One-Trial Learning


The American philosopher-turned-behavioral-psychologist, Elwin R. Guthrie (1886-1959), challenged other Behaviorists of his time, by declaring: “A combination of stimuli which has accompanied a movement will on its recurrence tend to be followed by that movement.” BFD? You’re missing the “heaviosity” of his premise. Unlike Pavlov [Big Daddy of Classical Conditioning] or Skinner [BD of Operant Conditioning], Guthrie was the BD of Associative Learning. No reward need be given, said he, for a movement to become “cued” by a stimulus. Forget the all the use of High-Value-Treats to reward the desired response, advocated by dog trainers, or the symbolic reward, the clicker [which betokens to the dog that a treat has been earned, redeemable at a later time]. According to Guthrie, it only takes one coincidence of stimulus and movement, for the two things to become forever paired. Boom! Done! [Pavlov’s dogs had to have many pairings of sub-lingual meat powder with a bell, before the bell alone elicited drooling.]

To the extent that Guthrie’s theory is true, it is not altogether good news. In college I was riding shotgun in my roommate’s car, when a motorist failed to observe the Stop sign at an intersection, and plowed into the side of the car. Having caught a glimpse of his not-slowing-down car in my peripheral vision [the cue], I crouched into the fetal position recommended for airplane crashes [the movement]. Nevermind that my addled hippocampus had applied the wrong transport safety tip [and I consequently suffered gory-looking but superficial facial abrasions that I would have avoided, had I remained sitting upright]. To this day, 4 decades later, when a I see a car approaching an intersection “too fast to stop,” I have to fight the reflex to cringe. It doesn’t happen when I am driving, mind you, just when I am riding shotgun; but this One-Trial Habit [as Guthrie called it] annoys the hell out of whoever is driving “Miss Crazy.”

Let’s do the wolf-work. It is humiliating to them, that I appear not to trust their driving skills. Further, my sudden movement is both intrusive (sometimes blocking their view of the other car) and frightening (since it betokens a “clear & present danger,” rather than a remembered danger from long ago).

Guthrie’s own recommendation, to diminish the power of a problematic cue/movement connection, was called Sidetracking. One must endeavor to discover the initial cue, and then deliberately associate a different [incompatible] movement with it. Alrighty, then. What’s incompatible with cringing? Why, sitting upright (as I should have done in the first instance), with my forearms resting on my thighs (rather than covering my face). Unfortunately, whenever I abruptly assume this crash-test-dummy position, it is almost as alarming [therefore, annoying] as the cringe. At least it doesn’t obstruct the driver’s view. In recent years, I’ve taken to wearing sunglasses while being driven [avoiding harmful UV rays, you know], behind whose dark lenses I close my eyes when a car rushes up to the Stop sign. I also contrive to sit in the back seat whenever possible, where I am blissfully oblivious to the threat of reckless drivers. I am unflappable in taxis, even in Manhattan.

Not all instances of One-Trial habit formation are as trivial as my intersection cringe, however. The cue/movement nexus might account for the intractability of various substance addictions. Today’s New York Times has an article speculating that Adam Goldstein [aka DJ AM], may have relapsed into drug abuse because of filming a documentary in which a young woman injected herself with heroin. An individual’s first use of an addictive substance is likely to occur in the presence of others who are using the substance. According to Guthrie’s model, the cue [of others shooting/lighting/drinking up] will be forever associated with the movements one made, in connection with the first use of that substance.

Nor need the cue be visual. Even in 1960s Britain, the sound of an air-raid siren sent survivors of the Blitz diving for cover under a table or bed. The whiff of that certain food you ate just before you got sick can, years later, activate your gag reflex. The song you were listening to when that false love in high school broke up with you can still make you cry, a lifetime later.

Yesterday, while making his weekend rounds at two DC hospitals, my husband discovered that his car had [at least temporarily] “died,” and he came home in a rental car. Lili, who was awaiting the return of her beloved master, saw the intrusion of a strange white vehicle in the driveway [the cue], which set up a barrage of histrionic barkitude [the movement]. Even when her master emerged from the rental car, she could not stop herself from barking at it. Just now, his arrival in the cue vehicle again sent her into a reflexive barkfest, despite my commands to her to assume a position [presumably] incompatible with barking [“Foo-say!” Lie down!]. When the UPS truck cues Lili to bark, she has learned the incompatible movement of sending herself down to the basement [where she can’t see the offending vehicle]; but apparently this weekend’s “combination of stimuli” [strange car, beloved master] presents a more difficult cue to Sidetrack.

It was Guthrie’s contention that “excitement facilitates associative learning,” making the cue/movement connection even stronger. Lili is very excited whenever her master comes home.

To be continued.

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Filed under gets right up my nose, limbic system, post-traumatic stress

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