Neal Miller

100 Year Anniversary

Current Status & Evaluation

The following is an excerpt from the chapter, Stimulus-Response Theory, in Theories of Personality ( Hall, C.S. & Lindzey, G.,  1970).

Current Status and Evaluation

               The application of S-R learning principles to behavioral events outside the laboratory has mostly taken place during the last twenty-five or thirty years. In this interval a very large amount of relevant empirical research has been accumulated. Furthermore, several generations of able psychologists have been trained who possess the technical skill and theoretical conviction necessary to increase enormously the existing stock of such empirical evidence. Thus the recent past has witnessed not only an empirical boom in this area but also the appearance of a large number of individuals actively concerned with extending and modifying the concepts we have discussed. Altogether it seems clear that this brand of personality theory is supported by an unusually vigorous group of adherents, and contrary to the belief or wish of many cognitive and holistic theorists, there is little apparent danger that this theoretical school will vanish in the near future as a result of indifference.

                Our discussion of the theory and research of Dollard and Miller has made manifest a number of virtues. The major concepts within this theory are clearly expounded and customarily linked to certain classes of empirical events. There is a scarcity of vague allusion or appeal to intuition in the work of theses theorists. The hard-headed, positivistic reader will find much to admire in their writings. Moreover, this evident objectivity does not prevent many S-R learning theorist from being ready and eager to embrace a wide range of empirical phenomena with their conceptual tools. Although their formulations began in the laboratory they have shown no timidity about advancing with them upon the most complex of behavioral phenomena.

                A highly significant contribution of S-R theory to the personality scene is contained in the careful detail with which this position represents the learning process. Obviously the transformation of behavior as a result of experience is a crucial consideration for any adequate theory of personality, and yet many theories have largely overlooked this question or have brushed by it with a few stereotyped phrases. In this sense at least, S-R theory provides a model to be emulated by other theoretical positions.

                The readiness of Dollard and Miller to extract wisdom from social anthropology and clinical psychoanalysis represents, for many, another attractive feature of their particular position. They make more explicit use of socio-cultural variables than almost any of the other theories we have discussed and we have seen that their theory owes much to the impact of psychoanalysis. The readiness and sophistication with which socio-cultural variables are introduced in the theory may be related to the fact that this theory has been applied by cultural anthropologists more widely than any other theory of personality except psychoanalysis.

                This willingness to incorporate the hypotheses and speculations of other types of theories, such as psychoanalysis, while appealing to many inside as well as outside the learning group, has not found universal favor among those who advocate the application of learning principles to personality phenomena. Psychologists such as Wolpe and Eysenck, to say nothing of those who take the Skinnnerian approach, not only find little necessity for going beyond the principles established in the learning laboratory but may actively disagree with the views of more traditional personality theorists, particularly those of a psychoanalytic persuasion.

                Although divided on this issue, S-R theorists have characteristically emphasized the function of a theory as a guide to investigation and the necessity of submitting theoretical differences to experimental test. In these respects, members of this group have a definite superiority over most other personality theorists. In general, these theorists have a better sense of the nature and function of theory in an empirical discipline than any other group of personality theorists. In their writing, as compared with the writing of other theorists, there is less reification, less sterile argument over words, and more readiness to look at theories as sets of rules that are used only when they are demonstrably more useful than other sets of rules. This methodological sophistication is undoubtedly responsible for the relative explicitness and formal adequacy of these theories.

                In many ways S-R theory typifies an experimental, objective approach to human behavior. As such, it has been a prime critical target for the many psychologists who are convinced that an adequate understanding of human behavior must involve more than a slavish application of the experimental methods of physical science. These critics feel that although their personal theoretical positions may be vulnerable because they rest on empirical observation that is not adequately controlled, the observation, at least, are relevant to the events with which they purport to deal. In the case of S-R theory, the bulk of the careful investigation is not only concerned with simple instead of complex behavior, but more important, has often been carried out with an animal species that is phylogenetically far removed from and manifestly different in many crucial respects from the human organism. What good are rigor and careful specification in the experimental situation if the investigator is subsequently forced to make a tenuous assumption of phylogenetic continuity in order to apply his findings to important events? We have already seen that S-R theorists consider that learning principles established in laboratory studies of animals must be justified with experimental studies employing human subjects. Thus, there is an essential agreement here concerning the importance of coordinating research; the question becomes one of how much confidence can be placed in the theory until such studies are carried out in considerable quantity.

