From behavior chains to behavioral skills: Animals learn more than previously expected

Dr. Alliston Reid
Keynote address given at the 2019 conference

William James (1890) popularized the concept of behavior chains, with chaining theory as its theoretical basis, as an explanation of learned serial behavior patterns in humans and non-human animals. The response-selection mechanism in a chain was assumed to occur when a discriminative stimulus “sets the occasion” for the next operant response, and this mechanism requires the links of the chain to occur in a fixed serial order. However, many experiments have demonstrated that the response-selection mechanisms of learned serial behavior patterns are often broader and more flexible than chaining theory proposed. We should rethink the relation between behavior chains and the acquisition of behavioral skills in mammals and birds.

What are the resulting practical advantages? Skill learning has been widely studied in humans, but far less in non-human animals, and the procedures have important differences. Research with humans has focused mostly on the role of post-trial informative feedback about performance errors during skill acquisition. Skill learning in rat and pigeon labs has focused, instead, on the role of anticipatory cues, rather than on informative feedback. Do humans and non-human animals learn skills differently, or do they share the same general principles? Cognitive psychologists have discovered a counter-intuitive feature of human skill learning: Factors that degrade performance during acquisition often enhance performance in a subsequent retention condition, and vice versa. Our procedures with rats and pigeons have produced the same counter-intuitive feature as that of human skill learning. Thus, perhaps rats and humans learn behavioral skills in similar ways.

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