Biographical Sketch

American Psychologist

Copyright 1999 by the American Psychological Association, Inc.

Volume 54(11) November 1999 p 887-890

Allan R. Wagner
[Award for Distinguished Scientific Contributions]


“For his outstanding contributions to the study of conditioning and behavior theory. He has been a major innovator of powerful concepts that have revolutionized theories of habituation, classical conditioning, and instrumental conditioning. His proposals in collaboration with Robert Rescorla of the fundamental laws of conditioning provided significant hypotheses that have dominated and reshaped our views of associative processes. He has built on those early achievements by introducing new ideas and experimental demonstrations regarding habituation, latent inhibition, blocking, rehearsal processes, and opponent processes in conditioning. Through his wise leadership, he has set a stellar example for behavior theorists.”


Allan Wagner was born in 1934 in Springfield, Illinois, to Raymond and Grace Johnson Wagner, both the children of German immigrants. The family moved between four different midwestern cities within Wagner’s first five years of life, which may explain why he chose to remain in one place for all of his undergraduate and graduate study and, again, to spend all of his subsequent career at Yale. The pursuit of learning and science was encouraged by the example of his mother, who was a nurse, and the yearning of his father, who had shortened his formal education to help his family through the depression.

Wagner enrolled at the University of Iowa to study chemistry, but was soon thrown into conflict by the range of academic subjects and undergraduate activities that were attractive. When his mother died of cancer in his sophomore year, finding his direction felt more imperative. He discovered psychology in his junior year and was allowed to enroll in Kenneth Spence’s graduate course in learning and Gustoff Bergman’s graduate course on the history of psychology during his senior year. This set his future course: Spence made being a learning theorist appear to be the most exciting of callings, Bergman provided the assurance that it fit well within the scheme of things larger, and both offered Wagner the seductive illusion that he might be good at it, or at least, good enough. Spence invited Wagner to stay on to do graduate work with him. The National Science Foundation was willing to award him a graduate fellowship. Wagner accepted.

Two aspects of Wagner’s research during graduate school foreshadowed his later work. He did his master’s thesis and his dissertation evaluating (and supporting) some predictions of the theory of frustrative nonreward put forward by another Spence student, Abram Amsel. Thus, he was as prepared as a mechanistic theorist might be to suppose (as he and Robert Rescorla later did) that reinforcement and nonreinforcement could have variable effects depending on the animals’ “expectations.” He also conducted studies of human eyeblink conditioning with two other graduate students, Kenneth Goodrich and Leonard Ross, that led the three of them to wish for a conditioning preparation that might be free of some of the complexities of human learning. A chance visit of Goodrich, Ross, and Wagner to Peter Arnott’s laboratory, where rabbits were being used in the study of electroretinograms, convinced them that this animal, with large eyes that rarely blinked unless stimulated and a calm tolerance for restraint, might be the ideal subject for eyeblink conditioning. They had only a little opportunity to do pilot work before Ross went to Wisconsin (where he set up the first rabbit eyeblink conditioning laboratory) and Wagner went to Yale (and soon followed suit), but it was enough for them to encourage others working with the human eyeblink to try this preparation. Isadore Gormezano and his students quickly did so, eventually making it one of the most carefully characterized examples of Pavlovian conditioning. After Richard Thompson and his colleagues decided to pursue its biological basis, it also became one of the most thoroughly understood at the neurophysiological level.

Wagner accepted an assistant professorship at Yale University in 1959, where he entered the company of one of the giants in experimental psychology, Neal Miller. Miller’s research group was working on a broad range of problems concerned with reinforcement and motivation. When Wagner secured his first research grant from the National Science Foundation, it was to investigate the similarity between conditioned frustration and conditioned fear. He was able to show that a number of phenomena previously found by Miller with conditioned fear could also be demonstrated with conditioned frustration, including the reinforcement of escape behavior and the susceptibility to anxiolytic drugs. It was the presumed importance of such conditioned emotional responses to instrumental behavior and the paucity of theoretically constraining data that initially motivated Wagner to study Pavlovian conditioning. With his first two graduate students, Shepard Siegel and Earl Thomas, he conducted a series of informative studies of reinforcement using eyeblink conditioning in rabbits, as well as a variety of other preparations, including salivary and limb-flexion conditioning in dogs and conditioned emotional response (CER) learning in rats. The use of multiple testing environments in addition to the rabbit eyeblink to evaluate the generality of observed phenomena has remained a notable characteristic of Wagner’s research.

