association, in psychology, a connection between different sensations, feelings, or ideas by virtue of their previous occurrence together in experience. The concept of association entered contemporary psychology through the empiricist philosophers John Locke, George Berkeley, David Hume, and David Hartley, and the British associationist school of James Mill, John Stuart Mill, and others (see associationism). Translated into the stimulus-response terms of behaviorism, association has been thought of as the basis of learning and conditioning. Paired experience and the principle of reinforcement are often invoked to explain associative learning. However, Gestalt psychologists, who believe that association between items is dependent on their relations to each other, interpret association as an aftereffect of perceptual organization. Psychoanalysis uses a technique known as free association, in which the client expresses thoughts exactly as they occur, even though they may seem irrelevant. This procedure is designed to reveal areas of conflict and to bring into consciousness traumatic events that have been repressed, the theory being that earlier thoughts and associations can be derived from current thoughts with similar patterns of association.
See N. J. Mackintosh, Conditioning and Associative Learning (1983).