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The view that mental processes can be explained in terms of the association of ideas.

Advanced primarily by a succession of 18th- and 19th-century British philosophers, associationism anticipated developments in the modern field of psychology in a variety of ways. In its original empiricist context, it was a reaction against the Platonic philosophy of innate ideas that determined, rather than derived from, experience. Instead, the associationists proposed that ideas originated in experience, entering the mind through the senses and undergoing certain associative operations.

The philosopher John Locke (1632-1704) introduced the term "association of ideas" in the fourth edition of his Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1700), where he described it as detrimental to rational thought. George Berkeley (1685-1753), an Irish bishop, applied associationist principles to visual depth perception, arguing that the capacity to see things in three dimensions is the result of learning, not of innate ability. The British physician David Hartley (1705-1757) also dealt with the biological implications of associationism, formulating a neurophysiological theory about the transmission of ideas and also describing physical activity in terms of association (a concept that anticipated subsequent principles of conditioning). Hartley also developed a comprehensive theory of associationism that encompassed memory, imagination, dreams, and morality. The Scottish philosopher David Hume (1711-1776) proposed the principles of similarity and contiguity, asserting that ideas that are similar or experienced simultaneously (or in rapid succession) become associated with each other.

James and John Stuart Mill (father and son philosophers) continued to examine associationism into the 19th century. The elder Mill proposed a mechanistic theory that linked ideas together in "compounds," especially through the principle of contiguity. The younger Mill, whose defining metaphor for the association of ideas was "mental chemistry," differed from his father in claiming that the mind played an active rather than a passive role in forming associations. He also suggested that a whole idea may amount to more than the sum of its parts, a concept similar to that later advocated by psychologists of the Gestalt school. Other 19th-century figures known for associationist ideas were Thomas Browne, who proposed several secondary laws of association, and Alexander Bain (1818-1903), who formulated a comprehensive psychological system based on association.

Aside from similarity and contiguity, other governing principles have been proposed to explain how ideas become associated with each other. These include temporal contiguity (ideas or sensations formed close together in time), repetition (ideas that occur together repeatedly), recency (associations formed recently are the easiest to remember), and vividness (the most vivid experiences form the strongest associative bonds). In the 20th century, the clearest heir to associationism is behaviorism, whose principles of conditioning are based on the association of responses to stimuli (and on one's association of those stimuli with positive or negative reinforcement). Also, like associationism, behaviorism emphasizes the effects of environment (nurture) over innate characteristics (nature). Association appears in other modern contexts as well: the free association of ideas is a basic technique in the theory and practice of psychoanalysis, and association plays a prominent role in more recent cognitive theories of memory and learning.

Further Reading

Locke, John. An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. Buffalo: Prometheus Books, 1995.

Russell, Bertrand. A History of Western Philosophy. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1945.

Schultz, D. P. A History of Modern Psychology. 3rd ed. New York: Academic Press, 1981.

Additional topics

Psychology EncyclopediaPsychological Dictionary: Abacus to Courage