Animal Intelligence: The Original S-R Framework

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Animal Intelligence

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“Animal Intelligence”

Thorndike’s learning theory in behavioral psychology can be described as the original S-R framework, where learning occurs through the formation of associations between stimuli and responses. These associations, also known as “habits,” are strengthened or weakened based on the nature and frequency of the S-R pairings. One of the most famous examples illustrating Thorndike’s S-R theory is the experiment involving a cat and a puzzle box. Through repeated trial and error, the cat eventually learns to associate pressing a lever (stimulus) with opening the door (response). This S-R connection is established because it leads to a satisfying outcome, such as escaping from the box.

Thorndike believed that conducting experiments on animals, rather than relying on observations and anecdotes, would be more effective in avoiding various issues. By conducting experiments, researchers have control over the stimuli in the environment and can repeat the procedure multiple times to gain a better understanding of the events that occur during each trial. Additionally, this allows them to determine if the animal’s behavior is coincidental or if it learns anything new with each trial, or if it remains unchanged from its original state.

Romane conducted an experiment using a wooden box with a rope-operated door and food inside. The cat placed in the box initially displayed frantic movements, scratching, biting, and banging its head until it accidentally fell on the lever to open the door. It was expected that subsequent trials would show the cat quickly learning to pull on the cord, but Thorndike discovered this was not the case. In each trial, the time taken for the cat to go through its rituals reduced significantly until it reached a point where it performed them almost instantly upon being placed in the box.Thorndike proposed that through repeated trials, an association is formed in the animal’s mind. Each trial reinforces this association, clarifying the necessary action to reach the lever. However, the animal does not engage in complex planning to escape from the box. Instead, pressing the lever brings pleasure to the animal and establishes a link between its impulse to respond and its accompanying sensory experiences. These cognitive processes occur within the animal’s mind throughout the experiments. Furthermore, the more rewarding the response, the more deeply it is ingrained in the animal’s mind, resulting in automatic reactions whenever its senses are stimulated.

In all of his experiments, Thorndike never witnessed instant improvement in the animal’s response. The animal didn’t immediately acquire knowledge of the food’s location or how to get it. It consistently took a significant amount of time and multiple attempts for the information to become firmly established in the cat’s mind. Sometimes, after a recent success, there would be a notable decrease in latencies. However, after a series of such successes, the latencies would increase just as dramatically as they had decreased.

Thorndike disagrees with the way people observe animals, as their observations are not based on animal psychology but rather on unusual events or extraordinary achievements by a single animal within its species. For example, while millions of cats get stuck in trees without drawing much attention, if one cat saves its owner during a fire, suddenly cats are hailed as highly intelligent and the cat’s photo appears on the front page of every local newspaper. This biased observation is influenced by the observers’ expectation of intelligence in animals, particularly if they personally own the animal or know its owner, leading to faulty and inaccurate reporting of their observations.

J.B Watson, a behaviorist, critiques Thorndike’s method of studying animal behavior in each trial. According to Watson, it is impossible to assess an animal’s behavior solely based on its mental processes due to insufficient knowledge on the matter. Instead, he suggests inferring the animal’s emotions during experiments by putting ourselves in their shoes. To effectively evaluate behavior, Watson advocates for observing the actual behaviors of the animal along with genetic factors rather than relying on unobservable or untestable cognitive processes.

Thorndike coined the term “Instrumental Learning” to describe the process by which an animal learns to associate certain behaviors with the satisfaction of succeeding, making these behaviors more likely to occur. In this process, the animal learns to produce an instrumental response that will lead it to satisfaction.

There were several controversial issues surrounding the terms used in Thorndike’s writings that were not scientifically accepted because they couldn’t be measured. One of these controversies revolves around Thorndike’s use of the term “satisfaction,” which pertains to a mental state in animals. Since we cannot test mental states, this concept is considered unscientific. Another issue lies with Thorndike’s puzzle box, where the cat couldn’t often see the connection between the lever and the food. Austrian psychologist Kohler disagreed with Thorndike’s experiment, stating that it was too complex for the cat to understand the relationship between the lever (CS) and food (US). To demonstrate learning processes, Kohler conducted a simplified experiment with a monkey in a cage, placing bananas and a stick outside. The monkey simply had to grab the stick and bring it to obtain the bananas. This alternative approach doesn’t discredit Thorndike’s method but provides another perspective on learning.

I believe that Thorndike’s experiment, which involved observing a cat’s learning abilities and responses in an unfamiliar environment, made a significant contribution to the advancement of behavioral psychology. By placing the cat in a box and requiring it to find rewarding stimuli, Thorndike demonstrated that animals think at a lower level than humans. Instead of strategizing its escape from the box, the cat instinctively bit, clawed, and hit its head on the cage until it accidentally stumbled upon the lever that provided food. This behavior suggests that the animal relied on associative thinking rather than cognitive processes.

There are both advantages and disadvantages to conducting experiments instead of observations. Placing a subject in a laboratory environment ensures that their reactions differ from those in their natural habitat. However, for an experiment to be effective, it is crucial to control and isolate as many stimuli as possible. Although complete control over all environmental factors is unattainable, conducting an experiment in a controlled setting provides more control compared to observing a subject in their natural habitat.

Watson’s critique of Thorndike’s method aligns with my agreement with this perspective. According to Watson, scientifically proving unassessable and unanalyzable phenomena is not feasible.Despite my further exploration of Thorndike’s “Law of Effect,” which suggests that behaviors leading to satisfaction are strengthened while those causing discomfort or annoyance are weakened, this theory remains unsupported by conclusive evidence.

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Animal Intelligence: The Original S-R Framework. (2018, Jul 01). Retrieved from

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