Guthrie's theory of learning

in #psychology6 years ago


While Guthrie was going to graduate school he was the only student in a seminary taught by Wilhelm Wundt’s protégé H. K. Wolfe, where they debated the philosophy of science. Guthrie later characterized the classes that he took for his degree as philosophy courses that "took much interest in issues that would now be recognized as psychological". His focus upon a theoretical approach to psychology as opposed to an experimental research approach can be found in his account of his single experimental psychology course which he described as "a research course under Bolton devoted a winter to observations with an aesthesiometer on the limens of twoness, and served to quench [my] interest in psychophysics, which was the chief preoccupation of psychological laboratories in those times".

His professional psychology career did not start in full until he met Stevenson Smith, who founded the psychology department at the University of Washington in 1917. Guthrie and Smith helped write Chapters in General Psychology in 1921. This book and work with Smith, focused Guthrie's continuing psychological works towards how exactly learning works and what effects a person’s capability of learning. He and his wife, Helen MacDonald, traveled to France where they met Pierre Janet. Janet’s writing had a great impact on Guthrie’s thinking, so profound in fact that Guthrie and his wife translated Janet’s Principles of Psychology together. Guthrie added to Janet’s writings an objective theory of learning.


Guthrie’s theories went against those of Watson’s classical conditioning and Skinner’s operant conditioning due mainly to Guthrie’s insistence that their "desire for results of immediate practical applications" led to their theories being wrong. Guthrie’s learning theory is called one-trial learning and he developed it with Smith at the University of Washington. Guthrie and Smith’s theory states that all learning is done within a single exposure to a situation. Guthrie admitted that his own theory required the assumption that people react to a given situation the same way so long as it was still effective. Guthrie’s more ambiguous theories and assumptions were put into more understandable terms after his death. These notes focused upon the following three principles, the principle of association, the principle of postremity, and the principle of response probability.

  • The principle of association says that any stimulus that accompanies a behavior or immediately precedes it by less than half a second becomes a cue for that specific behavior.
  • The principle of postremity theorizes that a stimulus when followed by more than two responses only becomes associated with the response closest to the stimulus.
  • The principle of response probability states that the chance of a particular response occurring at a specified time relates to the size of the stimulus for that response present at the specified time. The more cues for a stimulus the higher the chance of a desired response.


Guthrie also had theories as to how punishment worked that were at odds with the likes of Thorndike and other learning theorists of his own time. Guthrie thought that punishment was only as effective as the amount of change in behavior the punishment caused. Guthrie’s theory required that presentation of punishment happen while the stimulus is still around. He did warn that if the punishment did not stop the undesirable response or if it was not presented in the presence of the stimulus that the punishment could actually strengthen the undesired response.


Guthrie believed that dozens of tiny movements make up what most see as a single behavior; much like waving good-bye actually involves dozens of muscle movements. Guthrie viewed habits as a response connecting with a large number of stimuli, which causes the habit to happen more often to a wide variety of things. He postulated that there were three different ways to break a habit; the threshold method, the fatigue method, and the incompatible response method.

  • The threshold method: involves introducing stimuli that are associated with the habit response at such a weak level that it doesn’t actually elicit the response. The strength of the stimuli is increased slowly until the stimuli can be presented at full strength without eliciting the habit response. Guthrie compared this method to "horse whispering."
  • The fatigue method: is quite simple, you keep presenting the stimulus until the person with the habit no longer replies with their habitual response. Guthrie considered this method similar to "breaking the horse.".
  • The incompatible response: method pairs the stimuli that causes the habitual behavior with another stimulus that triggers are response that is opposite or incompatible with the habit that you want to get rid of.

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