What is Neal E. Miller and John Dollard's S-R theory?

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Miller and Dollard developed a personality theory that was based on Clark L. Hull’s stimulus-response learning theory. They used this theory and a number of psychoanalytic concepts to explain how neurosis develops. They also showed how psychotherapy could be conceptualized as a learning process by using an S-R model of higher mental processes.
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Much, if not most, human behavior is learned. How human beings learn is one of the central, and most controversial, topics in psychology. Neal E. Miller and John Dollard used principles of learning developed by Clark L. Hull, who studied how animals learn, and applied them to explain complex human behavior.

According to Miller and Dollard, human behavior occurs in response to cues. A red traffic light, for example, is a cue to stop, whereas green is a cue to go. A cue is simply any stimulus that is recognized as different from other stimuli. A cue may bring about a variety of responses, but some responses are more likely to occur than others. The response to a cue most likely to occur is called the dominant response. Responses to a cue are arranged in a response hierarchy, from the dominant response to the response least likely to occur. A person’s response hierarchy can change. The hierarchy that a person has originally is called the initial hierarchy. If the initial hierarchy is inborn, it is known as the innate hierarchy. When a hierarchy changes, the result is known as the response hierarchy.

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 people 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 makes up the individual’s personality.

Role of Drives

Drives, as previously noted, motivate and reinforce responses. Some drives, such as hunger, thirst, sex, and pain, are inborn and are known as primary drives. These drives are naturally aroused by certain physiological conditions; through learning, however, they may also be aroused by cues to which they are not innately connected. For example, one may feel hungry when one sees a favorite restaurant even though one has recently eaten. Drives aroused in this way (that is, by previously neutral cues) are called secondary, or learned, drives.

The natural reaction to an aversive stimulus is pain. Pain is a primary drive; it motivates a person to act, and any response that reduces pain will be reinforced. Neutral cues associated with pain may also produce a response related to pain called fear (or anxiety). Fear motivates a person to act; a response that reduces fear will be reinforced. Fear is therefore a drive; it is a drive that is especially important for understanding neurotic behavior, according to Miller and Dollard. For example, a fear of a harmless cue such as an elevator (an elevator phobia) will motivate a person to avoid elevators, and such avoidance will be reinforced by reduction of fear.

Cue Responses

A response to one cue may also occur to cues that are physically similar to that cue; in other words, what one learns to do in one situation will occur in other, similar situations. This phenomenon is called stimulus generalization.

Many responses are instrumental responses; that is, they act on and change some aspect of the environment. Other responses are known as cue-producing responses; the cues from these responses serve to bring about other responses. Words are especially important cue-producing responses; someone says a word and another person responds, or one thinks a word and this is a cue for another word. Thinking can be considered as chains of cue-producing responses—that is, as a sequence of associated words; in this way Miller and Dollard sought to describe the higher mental processes such as thinking, reasoning, and planning.

Social Role of Learning

In their book Social Learning and Imitation (1941), Miller and Dollard pointed out that to understand human behavior, one must know not only the process of learning but also the social conditions under which learning occurs. Human learning is social—that is, it occurs in a social context, which can range from the societal level to the interpersonal level. The process of imitation is one example of how what an individual learns to do depends on the social context.

Imitation involves matching, or copying, the behavior of another person. If the matching behavior is rewarded, it will be reinforced, and the individual will therefore continue to imitate. The cue that elicits the imitating response is the person being imitated (the model), so that the imitative behavior, in Miller and Dollard’s analysis, is dependent on the presence of the model. In this way, Miller and Dollard used S-R theory to explain how individuals learn what to do from others and thereby learn how to conform to society.

Psychoanalytic Approach to Neurosis

In their best-known work, Personality and Psychotherapy: An Analysis in Terms of Learning, Thinking, and Culture (1950), Dollard and Miller applied S-R theory to explain how neurosis is learned and how it can be treated using learning principles. They pointed out three central characteristics of neurosis that require explanation: misery, stupidity, and symptoms. The misery that neurotics experience is a result of conflict. Conflict exists when incompatible responses are elicited in an individual. An approach-approach conflict exists when a person has to choose between two desirable goals; once a choice is made, the conflict is easily resolved. An avoidance-avoidance conflict exists when an individual must choose between two undesirable goals. An approach-avoidance conflict exists when an individual is motivated both to approach and to avoid the same goal. The last two types of conflicts may be difficult to resolve and under certain conditions may result in a neurosis.

Dollard and Miller tried to explain some aspects of psychoanalytic theory in S-R terms; like Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, they emphasized the role of four critical childhood training situations in producing conflicts that can result in neurosis. These are the feeding situation, cleanliness training, sex training, and anger-anxiety conflicts. Unfortunate training experiences during these stages of childhood may result in emotional problems. Childhood conflicts arising from such problems may be repressed and may therefore operate unconsciously.

