Ninth Edition CoverGraziano & Raulin
Research Methods (9th edition)

Edwin R. Guthrie (1886-1959) was an American psychologist, who proposed a unique theory of learning. Guthrie accepted Thorndike’s basic idea that learning is the association of stimulus and response. Perhaps more than any other behavior theory, Guthrie’s was absolutely mechanistic. He maintained that “All that the most sophisticated man can do in any situation is to contract his muscles in some order and pattern (1942, p. 24).” There was no cognition or consciousness in Guthrie’s psychology.

Guthrie rejected the idea that either reward (Thorndike, Watson, Hull, Skinner) or repetition (Pavlov) of the S-R event is necessary to strengthen an association. For Guthrie, there were no intervening variables in learning as in Tolman’s or Hull’s theories. Guthrie’s contiguity theory proposed that one-trial learning occurs. That is, he argued that just one stimulus-response pairing was needed for an association to occur, and no reward was necessary.

Guthrie distinguished movement and act. Complex behaviors, such as maze-running, problem solving, studying for examinations, social behavior, and so on, are acts. Any act is composed of many small, discreet movements. Guthrie believed that it was these small movements that are learned during the brief instant of S-R contiguity. Because acts consist of many movements, there is an appearance that repetition is necessary in conditioning trials. Guthrie maintained, however, that each movement was learned maximally with a single S-R event, and many specific movements must be learned before the act is learned as a unit. Each apparent repetition is actually the creation of a slightly different S-R association. As Osgood summarized, in Guthrie’s model, “…the fundamental principle of single-trial association by contiguity is adequate to account for all the phenomena of learning” (Osgood, 1953, p. 365).

A strength of Guthrie’s model is that it employs fewer assumptions than any other learning theory. In other words, it is eminently parsimonious. Its appeal seems due to its simplicity and its easy application to almost all everyday human behavior. For example, Guthrie applied his model to issues of child behavior in education and general development. To teach a child a complex act, such as hanging up a coat instead of dropping it on the floor when coming in the house, Guthrie would break down the complex act into its constituent movements. The act (entering the house, removing and hanging the coat in the closet) is composed of individual movements (step in the house, close the door, pull down coat zipper, remove mittens, etc.). These eventually lead to the final movements (put coat on hanger, open closet door, put hanger on coat rod, close door). Guthrie would then have the child go outside with his coat on, start all over again, and perform each movement through to completion of the whole complex act. 

Guthrie’s major book was The Psychology of Learning (1935).

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