Edward Thorndike Biography: Founder of Modern Educational Psychology

Psychology as a subject was in its initial phase at the end of the 19th century. It was then that the field of Psychology fascinated a host of enthusiastic young investigators. Accordingly, one of those pioneers was Edward Lee Thorndike.
Advanced Psychology

Who Was Edward Lee Thorndike?

Edward Thorndike was an American Psychologist. He contributed towards Reinforcement Theory and Behavior Analysis in a great way.

Further, his contribution towards the Reinforcement Theory led to the formulation of the basic framework for “The Law of Effect”. Thus, the Law of Effect is one of the factual laws in Behavior Psychology.

Besides the Reinforcement Theory, some of the other works that Edward Lee Thorndike generated include:

  • Thorndike’s Theory of Learning
  • Edward Thorndike’s Theory of Intelligence and
  • Thorndike’s Theory of Connectionism

In addition to this, he had an active career of almost 50 years with more than 500 titles to his name. As per American Psychological Association’s (APA) survey, Edward Thorndike ranked ninth among the list of eminent psychologists of the 20th century.

Now, this article pertains to Edward Thorndike Biography. Here, we will talk about Edward Thorndike’s contribution to psychology with regards to learning, education, connectionism, behaviorism, and intelligence.

Edward Thorndike Interesting Facts

Edward Thorndike Life

Full Name Edward Lee Thorndike
Place and Date of Birth August 31, 1874, in Williamsburg, Massachusetts, USA
Place and Date of Death August 9, 1949 (aged 74) Montrose, New York, United States
Married Elizabeth Moulton 1900
Children Elizabeth Frances, a mathematician; Edward Moulton, a physicist; Robert Ladd, a psychologist; Alan, a physicist.

Edward Thorndike Education

Wesleyan University Conn.: A.B., 1895; Sc.D., 1919; Trustee, 1934
Harvard University A.B., 1896; A.M., 1897; LL.D., 1934
Columbia University Ph.D., 1898; Sc.D., 1929; Butler Medal, 1925
Other honorary degrees Sc.D., University of Chicago, 1932, and University of Athens, Greece, 1937; LL.D., University of Iowa, 1923, and University of Edinburgh, 1936

Edward Thorndike Contribution

Western Reserve University Instructor in Education, 1898-99
Teachers College, Columbia University Instructor in Genetic Psychology, 1899-1901; Adjunct Professor of Educational Psychology, 1901-04: Professor, 1904-40; Emeritus Professor, 1940-49; Director, Division of Psychology, Institute of Educational Research, 1922-40
Marine Biological Laboratory of Woods Hole Head, Department of Comparative Psychology, 1900 – 02
Cornell University Messenger Lecturer, 1928-29
Yale University Lecturer, Summer 1931
Johns Hopkins University Visiting Professor, 1931-32
Teachers College, Columbia University Kappa Delta Pi Lecturer, 1939. Harvard University: William James Lecturer, 1942-43. New York State Commission on Ventilation, 1913-22.
United States Army Chairman, Committee on Classification of Personnel, 1917-18, and Member of Advisory Board, Division of Psychology, Office of the Surgeon General, 1917-18.
American Council on Education Committee on Problems and Plans.
Motion Picture Research Council Member of National Committee. Carnegie International Examination Enquiry, 1938. Lexicographic Advisory Committee, 1936-1941
National Academy of Sciences Member, 1917
American Philosophical Society Member, 1932
American Academy of Arts and Sciences Fellow, 1934.
New York Academy of Sciences Fellow, 1901; Vice President, 1902; President, 1919-20.
American Association for the Advancement of Science Fellow, 1901; Vice President, 1911, 1917; President, 1934.
American Psychological Association President, 1912
Psychometric Society President, 1936-37
American Association for Adult Education President, 1934-35.Society for the Advancement of Education, Society of Naturalists, Galton Society, American Economics Association, American Sociological Society.
British Psychological Society Honorary Member, 1926.
Leningrad Scientific-Medical Pedological Society Honorary Member, 1928.
Comenius Educational Association of Czechoslovakia Honorary Member, 1929. Phi Beta Kappa, Sigma Xi, Kappa Delta Pi, Cosmos Club, Washington, Century Association, New York.

The Edward Thorndike Biography

Edward Thorndike’s Early Life

As per Edward Thorndike Biography, Thorndike was born on August 31, 1874, in Williamsburg, Massachusetts, USA.

