Behavioral and Brain Sciences

Target Article

How adaptive behavior is produced: a perceptual-motivational alternative to response reinforcements

Dalbir Bindraa1

a1 Department of Psychology, McGill University, 1205 McGregor Ave, Montreal, PQ Canada H3A 1B1


The sway that the response-reinforcement framework (Spencer, Thorndike, Hull, Skinner) has held on the behavioral sciences for nearly a hundred years is finally ending. The strength of this framework lay in providing concepts and methods for studying the effects of hedonic (reinforcing) stimuli on the repetition of specified responses acquired in instrumental training situations of various kinds. Its weakness lay in the invalidity of its central assumptions, stimulus-response association and response-reinforcement, which could not deal with motor-equivalence and flexibility (or “intelligence”) in behavior. To the four decades of incisive criticism on particular theoretical and empirical grounds, a more comprehensive challenge to the response-reinforcement framework is now added by the newer ideas about the nature of cognitive, motivational, and response-production processes that have emerged from the work of ethologists, neuroscientists, and cognitive psychologists. An alternative framework, incorporating the newer ideas, is clearly needed.

The particular framework proposed here is based on the ideas of perceptual learning of stimulus-stimulus correlations and of a motivational (rather than reinforcing) role of hedonic (incentive) stimuli. According to it, an act is produced when its act-assembly is activated by a pexgo (perceptual representation) of a certain eliciting stimulus complex (ES). When certain eliciting stimuli are correlated with incentive stimuli, they acquire motivational properties that serve to strengthen the pexgos generated by those eliciting stimuli and thereby increase the probability of activation of the corresponding act-assemblies. Motivation thus influences response production, not by directly instigating “existing” responses, but by modulating the strength of pexgos of eliciting stimuli for the succession of acts that comprise a response. Therefore, a response is always constructed afresh on the basis of current perceptions; not even a stable and stereotyped response occurs as a mere activation of a preformed motor program. The topography of any response that emerges is determined by the nature of the motivational state and the momentary spatiotemporal distribution of eliciting stimuli of changing motivational valence.

By suggesting that the animal learns the overlapping and nested correlations between the stimulus events that commonly occur in a given situation, and by separating what is learned from the processes of response production, the proposed perceptual-motivational framework seems capable of dealing with the problems of motor equivalence and flexibility in adaptive behavior. Some implications of this approach for further behavioral and brain research on such problems as behavior modification, learning by observation of models, analysis of causality, and search for neural substrates of learning and response production, are outlined.