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Stanford Report, April 19, 2000

Memorial Resolution: Douglas H. Lawrence



Douglas H. Lawrence, Emeritus Professor of Psychology, died on April 20 in Medford, Oregon at the age of 81. He had been a member of the Stanford faculty of the Psychology Department from 1949 until his retirement in 1977.

He was born in 1918 in Saskatchewan, Canada. Early in his life his family moved to Everett, Washington where he spent his childhood. He attended the University of Washington in Seattle, receiving a B.S. degree in 1941 and an M.S. in 1942. During World War II he served as a commissioned officer in the Army Air Corps as both a clinical psychologist and as a statistician in the Aviation Psychology Program. This program was responsible for classifying and selecting air cadets to be trained as pilots, navigators or bombardiers. Following the war he studied as a Sterling fellow at Yale where he was awarded the Ph.D. degree in 1948. In the Fall of 1949 he joined the Stanford faculty and remained a member of this faculty until his retirement.

He was at the forefront of research on basic processes governing learning. His elegant experimentation in this field played a significant role in ushering in a cognitive approach to the understanding of adaptive functioning. Lawrence's early research was aimed at clarifying discrimination learning, whereby organisms learn to use informative cues to guide adaptive behavior. The ability to ferret out predictive cues from the profusion of environmental events plays a fundamental role in foresightful action. Most real-life situations involve a vast variety of cues only a few of which are informative. The theoretical issue of interest centered on how organisms learn to identify the most informative cues in complex environments and use that information to guide their choices.

Prior to Lawrence's work, the prevailing behavioristic theory maintained that with each experience performers learned a little about the value of every cue they experienced in the situation. They would continue to monitor the irrelevant cues to determine whether any of them might turn into predictive ones. Lawrence's early research exposed the flaws in this theory's assumption that every sensed cue enters into every learning experience. Rather, he hypothesized that organisms select and test only a few properties of a complex stimulus pattern, and that acquired attentional biases transfer to entirely different problems involving new variations of the predictive cues within the same dimension. He devised ingenious experiments that verified his selective attention theory, even in animals. This program of research specified the conditions under which the "learned distinctiveness" of cues facilitated or retarded predictive learning.

Another finding of this line of experimentation, that had important implications for facilitating complex learning, confirmed his hypothesis of learned distinctiveness of cues in the "easy-to-hard" transfer training. Traditional theory prescribed repeated practice on the complex problem. In contrast, Lawrence demonstrated rapid learning when animals were first trained on a very easy discrimination between predictive and irrelevant versions of cues within the same dimension (i.e., brightness) that differed widely, and then were led to detect progressively smaller differences between them. The animals learned to respond accurately even under barely-perceptible differences between predictive and irrelevant cues. This easy-to-hard transfer strategy is quite powerful and is now widely used to master difficult discriminations in different domains of learning. A recent application that was featured in the public press involved training native Japanese speakers, who do not notice the difference between R and L sounds, to hear and produce the slight difference in the English pronunciation. This was achieved by listening to slow, magnified speech sounds highlighting the critical difference, which was then faded into the harder discrimination.

Another of Lawrence's contributions was to resolve a theoretical debate about how cues are encoded in discrimination learning. When animals had to choose the lighter of two gray doors to secure rewards, for example, they used the relational property rather than absolute brightness to guide their choices. Moreover, they transposed the relational learning to new stimulus values. The findings of this series of experiments helped to resolve what had been an unenlightened controversy between behaviorist and Gestalt psychologists.

Lawrence's experimentation supplanted the behavioristic theory of discrimination learning with conceptions that gave prominence to selective attention and coding processes. The culmination of this research was an influential theoretical article Lawrence wrote in 1963 that shaped the subsequent theorizing and research in this area of study.

Although Lawrence extended his ideas on selective attention in several directions, including visual information processing, the next major problem he addressed was the extraordinary persistence of partially rewarded behavior long after the rewards have been discontinued. The persistent gambler who wins occasional payoffs while suffering mounting losses, typifies this "partial reinforcement" effect.

