Edward Thorndike (1879 – 1949)
Best Known For:
- The Law of Effect
- Often called the father of modern educational psychology
- Animal research
- Trial-and-error theory of learning
Birth and Death:
- Edward Lee Thorndike was born August 31, 1874 in Williamsburg, Massachusetts.
- He died on August 9, 1949.
Whereas classical conditioning depends on developing associations between events, operant conditioning involves learning from the consequences of our behavior. Skinner wasn’t the first psychologist to study learning by consequences. Indeed, Skinner’s theory of operant conditioning is built on the ideas of Edward Thorndike.
Thorndike (1898) studied learning in animals (usually cats). He devised a classic experiment in which he used a puzzle box (see fig. 1) to empirically test the laws of learning.
Fig 1: Simplified graph of the result of the puzzle box experiment.
He placed a cat in the puzzle box, which was encourage to escape to reach a scrap of fish placed outside. Thorndike would put a cat into the box and time how long it took to escape. The cats experimented with different ways to escape the puzzle box and reach the fish.
Eventually they would stumble upon the lever which opened the cage. When it had escaped it was put in again, and once more the time it took to escape was noted. In successive trials the cats would learn that pressing the lever would have favorable consequences and they would adopt this behavior, becoming increasingly quick at pressing the lever.
Edward Thorndike put forward a “Law of effect” which stated that any behavior that is followed by pleasant consequences is likely to be repeated, and any behavior followed by unpleasant consequences is likely to be stopped.
Thorndike’s Early Life:
Edward Thorndike was the son of a Methodist minister and grew up in Massachusetts. While he was a very successful student, he initially disliked his first psychology course. His interest in psychology grew after reading the classic book The Principles of Psychology by William James.
When he graduated from Wesleyan University in 1895 with a bachelor of science degree, Thorndike then enrolled at Harvard University to study English and French literature. During his first semester, however, he took a psychology course taught by William James and by his second trimester he had decided to switch his study concentration over to psychology. He later moved on to Columbia University where he studied under the guidance of psychologist James McKeen Cattell.
After earning his Ph.D. from Columbia in 1898, Thorndike briefly took a position as an Assistant Professor of Pedagogy at Case Western Reserve University. In the year 1900, Thorndike married Elizabeth Moulton. He then took a job as a psychology professor at the Teachers College at Columbia University, where he would continue to teach for the rest of his career.
Thorndike’s Work and Theories:
Thorndike is perhaps best-known for the theory he called the law of effect, which emerged from his research on how cats learn to escape from puzzle boxes. According to the law of effect, responses that are immediately followed by a satisfactory outcome become more strongly associated with the situation and are therefore more likely to occur again in the future. Conversely, responses followed by negative outcomes become more weakly associated and less likely to reoccur in the future.
Contributions to Psychology:
Through his work and theories, Thorndike became strongly associated with the American school of thought known as functionalism. Other prominent functionalist thinkers included Harvey Carr, James Rowland Angell and John Dewey. Thorndike is also often referred to as the father of modern day educational psychology, and published several books on the subject.
Thorndike was elected president of the American Psychological Association in 1912 and became one of the very first psychologists to be admitted to the National Academy of Sciences in 1917. Today, Thorndike is perhaps best remembered for his famous animal experiments and for the law of effect.
Selected Publications by Edward Thorndike:
- Educational Psychology, (1903)
- Introduction to the Theory of Mental and Social Measurements, (1904)
- The Elements of Psychology, (1905)
- Animal Intelligence, (1911)
- The Measurement of Intelligence, (1927)
- The Fundamentals of Learning, (1932)
Edward L. Thorndike. (2007). Human Intelligence. Indiana University. Found at http://www.indiana.edu/~intell/ethorndike.shtml
Fancher, R. E. (1996). Pioneers of Psychology. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.