His father, Edward Roberts Thorndike, was quite vigorous, generous, and a fine-looking man. And he first practiced law in Maine. Eventually, Thorndike’s father became a renowned preacher in Massachusetts.

On the other hand, Edward Thorndike’s mother, Abigail Brewster Ladd, was extraordinarily intelligent and a capable person. She was immensely religious, shy, had great artistic ability, and had very strong willpower.

Besides his parents, Edward Thorndike had three other siblings. Like Edward, all of them made their mark in the scholarly world.

Now, the eldest among the four highly gifted children was his brother Ashley. He graduated in English Literature. Later on, he became a fellow faculty member at Columbia University.

Furthermore, Thorndike’s younger sister Mildred also graduated in English Literature. However, she became a school teacher.

In addition to this, Edward Thorndike had a fourth sibling, a brother named Lynn who was a pro in medieval history.

Edward Thorndike Education

Edward Lee Thorndike started going to school when he was 5 years old.

However, he learned to read at home only. Furthermore, Thorndike attended the high schools of Lowell, Boston, and Providence when he turned 12.

Thus, Edward LeeThorndike stood out from the crowd throughout his school life. Additionally, he won prizes and scholarships just like his elder brother Ashley.

Thus, Edward carried forward the capability to perform extraordinarily to his secondary education as well.

Note, that most people completed common schooling only during the late 19th century. Accordingly, very few individuals went to Secondary School.

But unlike most people, Thorndike wanted to pursue higher education. Not only this, he wanted to become a highly educated person just like his parents.

Therefore, Edward Thorndike went to Wesleyan University in Connecticut to pursue higher education. And the choice of Wesleyan University was quite obvious for Thorndike. This was because his elder brother Ashley had already set an example.


Edward Thorndike won prizes in varied fields when he was at University during 1891-1895.

Thus, the following are the areas in which Thorndike won prizes.

  • English Literature
  • Latin
  • Greek
  • Psychology
  • Moral Philosophy
  • English Composition
  • Junior Exhibition, and
  • Junior Debate

Thorndike At Harvard University

In the year 1895, Edward Lee Thorndike was transferred to Harvard University after graduating from Wesleyan University, .

Initially, at Harvard, Thorndike took Literature as his major subject. Now, he opted for Literature as he thought that his interest lies in Literature and General Erudition. Thus, Thorndike thought that his interest does not lie in Science just like his family.

However, he got the opportunity to read a few chapters of William James’ ‘Principles of Psychology as a college junior at Harvard. After that, he found the book so fascinating that he attended William James’ lecture course.

As a result, Thorndike shifted from Literature to Psychology during the first year at Harvard. In addition to this, he undertook a research project during the second year at Harvard. And the project was an experimental study of the instinctive and intelligent behavior of young chicks.

Initially, Thorndike conducted the research in his own room. However, later on, he carried out the research work in Professor William James cellar. This was because, at that time, animals were not allowed in the laboratory.

Finally, the experimental study turned out to be effective. Thus, Edward Lee Thorndike obtained an AB Degree in 1896 and an AM Degree in 1897 at Harvard.

Thorndike At Columbia University

In 1897, Thorndike received a fellowship from Columbia University. As a result, he could spend more time on research.

Eventually, Edward Thorndike settled at Columbia University and met James McKeen Cattell. Just like William James at Harvard, Professor Cattell became Thorndike’s second mentor at Columbia University.

Thus, Professor Cattell encouraged Thorndike to continue his work on Animal Intelligence.

In fact, he offered Thorndike to use the attic in one of the University Halls for carrying out experiments on animals.

Thorndike Animal Intelligence

As a result of such experimentation, Thorndike produced a thesis titled ‘Animal Intelligence: An Experimental Study of the Associative Processes in Animals’ in 1898.

Eventually, the resulting dissertation became a landmark in the history of Psychology.

In this thesis, Thorndike demonstrated that observers and analysts explain the mental life of animals based on conventional concepts. And these include sense powers, instincts, reactions performed without experience, or reactions built up by experience.

Furthermore, such observers restrict their opinion to the fact that the mental content of animals can be explained via ordinary associative processes.

Thus, they believe that there is no need for abstract, conceptual, or inferential thinking to explain the behavior in animals.

