The Psychology Behind Association

The Psychology Behind Association


Let us do a brief activity. You will read a few stimulus words now, and all you need to do is write down the words that immediately pop up in your mind after reading each stimulus word. Here are the words – 

  1. Tom
  2. Black
  3. Notice 
  4. Merry

Now, if the words you wrote down are ‘Jerry’, ‘White’, ‘Board’, and ‘Christmas’, you have just witnessed examples of common associations. Associations are used in various aspects of everyday life. Some of them include cognition, therapy, philosophical thought, and even market research. 

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Association in Cognition

Associationism is a theory that attempts to explain how organisms acquire concepts, associative structures, response biases, and even propositional knowledge. Pavlov, Skinner and Thorndike’s experiments on classical and operant conditioning laid the groundwork for what we call associations. In classical conditioning studies, the dogs learned to associate conditioned stimulus (the ringing of the bell) with the unconditioned response (salivation), which later became the conditioned response. Similarly, in operant conditioning, the rats associate pushing the lever with receiving the reward. Such experiments suggest that associations are learned, consciously or otherwise. Thorndike’s puzzle box experiments resulted in the three laws. These laws explain the reasons behind associative learning. 

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  1. Law of effect: Those responses that elicit positive consequences are more likely to be repeated. On the contrary, those responses that elicit negative consequences are less likely to be repeated. This is because the former responses are associated with pleasure and reward, while the latter responses are associated with pain and punishment. 
  2. Law of readiness: The process of learning is most effective when the learner is ready and motivated to do so. Associative learning, if done consciously, is a powerful strategy wherein the learner oversees their learning process. They get to decide the cues and what they should associate them with.  
  3. Law of exercise: Learning occurs through repeatedly exercising and practising these associations. When they practice these associations regularly, they develop associative memory.

Associative memory denotes the ability to go beyond the memory of individual concepts and to remember relationships or associations between concepts. This is often a result of learning from past experiences. For example, one could remember the word “butter” after being given the stimulus word “peanut”, or maybe think of the name of an object almost immediately after seeing it. Developing associative memory bestows several benefits.

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For example, establishing associations helps remember information more easily. It also helps recall information beyond that related to the task at hand. This not only helps solve the problems or tasks at hand but also helps use other relevant information to come up with better solutions. There is an additional law that Thorndike stated the Law of Multiple Responses. This law explains that there are often multiple responses to a certain stimulus. This explains why you might have had multiple different response words while doing the activity at the beginning of the article. 

Association in Therapy 

Free association is a technique in psychoanalysis. In this technique, the therapist asks the client to freely share thoughts, words, or anything else that comes to their mind. They also inform the client that these thoughts need not be coherent or meaningful but have to be authentic. This practice facilitates emotional discovery by helping uncover repressed memories and emotions, thereby helping deal with defense mechanisms and healing the clients. The idea behind this practice is that it reveals unconscious or preconscious associations and connections that might be the underlying causes of various problems in the clients’ conscious experience. According to Sigmund Freud’s theory of psychic determinism, everything an individual says or does is significant as it is a result of their previous experiences and instinctual drives, which may or may not be conscious. 

Association in Market Research

Interestingly, the technique of association was not only used in psychological practice and research but also extended to business. A prominent technique called “motivation research” aims to understand why customers purchase certain products and how they respond to different advertisements. Ernest Dichter was influential in bringing psychoanalytic techniques to market research. Dichter observed that traditional approaches to understanding consumer behaviour did not provide valid insights. Therefore, he resorted to using free association and other novel techniques to interpret customers’ impressions of products and advertisements. 

Association in Philosophy 

Psychology is the discipline that studies the mind and behaviour, drawn not just from scientific research and investigation, but also from philosophical schools of thought. It is therefore important to also consider the philosophical underpinnings of association. Aristotle enlisted three types of association between a stimulus and response – similarity, opposition, and contiguity. Modern associationists now call these types the law of similarity, the law of contrast, and the law of contiguity or the law of habit. The law of similarity explains that the stimulus elicits similar responses. For example, if given a collection of objects, you might choose to categorize them in terms of shapes or colours. In the example of the stimulus word being “Black”, if you come up with the response word “White”, this shows the law of contrast.

An example of the law of temporal contiguity would be that you might think of China, lockdowns, and the COVID-19 pandemic if the stimulus was 2020. In addition to these David Hume added the law of causation. For the law of causation, you could remember the cause from the effect or vice versa. The triggers you experience might remind you of a negative experience in the past. In this example, the trigger could act as a cause as well as an effect. In such cases, you can choose to use free association and engage in therapy.  In conclusion, associations can help us know ourselves better and grow as individuals. It is in our power to use associations to the best of our ability. 

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References +
  • Associationist Theories of Thought (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy). (2020, June 24).
  • BetterHelp. (2023, October 6). Exploring free association. Better Help.
  • Cuncic, A., MA. (2022, August 3). What is associative memory? Verywell Mind.
  • David Hume (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy). (2023, November 1).
  • Joffe, H., & Elsey, J. W. B. (2014). Free Association in Psychology and the grid Elaboration Method. Review of General Psychology, 18(3), 173–185.
  • Main, P. (2023, June 8). Thorndikes Theory. Structural Learning.
  • Klemm, W. R. (2020, August 24). Learn by making associations. Psychology Today.
  • Free Association – therapy blog. (2019, July 2). Therapy Blog.
  • University of Alberta Dictionary of Cognitive Science: Laws of Association. (n.d.).

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