PsycCRITIQUES - Contemporary Psychology: APA Review of Books
Ahead of His Time
A review of
Cognition in Human Motivation and Learning: Festschrift for J. (R.) Nuttin
Géry d'Ydewalle and Willy Lens (Eds.)
Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum, 1981. 304 pp. $29.95

Reviewed by
John F. Kihlstrom

This book is a festschrift presented to Joseph R. Nuttin, Professor Emeritus at the University of Leuven (Louvain) in Belgium. From the time he took his doctoral degree Nuttin was a steadfast critic of the doctrine of passive connectionism in learning, especially as represented by Thorndike's Law of Effect, and an advocate of what has come to be known as the cognitive approach. He sought to redirect (he focus of inquiry in psychology away from the question of the effect of reward on the subsequent probability of a response and toward the question of what is learned when a response is rewarded or punished. Nuttin's central arguments were that reinforcement provides information about the probable outcomes of certain actions, that the person selectively encodes and retains information about both positive and negative outcomes, and that in a particular behavioral episode people actively select some action from their repertoires in order to achieve a particular end. Human behavior, then, was to be interpreted not in terms of a blind association of stimulus and response but in terms of the person's motives, goals, intentions, perceptions, and memories.

Nuttin's efforts to promote these views were impeded by a sort of double-whammy of zeitgeist and chauvinism. He took his degree in 1941, and his major work was published in 1953. Thus, he raised questions about cognitive structures and processes just at the time that academic psychology was dominated by radical behaviorism and its concept of the empty organism. Moreover, he was a Belgian psychologist who published largely in European journals and largely in French. By the late 1960s, when Nuttin's work became well known on this side of the Atlantic through the translations and synopses provided by Green-wald (1966; Nuttin & Greenwald, 1968), the cognitive revolution had begun. If research within the cognitive framework has not substantiated all of Nuttin's ideas about the nature of reinforcement, the importance of motivation, and the like, it has at least confirmed that, by seeking to peek inside the black box, he was on the right track. In this book eleven prominent psychologists—from both sides of the Atlantic and from fields as diverse as learning, perception, development, and personality—offer tribute to Nuttin's foresight.

Nuttin's central work has been on the Law of Effect, and chapters by Estes, Marx, and Ryan review the conflict between the S-R and cognitive views of the nature of reinforcement. Estes makes a solid case for the role of memory representations, comparison and classification, expectation and hypothesis-testing, decision and choice, and other cognitive processes in selective learning and shows how this perspective ties the once-isolated field of reinforcement to other research domains within cognitive psychology. Marx summarizes a large body of work, chiefly from his own laboratory, that demonstrates the importance of non-cognitive "habits" of the kind envisaged by the classical S-R view of the world. Ryan produces a tentative list of eleven major types of learning and memory tasks. A principal organizational rubric in this list is the distinction between intentional and incidental learning, with cognitive factors paramount in the former and automatic ones in the latter. Neither Marx nor Ryan denies a role for cognitive processes in reinforcement, but they do not want traditional learning processes obscured in the paradigm shift. Along the same lines, Pribram argues strongly that the increasing dominance of the cognitive point of view should not lead psychologists to ignore the biological substrates of mental functioning and the influence of neural organization on cognition.

Nuttin also emphasized the importance of the mental representation of the situation—of acts, outcomes, and the time intervals between them—as an important determinant of behavior. In separate chapters, Heckhausen and Mischel discuss the way in which children develop mental representations of rewards and punishments, successes and failures. Mischel reviews his programmatic research on delay of gratification, showing how cognitive processes such as attention, distraction, symbolic representation, and mental transformation can help achieve highly desirable outcomes. As they mature, children acquire both the metaknowledge that these principles are involved in successful delay and the capacity to turn them into effective delay strategies. Heckhausen begins with Nuttin's distinction between stimulation pleasure and causality pleasure and then goes on to trace the nature of feelings of success and failure. His developmental analysis shows how the neonate's rudimentary awareness of act-outcome contingencies yields to a full-blown sense of instrumental mastery and internal causal attributions. Fraisse offers a masterly review of the literature on time perception, including a valuable overview of the large body of literature on the subject in non-American journals. He distinguishes between the perception and the representation of time, the former for short intervals and the latter for long ones, and discusses factors affecting both. The chapter culminates in an information-processing model of time estimation lodged in the framework of a multistore conception of memory. Thomae also takes up this problem in the form of future time perspective, especially that of aged people. Throughout, he is concerned with the question of whether a purely cognitive view of action—one that rules out motivation altogether—is possible or even desirable. He concludes that cognition and motivation influence each other and that motives cannot be reduced to anticipations.

Nuttin's third concern was with motivation—with the influence of the individual's goals, interests, and intentions on cognition and action—and the remaining contributions deal in various ways with these issues. Bruner offers evidence from naturalistic studies of language acquisition that the actions of both adults and infants are guided at every step of the way by goals and intentions. Although Bruner's chapter is concerned with children's ability to represent their goals, other chapters, of a more psychodynamic bent, do not rely so much on the conscious accessibility of motives. The possibility of unconscious motives is raised, at least implicitly, in Atkinson's sweeping review of thirty years of TAT research. He defends the reliability of the TAT on both psychometric and substantive ground: Because the test proves valid, it must be reliable. Reliability of the usual sort is not to be expected of a measure of a temporary state; what we need is a broader concept of reliability. Achievement motivation is the focus, with a review of the story-coding system, the classic studies published during the 1950s, the development and testing of mathematical models relating motivation to action, and the most recent computer simulations of the process of thematic apperception itself. Raynor, another investigator in the TAT tradition, links the topics of mental representation and motivation. Individuals who differ in level of aspiration apparently differ in terms of the value assigned to success and failure, and in terms of the perception of past, present, and future.

A festschrift, like any edited anthology, suffers from inherent problems in selection and organization. Who should be included? How should their contributions be organized? Is there any way to integrate such a wide range of material? Only seven of the papers seem to relate directly to Nuttin's central theoretical and empirical work: those by Estes, Ryan, Marx, and Mischel on reinforcement and by Raynor, Fraisse, and Thomae on the perception of time. The other papers, although clearly in the domain, are harder to connect directly with Nuttin, and five of the contributors do not cite his work at all. All of the papers, however, provide interesting and authoritative summaries of substantial bodies of literature: For this alone the book is valuable. Some of the contributors draw our attention to progress in topics that are no longer in the limelight; others prepare us for new topics that are only now beginning to open up. The volume honors the career of one who, by constantly stressing the role of cognition in learning and the relation of cognition and action, was—and is—ahead of his time.


Both Géry d'Ydewalle, author of a chapter in A. Flammer and W. Kintsch's Discourse Processing, and Willy Lens, coauthor with J. Nuttin of several chapters in Nuttin's Motivation et Perspectives d'Avenir, are professors in the Department of Psychology at the University of Leuven (Belgium).

John F. Kihlstrom is associate professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. A recipient in 1979 of APA's Early Career Award in Personality, he is coeditor of Personality, Cognition, and Social Interaction with N. Cantor.

Previously published in Contemporary Psychology: A Journal of Reviews, July 1983, Vol. 28, No. 7, 508–510
© 1983, American Psychological Association