In fact, these analysts eliminate reasoning and instinct completely while demonstrating the associative process animals use to react or behave in different situations.

Thus, this study laid the foundation for the laboratory study of animal learning.

Besides this, the study also demonstrated that the animal behavior observed under experimental conditions could help in solving generic-level psychological challenges.

Thorndike Receiving Ph.D. Degree

In 1898, Thorndike received his Ph.D. Besides this, Clark University soon adopted the animal laboratory model after the success of Thorndike’s Animal Intelligence thesis.

Subsequently, many other universities followed suit. Thus, the animal laboratory played an extremely important role in the development of scientific psychology.

Edward Thorndike As An Instructor

As per Edward Thorndike Biography, Thorndike worked as Special Lecturer in Education at Western Reserve’s College for Women Cleveland, Ohio, USA. There, he worked at extremely low pay.

However, Thorndike considered this low-paying job more attractive relative to teaching in a normal school. Accordingly, there are two reasons behind this.

Firstly, Thorndike’s brother Ashley was studying in college at that time. And that teaching in a college was more impressive in terms of reputation than teaching in a normal school.

Secondly, Thorndike taught courses at Western Reserve’s College. As per Arthur Irving Gates, these courses came to be known as ‘the new world of Pedagogy’.

Thus, Edward Thorndike completed one year at the University. Next, he started a 43-year long career as an Instructor at Teachers College, Columbia University. Therefore, this was the last as well as the longest part of his career.

So, Edward Thorndike taught the following subjects as an Instructor at the University, :

  • Elements of Psychology
  • School Hygiene
  • Child Study
  • Genetic Psychology
  • Educational Psychology and
  • Psychology of School Subjects

Finally, Columbia University established a separate division for Educational Psychology. Here, Thorndike taught only at the graduate level.

Now, let’s switch to the next section of Edward Thorndike Biography, the Thorndike Theory of Learning.

Edward Thorndike Theory of Learning

  1. Thorndike’s Law of Effect

    Thorndike’s Theory of Learning includes one of the significant laws of learning. This law is the Law Of Effect.

    Accordingly, the law states that the connection between a stimulus and response strengthens when a particular stimulus leads to a response. And such a response results in a satisfying state of affairs.

    Likewise, the connection between a stimulus and response weakens when a particular stimulus leads to a response. And such a response results in an annoying state of affairs.

    Thus, Behaviorism is based on the interplay of stimulus and response. In other words, human actions or responses develop as a result of their exposure to complex webs of stimuli.

    Furthermore, these actions or responses are developed over the course of a human being’s life.

    Additionally, such a response begins with innate reactions like fear and builds as a person reacts more.

    Also, some reactions lead to undesirable outcomes and are not likely to be repeated. For instance, looking for food in a wardrobe does not relieve hunger stimulus.

    Whereas, some other reactions generate desirable outcomes. In other words, they are likely to be repeated more in the near future. For instance, opening a refrigerator would relieve the hunger stimulus.

    In addition to this, Edward Thorndike developed his ideas of motivation and learning based on his research using a Puzzle Box. Accordingly, he used 15 different Puzzle Boxes and tested 13 kittens as well as young cats.

    Edward Thorndike Experiment

    In his study, Thorndike locked a hungry cat inside a box and placed the food outside the box. In other words, the food was beyond the cat’s reach. Though, it was possible for the cat to escape the box and grab the food.

    However, the cat was required to exhibit different responses or a sequence of responses in order to trigger a release mechanism. That is to escape from the box.

    For instance, two of the effective behaviors that the cat was required to showcase were pulling the string and pressing a pedal.

    Thus, while conducting this experiment, Thorndike observed that the cat would showcase a number of behaviors like clawing, rubbing, meowing, and biting.

    However, over a period of time, the cat would respond in a way that triggered the release mechanism. This means that she could open the door to the Thorndike puzzle box.

    Finally, the cat would escape and hence grab the food placed outside the puzzle box.

    • Time of Escape Reduced Over Each Trial

      Thorndike concluded that not only did the cats were successful in escaping the puzzle box. But the time required to trigger the release mechanism also decreased with each successive trial.

    • Release Mechanism Triggering Decline In Other Behaviors

      Thorndike also observed that the time spent by the cats in getting engaged in other behaviors declined. But this happened only when the cats showcased a behavior as a result of the release mechanism getting triggered.