Frank Logan, whom Spence had previously sent to Yale, provided another important influence on Wagner. They cotaught an undergraduate course on animal learning, which inspired them to develop their ideas in a book on learning theory, Reward and Punishment (Logan & Wagner, 1965). The results of a study on which they collaborated (Wagner, Logan, Haberlandt, & Price, 1968) intensified Wagner’s focus on Pavlovian conditioning. It showed that a conditioned stimulus (CS) that was reinforced in compound with other CSs was differentially responded to in isolation, depending on how correlated with reinforcement were the other CSs. Wagner subsequently demonstrated in a variety of contexts how the apparent associative learning to the several components of a compound depends on their relative validities in predicting the unconditioned stimulus (US). These data joined the results of Leo Kamin on blocking and Robert Rescorla on contingency in the late 1960s that forced major revision to existing associative theories.

When Rescorla joined the Yale faculty, he presented Wagner with an extraordinary collaboration that resulted in the learning rule that bears their names. The Rescorla-Wagner equation (Rescorla & Wagner, 1972; Wagner & Rescorla, 1972) stipulates that the associative learning to a CS is governed by the discrepancy between the maximum associative strength that can be supported by the US with which it is paired and the summed associative strength of all of the cues present on that occasion. The equation has proved to be one of the most influential treatments of Pavlovian conditioning to date, motivating a large corpus of studies and a wealth of theoretical extensions and alternatives. It has also been incorporated in numerous associative accounts of more complex learning.

The successes of the Rescorla-Wagner learning rule led Wagner and several of his students, Jerry Rudy, William Whitlow, and Scott Terry, to search for a mechanistic basis for the variable-reinforcement effects described. In an attempt to make contact with stimulus-processing accounts that dominated human learning theory, they presented evidence that the variation was due to the differential “rehearsal” of unexpected versus expected reinforcers. With Michael Davis, Wagner had begun to study the transient and long-term habituation effects of simple stimulus exposure. To integrate these phenomena with those of Pavlovian conditioning, they broadened the variable rehearsal notion in so-called priming theory by supposing that any stimulus is less vigorously processed if it is prerepresented (primed) in transient active memory, with the assumption that priming can be either the result of prior exposure to the target stimulus itself or a response to an associated retrieval cue.

Wagner, with the collaboration of another group of students, James Mazur, Nelson Donegan, and Penn Pfautz, subsequently incorporated the essence of these processing notions into a real-time quantitative model called a sometimes-opponent-processing theory (SOP). SOP is an ambitious model in that it deduces the essential conditioning regularities covered by the Rescorla-Wagner equation and the transient learning and performance phenomena suggested by priming theory, as well as addresses the differences in conditioning that occur with variation in the order and interval separating CS and US. Wagner and Donegan showed how the workings of the model, including a recurrent-inhibition process, can be mapped gracefully on the known neural circuit for eyeblink conditioning as it had been elucidated by Thompson. With Susan Brandon, Wagner extended this theory, in a model called AESOP, to address observed differences in the conditioning of and the interaction between such reflexive behaviors as the eyeblink and the more diffusely effective CER. (As it turns out, the conditioned eyeblink is not such a transparent preparation for forming generalizations about the learning of CERs, such as fear and anticipatory frustration, because the conditioned eyeblink is itself modulated by CERs.)

More recently, Wagner’s research and theorizing, much of it in continuation of the productive collaboration with Brandon, has centered on theoretical questions raised by recent Pavlovian data on discrimination learning and generalization, especially by occasion setting, that appear to violate expectations from the Rescorla-Wagner equation. The work has led to a general reappraisal of how compounds of stimuli might most usefully be represented in association theory. A componential account that Wagner and Brandon have proposed could be viewed as a computational rendering of Hull’s notion of afferent neural interaction.

At Yale, Wagner is currently the James Rowland Angell professor of psychology, after having served as chair of the Department of Psychology from 1983 to 1989, as chair of the Department of Philosophy from 1991 to 1993, and as director of the Division of the Social Sciences from 1992 to 1998. He was associate editor ofLearning and Motivation from 1969 to 1974 and of Animal Learning and Behavior from 1972 to 1974 before serving as the first editor of the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Animal Behavior Processes from 1974 to 1981. He was coeditor of several volumes of the series Quantitative Analysis of Behavior in addition to serving on the editorial boards of numerous other journals and collections. Among his advisory appointments have been those to the Experimental Psychology Research Review Committee of the National Institute of Mental Health, the Psychobiology Panel of the National Science Foundation, the Behavioral Science Cluster of the President’s Biomedical Research Panel, and the Commission on Basic Research in the Behavioral and Social Sciences of the National Research Council. He was awarded the Howard Crosby Warren Medal of the Society of Experimental Psychologists (with Robert Rescorla) in 1991 and was elected to membership in the National Academy of Sciences in 1992.

