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Open Access Publications from the University of California

At the Interface of Learning and Cognition:An Associative Learning Perspective


This paper reviews some of the literature on Pavlovian and instrumental conditioning as they relate to“cognitive” factors in behavior. Studies of Pavlovian learning have centered around the notion that a representation of the unconditioned stimulus plays a critical role in performance. However, much work will need to go into characterizing the nature of the representations that mediate learning. In particular, current research illustrates that “images” and “expectancies” of reward may differ in fundamental ways, and also that learning about temporal, motivational, and sensory properties of reward might involve different systems. The study of instrumental learning also poses challenges for addressing the question of what representations, i.e., associative structures, underlie such learning.Current work reveals a host of associative structures that may participate in learning and performance though how these different structures participate in a unified approach is currently unknown. The associative approach can be contrasted with inferential reasoning approaches to instrumental action, and there are two key findings that seem outside the scope of a reasoning approach. Nevertheless, future work will be required to determine just how far purely associative models will be able to go in order to account for complex behavior.

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