Innovative Learning

Contiguity Theory (Edwin Guthrie)

Guthrie's contiguity theory specifies that "a combination of stimuli which has accompanied a movement will on its recurrence tend to be followed by that movement". According to Guthrie, all learning was a consequence of association between a particular stimulus and response. Furthermore, Guthrie argued that stimuli and responses affect specific sensory-motor patterns; what is learned are movements, not behaviors.

In contiguity theory, rewards or punishment play no significant role in learning since they occur after the association between stimulus and response has been made. Learning takes place in a single trial (all or none). However, since each stimulus pattern is slightly different, many trials may be necessary to produce a general response. One interesting principle that arises from this position is called "postremity" which specifies that we always learn the last thing we do in response to a specific stimulus situation.

Contiguity theory suggests that forgetting is due to interference rather than the passage of time; stimuli become associated with new responses. Previous conditioning can also be changed by being associated with inhibiting responses such as fear or fatigue. The role of motivation is to create a state of arousal and activity which produces responses that can be conditioned.


Contiguity theory is intended to be a general theory of learning, although most of the research supporting the theory was done with animals. Guthrie did apply his framework to personality disorders (e.g. Guthrie, 1938).


The classic experimental paradigm for Contiguity theory is cats learning to escape from a puzzle box (Guthrie & Horton, 1946). Guthrie used a glass paneled box that allowed him to photograph the exact movements of cats. These photographs showed that cats learned to repeat the same sequence of movements associated with the preceding escape from the box. Improvement comes about because irrelevant movements are unlearned or not included in successive associations.


  1. In order for conditioning to occur, the organism must actively respond (i.e., do things).
  2. Since learning involves the conditioning of specific movements, instruction must present very specific tasks.
  3. Exposure to many variations in stimulus patterns is desirable in order to produce a generalized response.
  4. The last response in a learning situation should be correct since it is the one that will be associated.


Guthrie, E.R. (1930). Conditioning as a principle of learning. Psychological Review, 37, 412-428.

Guthrie, E.R. (1935). The Psychology of Learning. New York: Harper.

Guthrie, E.R. (1938). The Psychology of Human Conflict. New York: Harper.

Guthrie, E.R. & Horton, G.P. (1946). Cats in a Puzzle Box. New York: Rinehart.