The Garcia-Koelling Selective Association Effect: A Historical and Personal Perspective

José Burgos, Michael Domjan
2015 unpublished
The first and most prominent study of selective associations was the so-called bright-noisy-water experiment by Garcia and Koelling (1966). This study was a landmark in the development of thinking about biological constraints on learning and remains the most highly cited study of selective associations, even though it lacked important controls. I first describe the original experiment and initial criticisms of it. I then discuss the various control issues that were ignored in the original
more » ... the original experiment but addressed in subsequent research. In this account, I rely primarily on research conducted in my laboratory, because the problems have not been addressed by any other investigator. Along the way, I discuss the discovery of a selective sensitization effect related to the Garcia-Koelling findings, ways to rule out selective sensitization, and studies of selective associations in pre-weanling rats. I conclude with a look back at the impact of the Garcia-Koelling experiment and recommendations for new generations of students in the field. Biological constraints on learning became a major concern of learning psychologists during the 1960's in response to a series of phenomena that challenged the validity of general-process learning theory. The central claim of general-process learning theory was that learning phenomena and principles were universal and therefore could be discovered by studying learning in any standard learning preparation, such as lever-pressing in rats or key-pecking in pigeons. The first of the major challenges to the general process approach emerged from the work of Keller and Marian Breland, former students of B. F. Skinner, who stepped outside the bounds of the proverbial Skinner box by using instrumental conditioning to train raccoons, ducks, chickens, and piglets for amusement park displays. During the course of their work, they identified numerous ways in which the various species they tried to train violated basic principles of operant conditioning. Their observations were first reported in an article in the American Psychologist titled, "The Misbehavior of Organisms" (Breland & Breland, 1961), which was a takeoff on Skinner's seminal volume, The Behavior of Organisms (Skinner, 1938). The examples of misbehavior described by the Brelands were soon followed by various other forms of misbehavior reported by other investigators. These were compiled and analyzed in two major edited volumes,