    • Formation of Association Between Stimulus and Response

      As a result of performing this experiment, Thorndike concluded that the cats formed an association between a stimulus (the box) and an effective response.

      He proposed that learning happened when the cats formed an association between a stimulus and a response.

      Thus as a result of learning, the specific stimulus evoked the appropriate response in the cat.

      Thorndike also asserted that the cat was not conscious of such an association. Thus, such behavior in cats showcases a mechanistic habit in response to a particular stimulus.

    • Presence of Reward Lead To An Appropriate Behavior

      The association between stimulus and response developed when the cat received the reward. That is, an appropriate response would help the cat in escaping the puzzle box and obtaining the food placed outside the box.

      Therefore, such a reward generated a feeling of satisfaction in the cat. Such satisfaction further enhanced the association between the Stimulus and the Response.

      And Thorndike called this strengthening of association between the Stimulus and Response by a satisfying event or reward as the Law of Effect.

      This means that the Law of Effect chooses an appropriate response and associates it with the environment, thus replacing a ‘chance act’ with learned behavior.

      Now, Edward Thorndike did not believe that the Law of Effect applied to animals only. He believed that such a law also governs the learning process in humans.

      Therefore, in the year 1932, Thorndike presented his human subjects with a concept to learn. Following this, he told them that they had responded correctly. This enabled the subjects to learn the appropriate response.

  2. Law Of Readiness

    Thorndike’s views on the nature of the learning process were quite specific. However, his ideas pertaining to motivational processes that determine human behavior were quite vague.

    As per Thorndike, an animal or a human being learns or exhibits previously learned behaviors only if such an animal or human is ready.

    This is termed Thorndike’s Law of Readiness. As per this law, an animal or human must be motivated to develop an association between two ideas or to exhibit a previously learned habit.

    Thus, Thorndike stated that satisfaction is achieved in an action that the individual was ready to undertake. Whereas, annoyance is achieved in an action that the individual was not ready to undertake.

    Furthermore, he proposed that annoyance results from inaction when the individual is ready to act. While satisfaction results from inaction when the individual is not ready to act.

    It is important to note that readiness for Thorndike referred to the degree of urge for a particular activity.

    Also, while proposing the Law of Readiness, Thorndike did not take into consideration the nature of the “motivation mechanism”.

    Many psychologists challenged the views of Thorndike pertaining to the Law of Effect or Law of Readiness. The views were challenged on the basis of the following observations.

  3. Law of Exercise

    Law of Exercise demonstrates the importance of practice in learning. ‘Practice’ is nothing but an act of rehearsing a behavior or engaging in an activity again and again.

    Such an act of rehearsing is undertaken in order to improve or master an action. Thus, the Law of Exercise involves the Law of Use and Law of Disuse.

    The Law of Use states that the likelihood of a response following a stimulus increases when a stimulus and a response are associated with each other repeatedly or more frequently.

    Likewise, the Law of Disuse states that the likelihood of a response to follow a stimulus reduces when no association is made between a stimulus and a response over a length of time.

    Accordingly, an individual would have to practice a skill in case he or she wants to learn that skill. This is because a skill that is not practiced over a period of time weakens gradually.

    Furthermore, the skill is forgotten and becomes weak in strength, efficiency, and promptness over a period of time.

  4. Law of Multiple Response

    To understand Thorndike’s Law of Multiple Response, let’s refer to Thorndike’s Cat Experiment as mentioned in the above section.

    The Cat continued to generate responses until it hit upon a specific response that helped her pull the string or press the pedal in order to open the door and grab the food.

    Thus, the cat in Thorndike’s Puzzle Box continued to produce responses and got satisfaction until she hit upon a response that helped in triggering the release or escape mechanism.

    However, the cat would die out of starvation if it did not try new responses like clawing, rubbing, meowing, and biting in case one response fails.

    This means that the release of multiple responses has adaptive importance. This is because it ensures an organism’s survival.

  5. Law of Attitude

    As per Thorndike’s Law of Attitude, the attitude of an individual guide the learning in us humans.

    Thus, this attitude of an individual determines what actions the person takes. Not only this, but it will also determine the things, events, situations, people who satisfy or annoy the person.

    This means that as per the Law of Attitude, the response of an individual to a specific situation depends upon the attitude of such an individual towards the situation.