The “stupidity” of the neurotic is related to the fact that conflicts that produce misery are repressed and unconscious. Dollard and Miller explained the psychoanalytic concept of repression in terms of S-R theory in the following manner. Thinking about an experience involves the use of cue-producing responses (that is, the use of words) in thinking. If no words are available to label an experience, then a person is unable to think about it—that is, the experience is unconscious. Some experiences are unconscious because they were never labeled; early childhood experiences before the development of speech and experiences for which the culture and language do not provide adequate labels are examples of experiences that are unconscious because they are unlabeled. Labeled painful experiences may also become unconscious if a person stops thinking about them. Consciously deciding to stop thinking about an unpleasant topic is called suppression. Repression is similar to suppression except that it is automatic—that is, it occurs without one consciously planning to stop thinking. For Dollard and Miller, therefore, repression is the automatic response of stopping thinking about very painful thoughts; it is reinforced by drive reduction and eventually becomes a very strong habit.

The third characteristic of neuroses requiring explanation is symptoms. Phobias, compulsions, hysteria, and alcoholism are examples of symptoms. Symptoms arise when an individual is in a state of conflict-produced misery. This misery is a result of the intense fear, and of other intense drives (for example, sexual drives), involved in conflict. Because the conflict is unconscious, the individual cannot learn that the fear is unrealistic. Some symptoms of neurosis are physiological; these are direct effects of the fear and other drives that produce the conflict. Other symptoms, such as avoidance in a phobia, are learned behaviors that reduce the fear or drives of the conflict. These symptoms are reinforced, therefore, by drive reduction.

Therapeutic Techniques

Dollard and Miller’s explanation of psychotherapy is largely a presentation of key features of psychoanalysis described in S-R terms. Therapy is viewed as a situation in which new learning can occur. Because neurotic conflict is unconscious, new learning is required to remove repression so that conflict can be resolved. One technique for doing this, taken directly from psychoanalysis, is free association; here, neurotic patients are instructed to say whatever comes to their consciousness. Because this can be a painful experience, patients may resist doing this, but, because the therapist rewards patients for free associating, they eventually continue. While free associating, patients become aware of emotions related to their unconscious conflicts and so develop a better understanding of themselves.

Another technique borrowed from psychoanalysis involves a phenomenon known as transference. Patients experience and express feelings about the therapist. Such feelings really represent, in S-R terms, emotional reactions to parents, teachers, and other important persons in the patient’s past, which, through stimulus generalization, have been transferred to the therapist. The therapist helps the patient to recognize and label these feelings and to see that they are generalized from significant persons in the patient’s past. The patient in this way learns how she or he really feels. The patient learns much about herself or himself that was previously unconscious and learns how to think more adaptively about everyday life. The patient’s symptoms are thereby alleviated.

Extending the Behaviorist Approach

The S-R theory used by Miller and Dollard had its intellectual roots in the thinking of the seventeenth century, when human beings were thought of as being complicated machines that were set in motion by external stimuli. At the beginning of the twentieth century, the stimulus-response model was adopted by John B. Watson, the founder of behaviorism. Watson used the S-R model to explain observable behavior, but he avoided applying it to mental processes because he believed that mental processes could not be studied scientifically.

Miller and Dollard extended the behaviorism of Watson to the explanation of mental events through their concept of the cue-producing response and its role in the higher mental processes. This was an S-R explanation: Mental processes were seen as arising from associations between words that represent external objects; the words are cues producing responses. Miller and Dollard’s approach, therefore, represented a significant departure from the behaviorism of Watson. Miller and Dollard tried to explain mental events in their book Personality and Psychotherapy, in which they attempted to explain many psychoanalytic concepts in S-R terms. Because psychoanalysis is largely a theory of the mind, it would have been impossible for them not to have attempted to describe mental processes.

Contributions to Mental Processes Research

The approach to explaining mental processes used by Miller and Dollard, though it represented a theoretical advance in the 1950s, was gradually replaced by other explanations beginning in the 1960s. The drive-reduction theory of learning that they advocated came under criticism, and the S-R view that humans passively react to external stimuli was criticized by many psychologists. As a result, new theories of learning emphasizing cognitive (mental) concepts were developed.

New ways of thinking about mental processes were also suggested by fields outside psychology; one of these was computer science. The computer and its program were seen as analogous to human mental processes, which, like computer programs, involve the input, storage, and retrieval of information. The computer and its program, therefore, suggested new ways of thinking about the human mind. Miller and Dollard’s S-R theory has largely been replaced by concepts of contemporary cognitive science.

Miller and Dollard’s theory still exercises an important influence on contemporary thinking in psychology. Their analysis of psychoanalysis in terms of learning theory made the important point that neuroses could be unlearned using the principles of learning. Behaviorally oriented treatments of emotional disorders owe a debt to the intellectual legacy of Miller and Dollard.


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