Response Hierarchy and Learning

Change in a response hierarchy occurs as a result of learning. There are four fundamental considerations in the explanation of how learning occurs: drive, cue, response, and reinforcement.

A drive is an intense stimulus, such as hunger, that motivates a response. The cue is the stimulus that elicits the response. If the dominant response in the hierarchy results in a reduction in the drive, then reinforcement will occur. Reinforcement means that the association, or connection, between the cue (stimulus) and response is strengthened; the next time the cue occurs, therefore, that response will be even more likely to occur. Reinforcement occurs when a person realizes that the response has led to a reward, although such awareness is not always necessary; reinforcement can also occur automatically. In other words, Miller and Dollard's theory states that for persons to learn, they must want something (drive), must do something (response) in the presence of a distinct stimulus (cue), and must get some reward for their actions (reinforcement).

If the dominant response does not result in a reward, the chance that the dominant response will occur again is gradually lessened. This process is called extinction. Eventually, the next response in the hierarchy will occur; in other words, the person will try something else. If that response results in reward, it will be reinforced and may become the dominant response in the hierarchy. In this way, according to Miller and Dollard, humans learn and change their behavior. According to this theory, connections between stimulus and response are learned; these are called habits. Theories that view learning in this way are called stimulus-response, or S-R, theories. The total collection of a person's habits make up his or her personality.

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