    In other words, learning happens more effectively in individuals if they are determined to learn more.

  6. Law of Response By Analogy

    Thorndike’s Law of Response By Analogy is based on the Principle of Transfer. This law explains the manner in which learning is transferred from one situation to the other.

    Thus, Thorndike states that the ‘transfer’ of learning from one situation to the other happens via the ‘Theory of Identical Elements’.

    The ‘Theory of Identical Elements’ states that transfer of learning will happen only if the two learning situations have common elements.

    This means that an individual makes use of his past experiences to respond to a specific situation.

    That is, an individual will respond in a manner similar to the one in which he or she behaved in the past. Provided the current situation seems similar to the one that occurred in the past to such an individual.

    For instance, in Thorndike’s cat experiment, the cat learned to pull the string in one Puzzle Box.

    Thus, the cat can showcase a similar response in another Puzzle Box. Provided, both the puzzle boxes have common identical elements.

    However, such a transfer of learning will not take place if the cat is placed in an entirely different box.

  7. Law of Prepotency of Elements

    The Law of Prepotency of Elements states that an individual responds selectively in a given situation depending upon the significance of elements in a given problem.

    Each problem consists of both significant and non-significant elements. However, it is possible that an individual tends to respond more to the significant aspects of a given problem and respond less to its irrelevant aspects.

    Thus, Thorndike’s Prepotency of Elements implies that individuals can sieve through innumerable stimuli and focus on only the important elements of a given situation.

  8. Law of Associative Shifting

    Thorndike’s Law of Associative Shifting is similar to the concept of classical conditioning. Accordingly, a response learned to one stimulus condition can be learned to another stimulus condition. Provided the overall situation is not altered.

    Pavlov’s Classical conditioning principle is similar to Thorndike’s Law of Associative Learning.

    In Pavlov’s dog experiment, the dog salivating in the presence of food gradually learns to salivate in the presence of a bell. This process is termed Associative Shifting.

Criticisms For Thorndike’s Theory of Learning

  • Use of Trial and Error

    The Trial and Error was ideal for a very restricted form of problem-solving. The Problem-Solving approach was such that the insights pertaining to a given situation was restricted by the very conditions of the experiment.

  • Failure of Trial and Error In Certain Situations

    The cats in Thorndike’s experiment did not always achieve the solution of the problem gradually by hit and trial. That is, in some cases, the cats reached the solution practically on the very first trial itself.

  • Possibility of Learning Without Reward

    Learning was possible without any effect. To support this view, the psychologist conducted an experiment. As per this experiment, the rats were given a chance to run the maze without introducing any food reward.

    Later, it turned out that the rats were rewarded with food for their runs as they had learned the correct way of running through the maze during their unrewarded explorations.

Thorndike Educational Theory

Educational Psychology is a field in Psychology that relates to studying the process of human learning scientifically. Such a study is undertaken both from cognitive as well as behavioral perspectives.

This authorizes the researchers to understand differences in intelligence, cognitive development, motivation, self-regulation, and self-concept as well as their role in learning in different individuals.

Edward Lee Thorndike’s Educational Theory is based on the laws under Thorndike’s Theory of Learning as stated in the above section.

  • Law Of Effect

    As per the Law of Effect, the connection between a stimulus and response strengthens when a particular stimulus leads to a response resulting in a satisfying state of affairs.

    Likewise, the connection between a stimulus and response weakens when a particular stimulus leads to a response resulting in an annoying state of affairs.

    Thus, Thorndike asserted through the cat experiment that cats select reactions naturally under different circumstances. Such natural selection of reactions is an important aspect of learning that needs to be implemented in the education sector.

    Mentors, professors, coaches, or lecturers should associate the desired reactions of students with satisfying outcomes. Conversely, they should associate the undesired reactions of students with unpleasant outcomes.

    Thus, the Law of Effect is quite fundamental in the area of learning.

  • Law of Readiness

    As mentioned above, an individual’s wants at a specific point in time would determine the degree of satisfaction or annoyance that the individual undergoes. And the human needs keep on changing at all times.

    Thus, Thorndike stated that satisfaction is achieved in an action that the individual was ready to undertake. Whereas, annoyance is achieved in an action that the individual was not ready to undertake.

    Furthermore, he proposed that annoyance results from inaction when the individual is ready to act. While satisfaction from inaction when the individual is not ready to act.