                A related criticism frequently leveled at learning theory approaches asserts that most of the positive features of this position, including its careful definitions, explicitness and wealth of research exist only when the theory is applied to animal behavior or very restricted domains of human behavior. As soon as the theory is applied to complex human behavior it is in the same situation as other theories of personality, with ad-hoc definitions, and reasoning by analogy, representing the rule instead of the exception. This criticism suggests that the rigor and relative formal adequacy of S-R theories are illusory as they exist only when their principles are applied within a very limited scope. Once a learning theory is generalized, concepts that were clear become ambiguous and definitions that were tight become flaccid.

                Perhaps the most important critical objection to S-R approaches if the assertion that they do not provide adequate prior specification of stimulus and response. Traditionally, learning theorists have been concerned almost exclusively with the process of learning and have not attempted to identify the stimuli occurring in the natural environment of the organisms they study or to develop a suitable taxonomy for these stimulus events. Further, these learning processes have been investigated in restricted, controlled, settings in which it is relatively simple to specify the stimuli eliciting observable behavior. The challenge to the personality theorist is to understand the human organism operating in his real-world environment and it can be cogently argued that if the psychologist cannot fully define the stimulus for behavior his task has barely begun. Roughly the same arguments can be made about the response. In fairness to Miller and Dollard it must be admitted that they are well aware of this problem. Miller, in a jocular vein, has suggested that S-R theory might better be labeled “hyphen theory” as it has had more to say about the connection between the stimulus and the response than about the connection between the stimulus or the response itself. Miller and Dollard have made attempts to overcome this deficiency, as have others, by specifying at least some of the social conditions under which human learning takes places in addition to the abstract principles governing that learning.

                Related to this criticism is the fact that S-R theory has remarkably little to say about the structures or acquisitions of personality, which is undoubtedly why many theorists have found psychoanalytic theory useful in their thinking and investigation. This objection also maintains that, with its preoccupation with the process of learning, S-R theory is only a partial theory and that the relatively stable components of personality are an essential element in any attempt to understand human behavior.

                Certainly the most frequently voiced criticisms of S-R theory point to the simplicity and molecularity of the position. Holists feel that this theory is the very essence of a segmental, fragmented and atomistic approach to behavior. They claim that so little of the context of behavior is seen that one cannot hope to understand or predict human behavior adequately. There is no appreciation of the importance of the whole and the patterning of the parts is overlooked in favor of their microscopic examination.  In these objections it is difficult to sort out the polemical and affective components from their legitimate intellectual accompaniment. In defense of learning theory, it is certainly clear that there is nothing in the S-R position to imply that variables must operate singly or in isolation. Interaction of variables is perfectly acceptable, so at least this degree of holism is congruent with S-R theory.

                Still other psychologists accuse S-R theorists of having neglected language and though processes and claim that their concepts are inadequate to explain the acquisition and development of these complex cognitive functions. Any acceptable theory of human learning, they contend, must incorporate these cognitive phenomena. Perhaps the core of all these objections is he conviction that the set of variables employed by the S-R theorists is too small and too ordinary to represent human behavior adequately. Again this is a matter of personal values. Whether progress will eventually stem most rapidly from a complex model that moves toward specificity and detail or a simple model that moves toward comprehensiveness and complexity is impossible to say at this time.

                In summary, S-R theory is a theoretical position that in many respects is singularly American. It is objective, functional, places much emphasis on empirical research and is only minimally concerned with the subjective and intuitive side of human behavior. As such it provides a striking contrast to many of the theories we have discussed that are deeply indebted to European psychology. Undoubtedly its tough-minded, empirical strengths have made and will continue to make unique contributions to this area of psychology.

Posted in Learning & Motivation 7 years, 8 months ago at 11:53 am.

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