Edward Thorndike's Contribution to the Field of Psychology

Scientists Edward Thorndike and Karl T. Compton

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Edward Thorndike was an influential psychologist who is often referred to as the founder of modern educational psychology. He was perhaps best-known for his famous puzzle box experiments with cats which led to the development of his law of effect.

Thorndike's principle suggests that responses immediately followed by satisfaction will be more likely to recur. The law of effect also suggests that behaviors followed by dissatisfaction or discomfort will become less likely to occur.

Best Known For

Birth and Death

  • Edward Lee Thorndike was born on August 31, 1874 in Williamsburg, Massachusetts.
  • He died on August 9, 1949.

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. Like many other psychologists of his time, Thorndike's 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 soon decided to switch his study concentration to psychology. He later moved on to Columbia University where he studied under the guidance of psychologist James McKeen Cattell.

After earning his PhD 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.

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 Thorndike's 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.

As you might imagine, this principle had a strong influence on the development of the behavioral school of thought. B.F. Skinner's operant conditioning process relies on this principle, as behaviors followed by desirable outcomes are strengthened while those followed by undesirable outcomes are weakened.

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

  • Introduction to the Theory of Mental and Social Measurements (1904)
  • The Elements of Psychology (1905)
  • Animal Intelligence (1911)
  • Educational Psychology (1913)
  • The Measurement of Intelligence (1926)
  • The Fundamentals of Learning (1932)
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By Kendra Cherry, MSEd
Kendra Cherry, MS, is a psychosocial rehabilitation specialist, psychology educator, and author of the "Everything Psychology Book."