    So, it is important for educators to keep in mind the Law of Readiness. That is, individuals would not show interest in an activity for a long period of time if it brings only difficulties or challenges.

    Further, the educators also need to understand that readiness refers to the degree of urge an individual has for a particular activity. Accordingly, some urges remain for a temporary period of time.

    Therefore, it is the duty of educators to depend on the urges of the pupil that are nearly always present. For instance, the desire to succeed, or to be socially accepted.

  • Law of Exercise

    As mentioned above, Thorndike’s Theory of Learning also comprises the Law of Exercise. The Law of Exercise explains the importance of Practice in learning.

    Now, how the law of exercise can help in learning can be understood from the perspective of two other factors: Practice and Transfer.

    1. Practice

      As per Thorndike, Practice is a necessary condition for learning. This is because it helps individuals to make desired reactions a permanent feature.

      However, Thorndike emphasized that it is important for satisfaction to accompany the practice. Otherwise, the experience of practicing “may kill off a response”.

      Furthermore, practice along with satisfaction can lead to perfection. This means that simple reactions can turn into complex skills if an individual undertakes practice for long periods of time.

    2. Transfer

      Besides practicing desired reactions, it is also important to observe the extent to which a reaction made in one situation transfers to the other. Provided if we consider that learning primarily deals in reactions.

      As per Thorndike, transfer depends upon a number of factors including the traits of the individual learner and characteristics of training.

      Thus, he observed that reactions may transfer to other situations that are in various ways similar to the situation in which the reaction developed.

      However, Thorndike also stated that at times, the transfer can be negative or damaging.

      Now, as per this assertion, Thorndike assumes that intelligent individuals or students are less likely to make transfer errors.

      Furthermore, they are able to recognize the differences in situations to which they are reacting.

      In addition to this, intelligent students or individuals are able to recognize and carry out appropriate transfers.

      While the dull students or individuals would transfer skills unconsciously. Furthermore, they would draw a narrow conclusion regarding the applicability of their reactions.

    3. Learning and Thinking

      Thorndike stated in one of his papers that “Learning goes on during a process of reacting and what a person learns is a reaction.”

      This statement makes two important claims: How we learn and what we learn? And the answer to both the questions is “Reactions”.

      That is, we learn through reactions and what we learn are reactions. This claim is quite conforming with John Watson’s view.

      Watson stated that all psychological phenomena that involve learning can be expressed in terms of stimulus and response.

      Furthermore, Thorndike asserted that the reduction of learning into stimulus and response is not at all simple. Rather it’s quite complex as learning involves all types of actions that we are capable of performing.

      For instance, learning to write with the off-hand would involve the actions of your fingers, arms, wrist, and neck. Thus, according to Thorndike, these sets of reactions are not at all simple.

      Likewise, Thorndike asserted that ‘Thinking’ like all the other behaviors occurs from learned reactions to stimuli.

      In Behaviorism, ‘Thinking’ is nothing but talking to oneself. Thorndike acknowledged different forms of thinking including recollection, reflection, creative imagination, and problem-solving.

      Thus, while recognizing these forms of thinking, he suggested that these are the different ways in which individual talks to oneself.

      Now, Thorndike proposed that purposeful thinking has three elements: information, sagacity, and skills.

      • Information

        Information is the ability of an individual to react while having the knowledge of the facts embodied in the problematic situation. Now, education increases the informational basis of the student’s thinking.

        The School of Behaviorism can teach the facts relevant to the problems that both children and adults are likely to solve. How?

        Well, children are presented with contingent problems and these problems are associated with the relevant facts that can help them solve these problems. Thus, this stimulus-response (problem-fact) association can be developed in the reaction pattern of the students.

        However, Thorndike claimed that reacting to problems with relevant facts is not enough to solve most of the problems. In fact, facts also need to be manipulated in order to solve complex problems.

        Thus, this brings us to the next element of purposeful thinking and that is “Sagacity”.

      • Sagacity

        Sagacity is the intellectual ability of an individual to perceive the relationship between the appropriate facts.

        This means that as per Thorndike’s Theory of Learning, children or adults while solving the problem can develop associations between facts that have been poles apart in their past experiences.

        In addition to this, the problem-solvers can also alter the direction and undertake a completely different approach to a solution. Besides this, they can obtain insights that help them to perceive the problem in a completely different way altogether.

