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Edward Thorndike

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Edward Lee Thorndike (August 31, 1874 - August 9, 1949) was an American psychologist who spent nearly his entire career at Teachers College, Columbia University. His work on animal behavior and the learning process led to the theory of connectionism and helped lay the scientific foundation for modern educational psychology.He also worked on solving industrial problems, such as employee exams and testing. He was a member of the board of the Psychological Corporation, and served as president of the American Psychological Association in 1912. [1][2]


Main article: Connectionism

Among Thorndike's most famous contributions were his research on how cats learned to escape from puzzle boxes and his related formulation of the law of effect.[2][3] The law of effect states that responses that are closely followed by satisfying consequences become associated with the situation, and are more likely to recur when the situation is subsequently encountered. If the responses are followed by aversive consequences, associations to the situation become weaker.[3] The puzzle box experiments were motivated in part by Thorndike's dislike for statements that animals made use of extraordinary faculties such as insight in their problem solving: "In the first place, most of the books do not give us a psychology, but rather a eulogy of animals. They have all been about animal intelligence, never about animal stupidity."[4]

Thorndike meant to distinguish clearly whether or not cats escaping from puzzle boxes were using insight. Thorndike's instruments in answering this question were 'learning curves' revealed by plotting the time it took for an animal to escape the box each time it was in the box. He reasoned that if the animals were showing 'insight,' then their time to escape would suddenly drop to a negligible period, which would also be shown in the learning curve as an abrupt drop; while animals using a more ordinary method of trial and error would show gradual curves. His finding was that cats consistently showed gradual learning.

Thorndike interpreted the findings in terms of associations. He asserted that the connection between the box and the motions the cat used to escape was 'strengthened' by each escape. A similar, though radically reworked idea was taken up by B. F. Skinner in his formulation of operant conditioning. The associative analysis went on to figure largely in behavioral work through mid-century, and is now evident in some modern work in behavior as well as modern. Thorndike supported Dewey's functionalism and added a stimulus-response component and renamed it connectionist. His theory became an educational requirement for the next fifty years.

Thorndike specified three conditions that maximizes learning:

  • The law of effect stated that the likely recurrence of a response is generally governed by its consequence or effect generally in the form of reward or punishment.
  • The law of recency stated that the most recent response is likely to govern the recurrence.
  • The law of exercise stated that stimulus-response associations are strengthened through repetition.
Further information: Principles of learning

Thorndike also studied auxiliary languages and influenced the work of the International Auxiliary Language Association, which developed Interlingua.[5]

Adult Learning

Thorndike put his testing expertise to work for the United States Army during WWI. He created both the Alpha and Beta tests, ancestors to today's ASVAB. For classification purposes, soldiers were administered Alpha tests. With the realization that some soldiers could not read well enough to complete the Alpha test, the Beta test (consisting of pictures and diagrams) was administered. Such contributions anchored the field of psychology and encouraged later development of educational psychology.

Edward Thorndike believed that “Instruction should pursue specified, socially useful goals.” Thorndike studied “Adult Learning”, and believed that the ability to learn did not decline until age 35, and only then at a rate of 1 percent per year, going against the thoughts of the time that "you can't teach old dogs new trick." It was later shown that the speed of learning, not the power of learning declined with age. Thorndike also stated the law of effect, which says behaviors that are followed by good consequences are likely to be repeated in the future.

Thorndike was one of the first pioneers of "active" learning, a theory that proposes letting children learn themselves, rather than receiving instruction from teachers: "The lecture and demonstration methods represent an approach to a limiting extreme in which the teacher lets the student find out nothing which he could possible be told or shown...They ask of him only that he attend to, and do his best to understand, questions which he did not himself frame and answers which he did not himself work out."

Thorndike’s Word Books

Thorndike composed three different word books to assist teachers with word and reading instruction. After publication of the first book in the series, The Teacher’s Word Book (1921), two other books were written and published, each approximately a decade apart from its predecessor. The second book in the series, its full title being A Teacher’s Word Book of the Twenty Thousand Words Found Most Frequently and Widely in General Reading for Children and Young People, was published in 1932, and the third and final book, The Teacher’s Word Book of 30,000 Words, was published in 1944.

Using Thorndike’s Word Books

In the preface to the third book, The Teacher’s Word Book of 30,000 Words (1944), Thorndike writes that the list contained therein “tells anyone who wishes to know whether to use a word in writing, speaking, or teaching how common the word is in standard English reading matter” (p. x), and he further advises that the list can best be employed by teachers if they allow it to guide the decisions they make when choosing which words to emphasize during reading instruction. Some words require more emphasis than others, and, according to Thorndike, his list informs teachers of the most frequently occurring words that should be reinforced by instruction and thus become “a permanent part of [students’] stock of word knowledge” (p. xi). If a word is not on the list but appears in an educational text, its meaning only needs to be understood temporarily in the context in which it was found, and then summarily discarded from memory.

Source of Words

In Appendix A to A Teacher’s Word Book of the Twenty Thousand Words Found Most Frequently and Widely in General Reading for Children and Young People, Thorndike gives credit to his word counts and how frequencies were assigned to particular words. Selected sources extrapolated from Appendix A are listed below

Children’s Reading: Black Beauty, Little Women, Treasure Island, A Christmas Carol, The Legend of Sleep Hollow, Youth’s Companion, school primers, first readers, second readers, and third readers

Standard Literature: The Bible, Shakespeare, Tennyson, Wordsworth, Cowper, Pope, and Milton

Common Facts and Trades: The United States Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, A New Book of Cookery, Practical Sewing and Dress Making, Garden and Farm Almanac, and mail-order catalogues

Thorndike also examined local newspapers and correspondences for common words to be included in the book.

See also



Book Chapters


Thorndike, Edward L. & Woodworth, Robert S. (1901a). The influence of improvement in one mental function upon the efficiency of other functions (I). Psychological Review, 8, 247-261 Full text]

Thorndike, Edward L. & Woodworth, Robert S. (1901b). The influence of improvement in one mental function upon the efficiency of other functions: II. The estimation of magnitudes. Psychological Review, 8, 384-395. Full text

Thorndike, Edward L. & Woodworth, Robert S. (1901c). The influence of improvement in one mental function upon the efficiency of other functions: III. Functions involving attention, observation, and discrimination. Psychological Review, 8, 553-564.Full text

Thorndike, Edward L. (1910). The contribution of psychology to education. Journal of Educational Psychology, 1, 5-12. Full text


  1. Saettler, 2004, pp.52-56
  2. 2.0 2.1 Zimmerman & Schunk, 2003
  3. 3.0 3.1 Curren, 2003, p.265
  4. Thorndike, 1911, p.22.
  5. Esterhill, 2000

Wozniak,R. H. (1911) Introduction to Thorndike Fulll text

External links

Preceded by:
Carl E. Seashore
APA President
Succeeded by:
Howard C. Warren
This page uses Creative Commons Licensed content from Wikipedia (view authors).

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