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Karen Hollis

Professor of Psychology and Education
Mount Holyoke College

Cognitive Ecology: An Evolutionary Approach to Associative Learning

Friday, September 25, 2009
Lecture Hall 2, 4:00 PM


Many animals, both human and non-human, possess the ability to identify reliable cues of ecologically relevant events, such as food, rivals, predators and mates. Often, animals respond to these cues with what learning psychologists call a conditional response. The conditional response is interesting, puzzling even, because it precedes the ecologically important event and, even more surprising, sometimes is directed toward the cue itself. Why should learning take this particular form? Does it occur in all animals, invertebrates included, or has it evolved only in some animals? What environmental pressures might necessitate learning to respond in this way? Research on the role of this form of learning, called Pavlovian conditioning, in naturally occurring behavior reveals that it confers both short-term and long-term fitness advantages on animals as diverse as mollusks and mammals. I will use examples from both the human and non-human animal literature, some from my own lab, to illustrate these important contributions to fitness – and, as much as possible, to address the questions I pose in this abstract.


Karen L. Hollis is Professor of Psychology and Education at Mount Holyoke College, where she also is a member of the Interdisciplinary Program in Neuroscience and Behavior. After receiving her Ph.D. in experimental psychology from the University of Minnesota in 1979, working with Bruce Overmier on the phenomenon of learned helplessness, she spent two years as a postdoctoral research fellow in the Animal Behaviour Research Group, Oxford University, and a year as a visiting assistant professor at the University of Toronto, where she taught introductory psychology to a class of 1200 students. She joined the faculty of Mount Holyoke College in 1982 and has remained there ever since, except for sabbatical leaves, one at the University of Cambridge in the Sub-Department of Animal Behaviour, and another at the National Institute of Biology in Ljubljana, Slovenia. Recently, she was awarded a visiting professorship (Professor invitée) at Université Paris 13. Hollis was elected president of Division 6 of the American Psychological Association (Behavioral Neuroscience and Comparative Psychology) and has served on the editorial boards of Animal Learning & Behavior, Journal of Comparative Psychology, and Psychonomic Bulletin & Review. Currently, she is Associate Editor of Learning and Behavior.


  1. Learning in a sedentary insect predator: Antlions (Neuroptera: Myrmeleontidae) anticipate a long wait
  2. Ants, Cataglyphis cursor, use precisely directed rescue behavior to free entrapped relatives
  3. Novel strategies of subordinate fish competing for food: Learning when to fold.
  4. Maintaining a competitive edge: Dominance hierarchies, food competition and strategies to secure food in green anoles (Anolis carolinensis) and firemouth cichlids (Thorichthys meeki).

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