        Thus, many problem solvers now depend upon metacognition. Metacognition is the process of helping individuals in becoming aware of one’s own thinking. It involves planning, monitoring, and assessing one’s own understanding and performance.

        Now, the process of metacognition brings us to the third basis of purposeful thinking and that is ‘Skills’.

      • Skills

        The ‘Skills’ are the reactions learned over a period of time. These allow individuals to manage thinking as it occurs.

        Thus, Thorndike proposed that education can improve the thinking skills of children and hence improve their thinking process. But how can this be achieved?

        Well, experts can share their skills as well as experiences with the students. Furthermore, they can provide students with opportunities to practice managing behaviors resulting from their thinking.

        The students can then experience the positive outcomes of managing such behaviors and can finally incorporate the reactions within their purposeful thinking.

Edward Thorndike Connectionism Theory

One of the major works of Edward Lee Thorndike includes the three-volume series titled “Educational Psychology”.

Thorndike proposed that forming associations (or connections) between sensory experiences (or perceptions of stimuli or events) and neural impulses (responses) demonstrated in an individual’s behavior is the most fundamental type of learning.

He believed that learning happens via trial and error, that is, selecting, and connection. Thus, Thorndike conducted a series of experiments on animals in order to study the process of learning.

Through these experiments, Thorndike concluded that animals try to achieve a goal when they are in a problematic situation.

Accordingly, they select one of the responses from among the many responses they can perform, perform that response, and hence experience the consequences.

The more frequently they make a response to a stimulus, the more strongly that response becomes connected or associated with a stimulus.

The Cat Experiment

As a part of the experiment, Edward Thorndike placed a cat in a cage. There was a stick that it could push or a chain that the cat could pull to open the hatch and escape the cage.

Initially, the cat makes a series of trials or random responses. However, over a period of time, the cat makes a response that opens the hatch and thus is successful in escaping the cage.

Then, the cat is put back in the cage again. This time around, the cat is able to escape the cage quicker. Furthermore, it makes fewer errors before making a correct response.


Thus, Edward Thorndike concluded that Trial-and-Error Learning happens gradually. Such learning occurs when the successful responses are established and the unsuccessful responses are abandoned.

This means connections between stimulus and responses are formed mechanically via repetition. There is no need for conscious awareness in order to establish successful responses.

Thus, via the cat experiment, Thorndike implied that human learning is more complex. This is because individuals get engaged in other types of learning like connecting ideas, analyzing, and reasoning.

So, he explained the complex learning process in humans through elementary learning principles that he developed while studying the learning process in animals.

This means that an educated adult possesses millions of stimulus-response connections.

The Edward Thorndike Books

Edward Lee Thorndike published over 500 books and articles – 75 of them related to Language. Thus, the following table showcases some of the notable publications of Edward Lee Thorndike.

S.No. Book Name Year Of Publication
1. Animal Intelligence: An Experimental Study of the Associative Processes in Animals 1898
2. The Human Nature Club; An Introduction to the Study of Mental Life 1900
3. The Principles of Teaching: Based On Psychology 1906
4. Handwriting Scale 1910
5. Individuality 1911
6. Educational Psychology (Three Volume Series) 1913
7. The Measurement of Ability in Reading 1914
8. Ventilation in Relation To Mental Work 1916
9. Reading as Reasoning: A Study of Mistakes in Paragraph Reading 1917
10. The Understanding of Sentences: A Study of Errors in Reading 1917
11. The Psychology of Thinking in the Case of Reading 1917
12. The Thorndike Arithmetics 1917
13. An Introduction to the Theory of Mental and Social Measurement 1919
14. The Measurement of Intelligence 1926
15. The Teacher’s Word Book 1927
16. Elementary Principles of Education 1929
17. Human Learning 1931
18. The Fundamentals of Learning 1932
19. An Experimental Study of Rewards 1933
20. Adult Interests 1935
21. The Psychology of Wants, Interests and Attitudes 1935
22. The Teaching Of Controversial Subjects 1937
23. The Teaching of English Suffixes 1941
24. Man and His Works 1943
25. Teacher’s Word Book of 30,000 Words 1944
26. Thorndike-Barnhart Children’s Dictionary 1929/1988
27. Selected Writings From A Connectionist’s Psychology 1949

Edward Thorndike Contribution Towards Psychology

Edward Lee Thorndike was an American Psychologist who is called the Founder of Modern Educational Psychology.

