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Encyclopedia of Psychology Alan E. Kazdin, PhD, Editor-in-Chief


Function Versus Mechanism

The ultimate function of a biological or behavioral system is to enhance reproductive success. However, with few exceptions, investigators have not measured directly whether learning increases the number of offspring that animals produce. Rather, functional studies have focused on how learning facilitates achieving various proximate goals such as digestion, food selection, mate selection, and territorial defense (e.g., Hollis, 1997).

Systematic consideration of functional issues in learning reemerged with discoveries of adaptive specializations and biological constraints on learning, such as long-delayed food aversion learning (see Hinde & Stevenson-Hinde, 1973; Seligman & Hager, 1972). [See Taste Aversion Learning.] These data suggested that how animals learn a task may be related to the biological functions served by that task. The function of food aversion learning, for example, is to minimize the intake of poisonous foods. However, this function cannot be achieved unless an animal is able to associate the taste of poisonous food with the usually delayed toxic consequences.

Methods of Study

Another more correct view, one which may be more implicit than explicit in the practice of scientists, is that methods are employed to the extent that they are useful for providing information that might be sought at a particular time. A method is useful to the extent that it provides better information than could be obtained in its absence or by employing some other method.

A method may be defined as a way of achieving some end according to a definite plan. The earliest attempts to understand the intellectual capabilities of animals (or the lack thereof) were those of philosophers and theologians. The method employed by them may be characterized as armchair speculation in the service of preconceived ideas. While the armchair method produced a variety of views, the most popular and generally accepted of these was that humans possess a quality completely lacking in animals: rationality. The best known exponent of this view was the philosopher Rene Descartes. The rationality idea, which preceded Descartes by centuries, is still accepted in some circles today.

Habituation-Sensitization, Pavlovian or Classical Conditioning, and Instrumental or Operant Conditioning. These three methods together constitute the major divisions among methods employed in animal learning.

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