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Fun Example of Associative Learning for a Weekend Smile

Here is a case of simple associative learning (stimulus to stimulus, with no specific response) that I think will give you a smile for your weekend. Imagine a dog (one of those little terriers about 8 inches tall – something like this one being placed for the first time in a yard with a two inch tall wooden fence. What do you think is the first thing he would do? Perhaps after briefly exploring the local smells, he would wander outside the fence. Walking over a two inch fence would not even be noticed, let alone a deterrent.

Associative learning is the process by which an association between two stimuli or a behavior and a stimulus is learned.

But now imagine that the fence is eight feet tall (looking something like this one. Now THAT would be a deterrent. But over time, it would not be so salient. The dog would realize that the fence is the edge of his world. This follows the traditional associative learning paradigm. At first, the dog would wonder if there were a way over, under or through. Perhaps digging under. Perhaps nudging between the slats. But eventually, the mere sight of the fence would signal boundary. The link would become an automatic association. Fence = edge of my world.

Now imagine eight feet of snow in the yard. The dog is light enough that he barely sinks down. He walks around about even with the top of the fence. He could easily step right over it. But he never thinks to try. The link between fence and boundary has become so strong and automatic that even just seeing two inches of the fence sticking out through the snow triggers the “edge of my world” thought. It never occurs to him to finally live the dream – total freedom.

My Take

Crazy you say? Even dogs, with admittedly less cognitive capacity than humans, would see right through a two inch fence. But contrast the first example from the third one. In the first, the two inch fence was seen just as a two inch fence. But in the third, the associative learning had occurred. Walking to work this morning, I saw it happen myself. This little dog running around the yard on top of the snow, at the level of the top of the fence, but not having a clue that he could leave the yard.

Your Turn

This was not a controlled study of course, so my explanation could be completely wrong. If you have a different one, please share them in the comments. Do you think the dog just felt safer in the yard and had no desire to leave? No desire to come sniff my hand or even say hello?

Image Credit: PublicDomainPictures

3 thoughts on “Fun Example of Associative Learning for a Weekend Smile”

  1. I remember this phenomenon from my undergrad psych class (30+ yrs ago) in a discussion of “learned helplessness”. The examples given were of an elephant bound by a very thin chain and a wooden stake in the ground. The stake and chain were sufficient to hold a baby elephant, and while it learned that it could not overcome it as a baby, it held that same belief as an adult. Similarly, the Pike fish can be put in a tank of minnows with a separating glass pane between them. The pike will slam into the glass in an attempt to get the minnows, but after awhile, it will give up and quit trying. It will actually starve to death in a tank full of minnows because it believes it cannot get to them. The following video illustrates this: The dog in your example may actually believe that he is powerless to cross the boundary. I think that there is a lesson for humanity in there…

    1. I first thought about learned helplessness as well. But that is accompanied by a negative affective response. This dog was happy as can be, running right up to the fence and sniffing and barking, and having a great ole time.

  2. Thanks for these daily posts, Marc. I don’t respond to most of them, but they are valuable stimuli for thought!

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