Association of ideas is the intuitive notion that ideas are grouped together, or associated, in explicable ways. For example, if someone says "horse," one is likely to think "animal," "rider," or "race," but not "shelf," "battery," or "floor." The first set of ideas are all associated with horses, the latter are not. Associationism embraces association of ideas and turns it into a general systematic account of mind or behavior.
John Locke coined the phrase "association of ideas" in the fourth edition of his Essay Concerning Human Understanding. He regarded associations as a kind of "madness,"
as they get in the way of rational, directed thinking. Notwithstanding Locke's condemnation, several eighteenth-century philosophers turned association of ideas into asso-ciationism, a view of mind and behavior that places association at the heart of thinking and tends to reduce all psychological principles to the principle of association.
Foremost among these philosophers were David Hume and David Hartley. Hume proudly reduced the mind to the association of ideas, maintaining that the mind contains either perceptions or their copies and ideas, and that ideas are glued together by two laws of association, similarity and contiguity (whereby two ideas that occur together become linked).
The tendency signaled by Hume and Hartley to elevate the principle of associative learning was continued by the nineteenth-century British associationists James Mill, his son John Stuart Mill, and his son's friend, Alexander Bain. James Mill proposed a mechanical theory of association in which ideas are stuck together like tinkertoys. J. S. Mill recognized the unwieldiness of this arrangement and proposed mental chemistry, in which several ideas can merge into one and reveal emergent properties, as when hydrogen and oxygen merge to make water. Bain placed Hartley's project on a better foundation, uniting association philosophy with up-to-date physiology to produce a real association psychology.
It was then only a short step to psychological experiments on association formation, or learning and memory. Thomas Brown had already put forward an empirically researchable form of associationism in his secondary laws of association, which further specified the operation of the primary laws (contiguity, similarity). For example, Brown argued that the more frequently two ideas were contiguously experienced, the stronger would be the associative bond between them, but this law of frequency is open to empirical test.
In the twentieth century, association of ideas transmuted into association of stimulus and response under the influence of behaviorism. The laws of association became the laws of learning; the law of frequency became the gradually rising learning curve; the law of similarity became the generalization gradient; and contiguity of ideas became the contiguity of unconditioned and conditioned stimuli. More recently, eighteenth-century concepts have revived with cognitive psychology, which views memory as an associative network of ideas (e.g., in J. R. .Anderson and G. H. Bower's Human Associative Memory) embedded in a complex information-processing system, rather like the old mental faculties.
The doctrine of association has not gone unchallenged. The Gestalt psychologists completely renounced it, and various psychologists have periodically attacked it. Nevertheless, association of ideas has proven the most durable of psychological concepts, having maintained an unbroken record of influence from Plato to cognitive science.
Thomas H. Leahey
Virginia Commonwealth University
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