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In Maier, S. F., & Seligman, M. E. P. (2016), Learned Helplessness at Fifty: Insights from Neuroscience, the authors quote an objection of Richard Herrnstein, a prominent Harvard Skinnerian (emphasis theirs):

You are proposing that animals learn that responding is ineffective. Animals learn responses; they don't learn that anything.

What does this sentence mean? I'm not sure what the emphases on the thats try to convey. I'm not even sure if the phrase they don't learn that anything is grammatical.

Note: I ask this question here instead in ELL or ELU because it requires the answerers to have a decent understanding in psychology, in particularly behaviorism.

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    $\begingroup$ Herrnstein is saying that any statement of the form "animals learned that x" is false, no matter what you put for x. $\endgroup$ Nov 3 at 17:09
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    $\begingroup$ This question is clear enough for me, without any real background in behaviourism. I think it should be migrated to ELL. $\endgroup$
    – wizzwizz4
    Nov 3 at 17:14
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When we say that Alice "learned that X", X is generally an assertion, and we are saying that Alice now has some kind of representation of the assertion in her head, and knows it to be true.

When we say Bob has learned a response, we just mean that Bob now has a tendency to respond in that way when he experiences a given stimulus. We aren't saying anything about what's going on in Bob's head.

So the word "that" is important - it indicates that what follows is some kind of concept that is being held in the head. That's why Herrnstein emphasized it.

The sentence "They don't learn that anything" is grammatical if you treat "anything" as a variable that can stand for any assertion. Herrnstein is saying that it's never valid to say, of an animal, "it learns that [whatever]."

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  • $\begingroup$ Does it mean that in English language, learn that X refers to cognitivist learning, while learn Y refers to behaviorist learning? $\endgroup$
    – Ooker
    Nov 4 at 11:19
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    $\begingroup$ This use of "that" goes back centuries before the idea of "cognitivist learning" was formulated, but I would still say it does indicate cognitivist learning. "Learn Y", however, is much broader. There is a huge amount of cognition going on when you learn math or Spanish (I would assert). If you want to indicate that you are talking only about behaviorist learning, you have to be pretty specific. $\endgroup$ Nov 5 at 2:01
  • $\begingroup$ So i guess that there is no difference between learn that X and learn Y, and both refers to cognitivist learning by default. Only in this case that the context differentiate which sentence refers to cognitivist learning, and which sentence refers to behaviorist learning. I suppose that Richard Herrnstein didn't need to use different syntaxes to convey his thought? $\endgroup$
    – Ooker
    Nov 6 at 10:14
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"learning that responding is ineffective" is alluding to a cognitive process, separate from the behavioral process. Put simply, a thought process.

While, "animals learn responses" is alluding to traditional behaviorism, more specifically 'learned responses'. For example, Pavlov's dog experiment demonstrates classical conditioning, or Skinner's box experiment demonstrates operant conditioning. Conditioning elicits a learned response, there is no implied thought process, like in cognitive approaches (or other approaches to psychology such as psychoanalytic, humanism, positive psychology, etc.). So, this statement is speaking in favor the behavioral tradition's perception of learned helplessness, rather than Seligman's approach.

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    $\begingroup$ What does "that anything" mean? Why does "learn that responding" refers to cognitive process, while "learn responses" refers to conditioning? $\endgroup$
    – Ooker
    Nov 3 at 16:18
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You are proposing that animals learn that responding is ineffective.

Breakdown:

The following sentence relies on this sentence's grammatical structure for meaning. It would make less sense if it were on its own.

Animals learn responses; they don't learn that anything.

Note the italics; this represents stress emphasis. The first one is to emphasise “responses” (noun), as opposed to “responding” (verb); the difference is that verbs (in the active voice) require a subject, whereas nouns don't. Making this distinction suggests that the verb suggests agency on the part of the animals, and the noun does not.

Breakdown:

  • Animals learn responses; they … — first clause
  • responses; they don't learn that anything. — second clause

learn that anything.

This part is complicated. The emphasis on “that” is sort of to quote it, and make it not a part of the grammar of the sentence. Recall the previous sentence:

animals learn that responding is ineffective

The complicated bit is saying that all statements of the form:

“don't” – i.e., that they're not true, and don't really happen. In other words, it's saying that animals cannot learn facts about facts; any sentence where you'd say “animals learn that” and then something, is wrong. (According to this person, anyway; I don't agree.)

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