John Pearce has transformed assumptions within psychology about the role of attention in learning. He has found that animals not only show interest in features of their environment that predict food, but also to stimuli with unknown or ambiguous predictive significance.
Presenting rats and pigeons with choices of carefully designed stimuli, he has been able to measure how far the predictive power of a stimulus captures the animal’s attention. He has also proposed that animals learn a mental ‘snapshot’ of all the information available before food is delivered, rather than generalising from individual features.
John has challenged the relevance of cognitive maps to animal learning, devising controlled and naturalistic experiments to show how animals respond to local cues rather than spatial locations. In each case, he has undertaken studies to clarify the neural basis of his observations. His textbook, Animal Learning and Cognition: An Introduction, is widely admired.