Robert A. Rescorla

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Robert A. Rescorla
Born May 9, 1940 (1940-05-09) (age 76)
Philadelphia, PA
Fields Psychology, Rescorla-Wagner Model, Animal Learning and Behavior, Behavioral Neuroscience, Memory and Learning
Institutions Yale, University of Pennsylvania
Alma mater

BA, Swarthmore College

PH.D., University of Pennsylvania
Academic advisors
Notable awards

Society 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 Universiteit Gent (2006)

American Academy of Arts and Sciences (2008)

Robert A. Rescorla (born May 9, 1940)[1] is an American psychologist that specialized in the involvement of cognitive processes in classical conditioning[2] focusing on animal learning and behavior.[3] Rescorla is 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.[3] Due to his achievements, Rescorla received the American Psychological Association Awards of the Distinguished Scientific Contributions in 1986.[1]

Background and education[edit]

Robert A. Rescorla was born in Philadelphia, PA on May 9, 1940. He attended high school in Westfield, NJ. 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 started teaching at Yale University but then in 1981 he returned to his alma mater and began teaching there.[4] In 1975, he was elected into the Society of Experimental Psychologists.[4] He has been the chair of psychology department at Penn,[4] as well as the Director of Undergraduate Studies and the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences.[4] In 1984, Rescorla was granted fellowship into the Guggenheim Fellowship for Social Sciences.[5] In 1985, Rescorla was elected into the National Academy of Sciences and was also awarded the Distinguished Scientific Contribution award of the American Psychological Association in 1986.[6] In 1989, he was named University of Pennsylvania's James M. Skinner Professor of Science.[4] In 1991, Rescorla was awarded the Howard Crosby Warren Medal of the Society of Experimental Psychologists.[7] He also received the Ira Abrams Distinguished Teaching Award of the School of Arts and Sciences at Penn in 1999,[7] following in 2000, he was also appointed the Christopher H. Browne Distinguished Professor of Psychology.[4] In 2005, Rescorla received the Horsley Grantt Award of the Pavlovian Society.[7] Following that, in 2006, he was granted an honorary doctoral degree by the Universiteit Gent, in Belgium.[7] He was elected into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2008.[7]

Research and contributions[edit]

At the University of Pennsylvania, Rescorla researches Pavlovian conditioning.[2] He studies animal learning, animal behavior, and focuses in associative learning processes. Rescorla’s overall purpose for his research was to increase knowledge about associative learning.[8]

The Rescorla-Wagner Theory[edit]

In 1972, Robert A. Rescorla and his colleague, Allan R. Wagner, created the Rescorla–Wagner model. This models classical conditioning. It is unique because it explains how the unexpected can influence learning. The model shows how the element of surprise can progress learning in an animal. Learning is subjective to how surprising the unconditioned stimulus (US) is. The surprise (US) that follows the conditioned stimulus (CS) in the initial trial was learned because it is unexpected, or very surprising. However, in the following trials, the subject learns less because the US is predictable - or less surprising[2]

The Rescorla-Wagner Model is said to be the most influential model of associative learning processes.[8]


Extinction is the loss of the conditioned response (CR) when there is no reinforcement. This means that there is no association between the CS and CR. Rescorla found when extinction occurs there is a loss in the predictive value.[8] This shows that when the CS is presented, the CR cannot be as accurately predicted. Based on the Rescorla-Wagner Model, during extinction the associative value changes which means the CS and CR are less related, therefore, not as predictable[9] Rescorla researched retraining and extinction. He found that if an animal experiences extinction, retraining can occur. This furthers the associative learning between the CS and CR after extinction[9]

Current Research[edit]

Rescorla is specifically interested in associative learning processes. The focus is on three questions. The first is under what situations does associative learning occur? The next question is when associative learning occurs, what are the elements involved? The last question is what are the principles that shape behavior? To research these questions, Rescorla and his team use an assortment of classical conditioning concepts. Some include fear conditioning, reward training and autoshaping[8]

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 "Awards for Distinguished Scientific Contributions 1986: Robert A. Rescorla". American Psychologist. 42 (4): 285–288. 1987. doi:10.1037/0003-066x.42.4.285. 
  2. ^ 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
  3. ^ a b "Robert Rescorla". Penn Arts & Sciences. Retrieved 3 November 2015. 
  4. ^ a b c d e f "Careers in Psychology". Retrieved 2015-11-09.  External link in |website= (help)
  5. ^ "John Simon Guggenheim Foundation | Robert A. Rescorla". Retrieved 2015-11-09. 
  6. ^ 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. 
  7. ^ a b c d e Biographical Sketch of Robert A. Rescorla, Retrieved November 11, 2016
  8. ^ a b c d 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.
  9. ^ a b Rescorla, Robert A. "Retraining of extinguished Pavlovian stimuli.". Journal of Experimental Psychology: Animal Behavior Processes 27 (2): 115–124. doi:10.1037//0097-7403.27.2.115.

External links[edit]