, Volume 38, Issue 1, pp 50-67

Two-factor theory, the actor-critic model, and conditioned avoidance


Two-factor theory (Mowrer, 1947, 1951, 1956) remains one of the most influential theories of avoidance, but it is at odds with empirical findings that demonstrate sustained avoidance responding in situations in which the theory predicts that the response should extinguish. This article shows that the well-known actor-critic model seamlessly addresses the problems with two-factor theory, while simultaneously being consistent with the core ideas that underlie that theory. More specifically, the article shows that (1) the actor-critic model bears striking similarities to two-factor theory and explains all of the empirical phenomena that two-factor theory explains, in much the same way, and (2) there are subtle but important differences between the actor-critic model and two-factor theory, which result in the actor-critic model predicting the persistence of avoidance responses that is found empirically.

The author is now at Columbia University and the New York State Psychiatric Institute. This article is based on the author’s doctoral dissertation in the Department of Psychology at Carnegie Mellon University. This work was supported in part by a Graduate Research Fellowship from the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation. The author thanks James McClelland, John Anderson, Marlene Behrmann, and Ahmad Hariri for useful discussions about this work.