Wagner was married to Barbara Meland Wagner, who stole his heart in graduate school and saw him through most of this until her death in 1994. They had two daughters, Krystn R. Wagner and Kathryn R. Wagner, of whom he is very proud. Both are physicians pursuing their own scientific careers in biomedical research. He credits his companion, Lois Meredith, with his present happiness.

Selected Bibliography

Brandon, S. E., Betts, S. L., & Wagner, A. R. (1994). Discriminated, lateralized eyeblink conditioning in the rabbit: An experimental context for separating specific and general associative influences. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Animal Behavior Processes, 20, 292-307.

Brandon, S. E., & Wagner, A. R. (1991). Modulation of a Pavlovian conditioned reflex by a putative emotive conditioned stimulus. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Animal Behavior Processes, 17, 299-311.

Brandon, S. E., & Wagner, A. R. (1998). Occasion setting: Influences of conditioned emotional responses and configural cues. In N. Schmajuk & P. Holland (Eds.), Occasion setting: Associative learning and cognition in animals (pp. 343-382). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association

Logan, F. A., & Wagner, A. R. (1965). Reward and punishment. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

McNish, K., Betts, S. L., Brandon, S. E., & Wagner, A. R. (1997). Divergence of measures of conditioned eyeblink and conditioned fear in backward Pavlovian training. Animal & Behavior, 25, 43-52.

Paletta, M. S., & Wagner, A. R. (1986). Development of context-specific tolerance to morphine: Support for a dual-process interpretation. Behavioral Neuroscience, 100, 611-623.

Rescorla, R. A., & Wagner, A. R. (1972). A theory of Pavlovian conditioning: Variations in the effectiveness of reinforcement and nonreinforcement. In A. H. Black & W. F. Prokasy (Eds.), Classical conditioning: II. Current theory and research (pp. 64-99). New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts.

Thomas, E., & Wagner, A. R. (1964). Partial reinforcement of the classically conditioned eyelid response in the rabbit. Journal of Comparative and Psychological Psychology, 58, 157-158.

Wagner, A. R. (1959). The role of reinforcement and nonreinforcement in an “apparent frustration effect”.Journal of Experimental Psychology, 57, 130-136.

Wagner, A. R. (1963). Conditioned frustration as a learned drive. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 66, 142-148.

Wagner, A. R. (1969). Stimulus selection and a “modified continuity theory”. In G. H. Bower & J. T. Spence (Eds.), The psychology of learning and motivation (Vol. 3, pp. 1-41). New York: Academic Press

Wagner, A. R. (1976). Priming in STM: An information-processing mechanism for self-generated or retrieval-generated depression in performance. In T. J. Tighe & R. N. Leaton (Eds.), Habituation: Perspectives from child development, animal behavior and neurophysiology (pp. 95-128). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Wagner, A. R. (1978). Expectancies and the priming of STM. In S. H. Hulse, H. Fowler, & W. K. Honig (Eds.),Cognitive processes in animal behavior (pp. 177-209). Hillsdale, NJ:Erlbaum.

Wagner, A. R. (1981). SOP: A model of automatic memory processing in animal behavior. In N. E. Spear & R. R. Miller (Eds.), Information processing in animals: Memory mechanisms (pp. 5-47). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Wagner, A. R., & Brandon, S. E. (1989). Evolution of a structured connectionist model of Pavlovian conditioning (SOP). In S. B. Klein & R. R. Mowrer (Eds.), Contemporary learning theories: Pavlovian conditioning and the status of traditional learning theories (pp. 149-189). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Wagner, A. R., & Donegan, N. (1989). Some relationships between a computational model (SOP) and an essential neural circuit for Pavlovian (rabbit eyeblink) conditioning. In R. D. Hawkins & G. H. Bower (Eds.),Computational models of learning in simple neural systems: The psychology of learning and motivation (Vol. 23, pp. 157-203). New York: Academic Press.

Wagner, A. R., & Larew, M. B. (1985). Opponent processes and Pavlovian inhibition. In R. R. Miller & N. E. Spear (Eds.), Information processing in animals: Conditioned inhibition (pp. 233-265). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Wagner, A. R., Logan, F. A., Haberlandt, K., & Price, T. (1968). Stimulus selection in animal discrimination learning. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 76, 171-180.

Wagner, A. R., & Rescorla, R. A. (1972). Inhibition in Pavlovian conditioning: Application of a theory. In R. A. Boakes & M. S. Halliday (Eds.), Inhibition and learning (pp. 301-336). London: Academic Press.

Wagner, A. R., Rudy, J. W., & Whitlow, J. W. (1973). Rehearsal in animal conditioning [Monograph]. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 97, 407-426.

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