Robert A. Rescorla

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Robert A. Rescorla
Born(1940-05-09)9 May 1940
Died24 March 2020(2020-03-24) (aged 79)
Alma materBA, Swarthmore College PH.D., University of Pennsylvania
Spouse(s)Marged Lindner (divorced); Leslie Rescorla (divorced); Shirley Steele
AwardsSociety of Experimental Psychologists (1975)

Guggenheim Fellowship for Social Sciences (1984)

National Academy of Sciences (1985)

Distinguished Scientific Contribution award of the American Psychological Association (1986)

Howard Crosby Warren Medal of the Society of Experimental Psychologists (1991)

Ira Abrams Distinguished Teaching Award of the School of Arts and Sciences (1999)

Horsley Grantt Award of the Pavlovian Society (2005)

Honorary Doctoral Degree Ghent University (2006)

American Academy of Arts and Sciences (2008)
Scientific career
FieldsPsychology, Rescorla-Wagner Model, Animal Learning and Behavior, Behavioral Neuroscience, Memory and Learning
InstitutionsYale, University of Pennsylvania
Academic advisors

Robert A. Rescorla (May 9, 1940 - March 24, 2020)[1][2] was an American psychologist who specialized in the involvement of cognitive processes in classical conditioning[3] focusing on animal learning and behavior.[4] Rescorla was a Professor Emeritus of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania (Penn). He received his B.A. in Psychology with minors in Philosophy and Math from Swarthmore College in 1962 and later received his Ph.D. under Richard Solomon from University of Pennsylvania in 1966. From there, he began his career at Yale.[1] Eventually, Rescorla returned to the University of Pennsylvania to continue his research.

One of Rescorla's significant contributions to psychology, with co-creator Allan Wagner, was the Rescorla-Wagner Model of conditioning. This model expanded knowledge on learning processes. Rescorla also continued to develop research on Pavlovian conditioning and instrumental training.[4] Due to his achievements, Rescorla received the American Psychological Association Awards of the Distinguished Scientific Contributions in 1986.[1]

Rescorla was first married to Marged Lindner. In the 1970s he married Leslie V. Altman but they later divorced. They had two sons together.[5] He remarried, to Shirley Steele.[6]

Rescorla died March 24, 2020, after complications from a fall.[6]

Background and education[edit]

Robert A. Rescorla was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on May 9, 1940. He attended high school in Westfield, New Jersey. In 1958, he decided to enter Swarthmore College where he got his first taste of research, conducting experiments on monkeys with Henry Gleitman and serving as Solomon Asch's research assistant doing human learning experiments. He graduated in 1962 with the highest honors.

In 1966, he received his Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania.


Rescorla taught at Yale University from 1966 to 1981.[7] While at Yale, Rescorla began a fruitful collaboration with colleague Allan Wagner, which led to the development of the Rescorla–Wagner model.[7] In 1975, he was elected into the Society of Experimental Psychologists.[7] Rescorla returned to his alma mater in 1981 and was a member of Faculty there until 2009. He served as the chair of the psychology department at Penn,[7] as well as the Director of Undergraduate Studies and the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences.[7]

In 1984, Rescorla was granted a Guggenheim Fellowship.[8] In 1985, he was elected to the National Academy of Sciences and in 1986 was awarded the Distinguished Scientific Contribution award of the American Psychological Association.[9] In 1989, he was named the University of Pennsylvania's James M. Skinner Professor of Science.[7] In 1991, Rescorla was awarded the Howard Crosby Warren Medal by the Society of Experimental Psychologists.[10] He also received the Ira Abrams Distinguished Teaching Award of the School of Arts and Sciences at Penn in 1999,[10] followed by appointment as the Christopher H. Browne Distinguished Professor of Psychology in 2000.[7] In 2005, Rescorla received the Horsley Grantt Award of the Pavlovian Society.[10] Following that, in 2006, he was granted an honorary doctoral degree by the Ghent University, in Belgium.[10] He was elected into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2008.[10]

Research and contributions[edit]

The Rescorla-Wagner Theory[edit]

In 1972, Robert A. Rescorla and his colleague Allan R. Wagner at Yale University, published the Rescorla–Wagner model of associative learning. This model conceptualizes learning as the development of associations between conditioned (CS) and unconditioned (US) stimuli, with learning occurring when these stimuli are paired on discrete trials. The change in the association between a CS and an US that occurs when the two are paired depends on how strongly the US is predicted on that trial – that is, informally, how "surprised" the subject is by the US. The amount of this "surprise" depends on the summed associative strength of all cues present during that trial. In contrast, previous models derived the change in associative strength from the current value of the CS alone.[3] The model has been extremely influential, leading to many new experimental findings and theoretical developments.[11]

Research program[edit]

Rescorla conducted research at the University of Pennsylvania on animal learning and behavior, focusing on associative learning and particularly Pavlovian conditioning.[3]

Rescorla's interest in associative learning processes focused on three questions. First, in what situations did associative learning occur? Second, when associative learning occurred, what elements were involved? Third, what principles accounted for the experimental findings? To research these questions, Rescorla and his team used an assortment of methods, including for example fear conditioning, reward training and autoshaping.[11]

Representative publications[edit]

  • Rescorla, R. A. (2006) Deepened Extinction from Compound Stimulus Presentation. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Animal Behavior Processes, 32, 135-144.
  • Rescorla, R. A. (2008). Evaluating conditioning of related and unrelated stimuli using a compound test. Learning and Behavior, 36, 67-74.
  • Rescorla, R. A. (2008). Conditioning of stimuli with nonzero initial value. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Animal Behavior Processes, 34, 315-323.


  1. ^ a b c No Authorship Indicated (1987). "Awards for Distinguished Scientific Contributions 1986: Robert A. Rescorla". American Psychologist. 42 (4): 285–288. doi:10.1037/0003-066x.42.4.285.
  2. ^ Psychology, uPenn (2020). "Robert A. Rescorla, 1940-2020". Dept of Psychology at UPenn.
  3. ^ a b c Miller, Ralph R.; Barnet, Robert C.; Grahame, Nicholas J. (1995). "Assessment of the Rescorla-Wagner model.". Psychological Bulletin 117 (3): 363–386. doi:10.1037/0033-2909.117.3.363
  4. ^ a b "Robert Rescorla". Penn Arts & Sciences. Retrieved 3 November 2015.
  5. ^ Cook, Bonnie L. (15 October 2020). "Leslie A. Rescorla, psychologist and expert on delayed speech in toddlers, dies at 75". The Philadelphia Inquirer.
  6. ^ a b Almanac, uPenn (2020). "Robert A. Rescorla, 1940-2020". University of Pennsylvania Almanac. 66 (30): 2.
  7. ^ a b c d e f g No Authorship Indicated (1987). "Awards for Distinguished Scientific Contributions 1986: Robert A. Rescorla". American Psychologist. 42 (4): 285–288. doi:10.1037/0003-066X.42.4.285.
  8. ^ "John Simon Guggenheim Foundation | Robert A. Rescorla". Retrieved 2015-11-09.
  9. ^ Freeman, James E. (December 1997). "Pavlov in the classroom: An interview with Robert A. Rescorla". Teaching of Psychology. 24 (4): 283–286. doi:10.1207/s15328023top2404_16. S2CID 143718416.
  10. ^ a b c d e Biographical Sketch of Robert A. Rescorla, Retrieved November 11, 2016
  11. ^ a b 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, pp. 64–99. Appleton-CenturyCrofts.

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