what he has learned now to the previous one.

It is learned through repetition, without allowing the subject to elaborate what he learns and gives it a meaning both to the content to be learned and to the learning process itself. For the associationist theory the subject is a passive being that is limited to receiving and retaining the external stimulation, which does not take into account intrapsychic aspects like motivation or expectations , as well as working from the perspective that different people may have different perspectives or skills of the same situation.


PHILOSOPHY - Aristotle (November 2021).


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