Learning Sets

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The gap between gradual conditioning and sudden insight may not be quite as fundamental as Kohler maintained. Though Kohler did not stress the fact, the chimps with which he worked had lived free in the wild before serving as experimental subjects. They doubtless had had previous experience in using sticks and climbing structures. The insightful solutions did not really come out of the blue. Presumably, the chimps’ accumulation of past experiences had played some role in the appearance of an insightful problem solution.

The way in which previous problem solutions transfer to aid the prompt solution of a new problem was studied in detail by Harlow (1949). The subjects of Harlow’s experiments were monkeys, tested in the kind of apparatus. The problem put to the monkey is a two- choice discrimination. There is a small food reward that, on each trial, is consistently placed under one of two objects. For example, in the first problem the monkey may be presented with a square box and a round box. The food is alway under the square box. which is sometimes presented to the monkey’s right and other times to the monkey’s left. To get the food reward on any trial the monkey must reach out and lift the square box; there is no reward on trials when the monkey lifts the round box. When first presented with such a problem the animal will operate on a chance basis and will tend to select the correct box cm about 50 percent of the trials, With more trials, however, the monkey’s performance will slowly improve until finally, it is correct on 100 percent of the trials.

Then the animal is presented with a new two-choice discrimination. This time, for example, a black triangular box and a white triangular box might be used, with food always under the black box. The monkey will gradually solve this problem, too-and it will probably need fewer trials to master the second discrimination than were taken to learn the first, This procedure is continued, with the monkey being given a whole series of new two-choice discriminations to learn.

The monkey eventually arrives at a state in which any new two-choice discrimination is solved immediately. When first presented with two new objects, the monkey reaches at random for one or the other. When its first choice happens to be correct, the monkey stays with it on all following trials never bothering to pick up the other object. When its first choice happens to be incorrect. the monkey immediately switches to the other object and selects it on all following trials. This ”insightful” behavior provides impressively rapid solutions to new problems; but note (bat (he in- sight is itself the product of a gradual trial-and-error learning process. The improvement in the rate of solution of new problems as a consequence of experience with past problems, is referred to as the acquisition of a learning set. The animal, while gradually solving a particular problem, is learning more than particular responses; it is also learning how to learn. That is, it may also learn general techniques and approaches that will be useful in the solution of new problems. The monkey, needless to say, is more likely to acquire learning sets than is the rat.

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