As mentioned above, he was renowned for his puzzle box experiments with cats that resulted in the conception of the Law of Effect.

Further, his 1898 thesis titled “Animal Intelligence: An Experimental Study of the Associative Processes in Animals” marked the initiation of Experimental Animal Psychology.

A year later, he joined Western Reserve’s College for Women in Cleveland, Ohio, the USA as Special Lecturer. There, he taught courses on “the new of pedagogy” – researching on learning theories and incorporating the new technology in his teaching style.

From thereon, Thorndike worked as an Instructor at Columbia University. There, he taught Elements of Psychology, School Hygiene, Child Study, Genetic Psychology, Educational Psychology, and the Psychology of School Subjects.

Thus, the following are the contributions made by Edward Thorndike towards the field of Psychology:

Contributions To Psychology

  • Animal Experimentation

    Thorndike conducted experiments on animals and published his thesis “Animal Intelligence: An Experimental Study of the Associative Processes in Animals” in 1898. The thesis initiated a systematic search for fundamental behavioral processes and laid a strong foundation for an empirical science of behavior.

  • Educational Clinic

    In 1902, Thorndike and Virgil Prettyman opened an educational clinic to provide special education and psychological services.

  • Handwriting Scale

    Edward Thorndike published his Handwriting Scale in 1910. This marked the beginning of the scientific movement in education.

  • Theory of Trial and Error

    Thorndike developed the “Trial and Error Theory” by putting cats into puzzle boxes and observing their behavior.

  • Theory of Connectionism

    Edward Lee Thorndike developed the Theory of Connectionism explaining the process of learning as a situation (the stimulus), response, and connection or bond.

  • Interest in Learning

    In 1935, he published “Adult Interests” explaining the role of a teacher to direct students into a situation that would result in a response. He offered five strategies for increasing the student’s interest in learning. These include Contiguity, Suggestion, Imitation, Conditioning, and Selection by Rewards and Punishment.

  • Educational Psychology

    In 1914, Edward Thorndike published a three-volume series of Education. The First Volume proposed that Interest magnifies the levels of satisfaction of every success. Further, it stimulates an effort to identify the causes of failure.

    In the Second Volume of Education, Thorndike summarized his Laws of Learning. These include Law of Exercise, Law of Effect, Law of Partial Activity, and Law of Selective Thinking.

  • Reading

    Thorndike made significant contributions to the field of Reading as well. In 1917, he published “Reading as Reasoning: A Study of Mistakes in Paragraph Reading”

    Through this publication, Thorndike emphasized that the act of Reading is not merely perceiving words on a page. Rather it is a cognitive issue that involves the cooperation of many forces to determine the final response.

    Another 1917 publication titled “The Understanding of Sentences: A Study of Errors on Reading” explained in detail the process of understanding a paragraph.

    And finally, the publication titled “The Psychology of Thinking in the Case of Reading” explained some words would carry too much weight while others would bear insufficient weight.

  • Reader-Friendly Statistical Manual

    In 1919, Thorndike published “An Introduction to the Theory of Mental and Social Measurement”. In this publication, Thorndike emphasized the need or use of statistics in social science research.

The Edward Thorndike Halo Effect

Edward Lee Thorndike coined the term “Halo Effect”. Halo Effect is a cognitive bias in which an individual’s overall impression of a person, brand, or company influences his or her feelings and thoughts about that entity’s properties and character.

It is a type of confirmation bias wherein an observer views questionable or neutral traits of an entity to be positive based on the positive traits of that entity in one aspect.

The term “Halo Effect” is typically used to report positive effects. That is, an individual would be subject to holding a positive view of all the aspects of something if such a person likes some aspect of it.

For instance, the Army Commanders scoring high in neatness were rated high for other unrelated qualities such as loyalty and physical strength too.

Besides this, the Halo Effect works in a negative direction too. It is then referred to as ‘Horns Effect’ or the ‘Devil’s Effect’ or ‘Reverse Halo Effect’.

‘Devil Effect’ is a phenomenon in which an individual believes something to be negative in its entirety based on a single negative trait that the individual observed in it.

Initially, the term was used to refer to only people as being perceived as having a Halo. But over a period of time, the term is used in a wide variety of fields. These include brand marketing, education, judiciary, etc.

Advanced Psychology