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Guthrie’s S-R Theory of Learning

Guthrie, E.R. (1886-1959) emphasized the acquisition of learning or a new form of behaviour through association by contiguity. He stated that any stimulus (S) coming into action at the same time with response (R) is likely to evoke that particular response. Therefore, only the last response in the series which was connected to the stimulus is important.

Again, for there to be a connection between S-R, only one trial was thought to be necessary to give the conditioned stimulus full strength. However, he agreed that practice is useful because it helps to forge a close knit S-R bond together and which form the larger units of behaviour called acts. He rejected the law of frequency which according to J.B. Watson strengthened the connection between stimulus-response (S-R).

Guthrie’s belief that only the last response evoked by a stimulus is important and it is similar to Watson’s law of recency in which the most recent response is more significant than the earlier ones.

For Watson, frequency in occurrence of this most recent response is important because it strengthens the presence or establishment of that behaviour (response). Thus, to Guthrie, learning is a sudden affair which is influenced by stimulus change.

Guthrie conducted a simple experiment in which he put a cat in a puzzle box with a small pole in the midst of the box which acted as a release mechanism. The touching of the pole from any side and in any manner opened the door and the cat could come out of the box and eat the food put outside the cage. The cat found the solution immediately and whenever it is put in the box, the cat repeated its previous behaviour.

From his observation he concluded that what any animal would do at any moment was based or depended upon a record of what it did the first time in the past. The function of the animal’s or human physiology also influenced response to stimuli. That is, that the organism responds to various stimuli by contraction of muscles and secretion of glands. These specific responses he called movements.

To Guthrie, an act is a series of movements associated together by the law of contiguity. For example, walking requires a number of movements of muscles and senses which combined together to make an act. To him, association is between stimulation of sense organs and a corresponding muscular contraction or glandular secretion.

Inhibition of responses occur if any other response occurs in between the original stimulus-response (S-R). It is therefore possible to deduce the following from Guthrie’s learning theory:

1. Improvement in performance is the result of practice.

2. Conditioning takes place after a single trial.

3. A child learns what he does.

4. Whatever he perceives, becomes a stimulus for any response that occurs at the same time (contiguity).

5. Whenever the stimulus reappears, he does what he did the last time it was noticed. For example, in teaching a child how to read printed words, the child looks at the symbols and while looking he or she says/pronounces the words. When the child notices these words/symbols in the future, he is likely or tends to say them correctly because of stimulus-response connection.