Elemental representations of stimuli in associative learning

Psychol Rev. 2006 Jul;113(3):584-605. doi: 10.1037/0033-295X.113.3.584.


This article reviews evidence and theories concerning the nature of stimulus representations in Pavlovian conditioning. It focuses on the elemental approach developed in stimulus sampling theory (R. C. Atkinson & W. K. Estes, 1963; R. R. Bush & F. Mosteller, 1951b) and extended by I. P. L. McLaren and N. J. Mackintosh (2000, 2002) and contrasts this with models that invoke notions of configural representations that uniquely code for different patterns of stimulus inputs (e.g., J. M. Pearce, 1987, 1994; R. A. Rescorla & A. R. Wagner, 1972; A. R. Wagner & S. E. Brandon, 2001). The article then presents a new elemental model that emphasizes interactions between stimulus elements. This model is shown to explain a range of behavioral findings, including those (e.g., negative patterning and biconditional discriminations) traditionally thought to be beyond the explanatory capabilities of elemental models. Moreover, the model offers a ready explanation for recent findings reported by R. A. Rescorla (2000, 2001, 2002b) concerning the way that stimuli with different conditioning histories acquire associative strength when conditioned in compound.

MeSH terms

  • Association Learning*
  • Conditioning, Classical*
  • Discrimination Learning
  • Humans
  • Models, Psychological
  • Psychological Theory