Lawrence entered this line of research in collaboration with Leon Festinger, a professor of social psychology and colleague in the Stanford Psychology Department at the time. Festinger had developed his novel theory of "cognitive dissonance" to explain attitude change. According to this theory, when belief is dissonant with behavior, the resulting psychological tension motivates efforts to reduce the dissonance by changing either the belief or the behavior. People are most likely to change their attitude when they are induced to engage in behavior counter to their attitude with insufficient justification.

Lawrence and Festinger combined their unique talents to explain the effect of partial reinforcement on resistance to extinction in terms of dissonance theory. They reasoned that minimally rewarded animals would continue responding even when extrinsic rewards cease because they come to value the activity itself or aspects of the goal situations. In an ingenious series of studies, Lawrence and Festinger showed that animals that had to work hard for meager extrinsic rewards behaved more persistently when the rewards were withdrawn than animals that had been more generously rewarded. The authors summarized their theory in the adage: "We come to love those things for which we have suffered." In their book, Deterrents and Reinforcement (1962), Lawrence and Festinger generalized this notion to all instances where individuals are induced to perform effortful behavior under insufficient rewards.

Although the cognitive dissonance theory of persistence was soon superseded, the authors' counterintuitive results were incorporated into the standard set of findings in this area, forcing a major change in the way subsequent theories of response persistence were formulated.

After publication of Deterrents and Reinforcement, Lawrence returned to his primary interest in fundamental problems in human perception and attention. His later experiments examined how people extract information from rapid visual displays depending upon what stimulus attributes they were pre-set to analyze. Lawrence's studies of rapid visual search presaged important trends in the information-processing approach that gained prominence in the cognitive psychology of the 1970's. It was Lawrence's brilliant research on selective attention, acquired distinctiveness of cues, easy-to-hard transfer, and response persistence after insufficient rewards that established and preserved his place among the leading learning theorists of his era.

Lawrence was deeply committed to the highest standard of scholarship and was an invaluable asset to the Department. He served for a number of years as Associate Chair of the Department of Psychology, which included assuming the major advisory role in the remodeling of Jordan Hall with the relocation of Psychology to the Quad in 1969. His foresightful flexible design of the facility has served the Department exceedingly well over these many years despite major changes in the nature of the research activities.

Wherever Lawrence's interests took him, he pursued them with a passion. When his interest turned to the intricate game of GO he journeyed to Japan to study under a GO master. He continued to hone his skills in the years to come by seeking challengers in visiting scholars, members in a Peninsula GO club, and pitting himself against computer simulations of the game. The back yard of his residence resembled an agricultural field station with summer and winter vegetable plants carefully nurtured under regulated light and temperature control. The Lawrences spent their summers on Prudence Island in Rhode Island. Summer renters of their campus home enjoyed the fruits of his gardening labors. One summer the Lawrences rented their home to a visiting Italian scholar, a fertile transplant in the Lawrence mode of intense engagement. The back yard on Pine Hill took on the appearance of Tuscany with Romano tomatoes ever rising above a verdant blanket of basil. Lawrence built all his own furniture with inlaid embellishments that would be the envy of meister artisans.

Doug was married to Mary Buxton Brown, who was a researcher in the Radiology Department of the Stanford Medical School. They both had a strong social commitment. Each year they hosted their elaborate Christmas Eve party with a diversity of attendees in the social likeness of the Stanford Academic Council along with others from varied walks of life whom the Lawrences had befriended on their numerous trips abroad. These lively gatherings cultivated networks of friendships that, over time, grew intergenerationally. This campus Yuletide tradition was to come to an end with the Lawrences' move to the Rogue Valley Retirement Center in Medford, Oregon. Speaking on behalf of the saddened gathering of devoted friends, Bandura conveyed their deep gratitude for bringing them together for well over thirty years. He expressed their sentiment in the eloquent words of the poet Yeats,

"Ask when my glory most begins and ends
And say my glory was I had such friends."

How lucky we were to have Doug Lawrence in our professional and social lives. We take heart from the legacy of admirable scholarship and the cherished memories he has given us.


Albert Bandura, Chair

Gordon Bower

Albert Hastorf