Associationist Theory

baby reaches for bottle, parent helpsOverall, associationists believe we are born a tabula rasa;  everything we learn has been impressed upon us by associations or connections we make in our environments, and this is how we learn.  We come to expect rain when we see clouds, or pain when we touch fire.

By no means is this a new concept; Benjafield (1992) considers the theory to be hundreds if not thousands of years old, with the chief “modern” theorists being Thorndike (1898) and Skinner (1957)–behaviorists.  Thorndike’s cats associated the door to the maze opening when they switched the lever.  Skinner took this association even further by arguing that just the act of thinking is associated with our environment, that concepts and thought processes result from the stimuli perceived within our immediate surroundings.  Vygotsky (1934) to some extent also prescribed to associationism in the way we learn symbols and signs for communication.  When a baby who wants a distant object reaches for it, he associates that reach with having that object handed to him by his parent.  Eventuallly, he learns to use his extended arm as a sign of communication; he associates the sign with receiving that of which his arm is ‘pointing’.

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