Behavioral and Brain Sciences

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Behavioral and Brain Sciences (2009), 32:183-198 Cambridge University Press
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The propositional nature of human associative learning

Chris J. Mitchella1, Jan De Houwera2 and Peter F. Lovibonda3

Article author query
mitchell cj [PubMed]  [Google Scholar]
de houwer j [PubMed]  [Google Scholar]
lovibond pf [PubMed]  [Google Scholar]


The past 50 years have seen an accumulation of evidence suggesting that associative learning depends on high-level cognitive processes that give rise to propositional knowledge. Yet, many learning theorists maintain a belief in a learning mechanism in which links between mental representations are formed automatically. We characterize and highlight the differences between the propositional and link approaches, and review the relevant empirical evidence. We conclude that learning is the consequence of propositional reasoning processes that cooperate with the unconscious processes involved in memory retrieval and perception. We argue that this new conceptual framework allows many of the important recent advances in associative learning research to be retained, but recast in a model that provides a firmer foundation for both immediate application and future research.

Key wordsassociation; associative link; automatic; awareness; conditioning; controlled; dual-system; human associative learning; propositional

Chris Mitchell is senior lecturer at the University of New South Wales. From 1991–1997 he investigated associative learning in rats at University College London. He then worked at Unilever Research, Port Sunlight, as a consumer psychologist, before returning to academia in 2000 to pursue his interests in attention, memory, and associative learning. He has published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Animal Behavior Processes, the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, and the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General. He is an Associate Editor of the Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology.

Jan De Houwer is Professor of Psychology at Ghent University. He is the author of over 100 publications in the field of experimental psychology, including publications in Psychological Bulletin and the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General. His main research interest is the manner in which spontaneous (automatic) preferences are learned and can be measured. He is Editor of Cognition and Emotion and was Laureate of the Royal Flemish Academy of Belgium for Science and the Arts.

Peter Lovibond is Professor of Psychology at the University of New South Wales. He has qualifications in experimental and clinical psychology, and has carried out research on animal learning and motivation, human learning, cognition, psychophysiology, and anxiety and depression. He is a Consulting Editor for Learning and Behavior, the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Animal Behavior Processes, and the Journal of Abnormal Psychology. He is a Fellow of the Australian Psychological Society and the Association for Psychological Science.