Animal learning as lab science

Morgan also studied the way animals learned brand-new behavior patterns that, like instinctive behaviors, became automatic and unconscious. He called this process habit formation. Morgan was mainly interested in answering two questions: how a new behavior pattern was learned in the first place and how it became automatic afterward. He broached a number of topics that later became central to comparative psychology. These topics included the role, if any, of consciousness in guiding animal behavior, the effect of imitation on learning, and the process of learning by trial and error.

Inspired by Morgan, turn-of-the-century scientists such as Thorndike, Small, and Kline began transferring the study of animal learning into the laboratory. In his groundbreaking thesis on animal intelligence, Thorndike defined intelligence in terms of an animal's ability to form new mental associations. He also described ingenious devices for studying animal learning and showed how they could be used in controlled research. For example, he constructed puzzle boxes for cats and then studied their behavior as they attempted to escape.

Earlier psychologists, writing about human thought and learning, had also focused on associations. For them, however, this meant the association of ideas or mental processes with one another. In contrast, Thorndike viewed associations as links between the situation in which an organism found itself and the organism's impulse to act. This view was an important step toward the behaviorists' concept of learning as the association between a stimulus and a response.

Around the same time, Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov was studying the digestive systems of dogs. He noticed that dogs would salivate when they saw their keeper, apparently in anticipation of being fed. This observation led him to perform a classic series of experiments. Pavlov showed that, by repeated association, a previously neutral stimulus (such as a bell) could be substituted for a natural stimulus (such as food) to produce a natural response (such as salivation). This process became known as classical conditioning. Pavlov's work was first published in his native Russian. In 1909, Yerkes and Sergius Morgulis coau-thored a paper that brought Pavlov's ideas to an English-speaking audience.

Thorndike's and Pavlov's theories laid the groundwork for the behaviorist revolution, led by Watson starting in 1913. Watson wanted to remove consciousness from the realm of psychology. Instead, he believed that psychology should focus strictly on behavior. Watson held that most behavior was the direct result of stimuli in the environment. In a nutshell, behavior that led to positive consequences was rewarded and continued, while behavior that led to negative responses was eliminated.

Later in his career, Watson began to focus more on the implications of behaviorism for humans. In the early years, however, he was concerned mainly with animal behavior, including behavior that was instinctive as well as learned. With Yerkes, Watson developed new methods for the study of color vision in animals. With psychologist Karl Lashley, he collaborated on studying terns, a type of sea bird, found on a cluster of islands off the coast of Florida.

As behaviorism took a more extreme turn in the coming decades, it branched off from comparative psychology. Eventually, the radical behaviorism of B.F. Skinner became so popular that behaviorist-based experimental psychology eclipsed its comparative cousin. It is worth noting, though, that the two disciplines grew up side by side in the first decades of the twentieth century. In fact, when the Journal of Animal Behavior was founded in 1911, Yerkes became the journal's editor, and Watson became the editor of an associated monograph series. Watson himself championed Yerkes for the editor's position, saying "there is no one else to do it who has the courage, the orderliness, and the persistence."

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