What Is Thorndike’s Law Of Effect In Psychology?

Edward Lee Thorndike was an American Psychologist. He came up with a thesis titled ‘Animal Intelligence: An Experimental Study of the Associate Processes in Animals’ in 1898.

As is the case, certain processes or mechanisms influence the mental life of animals. These include sense-powers, instincts, reactions performed without experience, and reactions performed with experience.

However, this monograph was an attempt to explain the nature of the process of association in animals.

Advanced Psychology

Furthermore, this thesis was the very foundation of Thorndike’s Law of effect. In this monograph, Thorndike demonstrated that animals display behaviors as a result of building ordinary associations with various external events or stimuli.

Thus, Thorndike conducted experiments with cats, dogs, and chicks to test for such associations. While conducting experiments with the cats, Thorndike observed that a specific response to the stimulus strengthened if the response leads to a positive outcome.

Thus, in this article, we are going to discuss what is Thorndike’s Law. Further, we will also explain how the Law contributed to a great extent in the field of Education.

Thorndike’s Law in Psychology

This Law is Thorndike’s primary law of learning that forms part of ‘Edward Thorndike Theory of Learning’.

Law Of Effect Psychology Definition

This law states that 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, Behaviorism is based on the interplay of stimulus and response. This means that human actions or responses develop as a result of their exposure to complex webs of stimuli.

Furthermore, such actions or responses develop over the course of a human being’s life. Such a response begins with innate reactions like fear and builds as a person reacts more.

Thorndike Law of Learning and Cat Experiment

In Thorndike Cat Experiment, the cat initially exhibits various action impulses such as clawing the string or scratching the bars to open the door of the Thorndike puzzle box.

However, the action impulses that turn out to be unsuccessful fade away over a period of time. While the action impulses leading to successful outcomes and in return giving satisfaction or pleasure would get strengthened. This happens over a number of trials.

Thus, when the cat learns the behavior over a number of trials, it immediately pulls the loop in a definite way when placed in the box the next time in order to escape the puzzle box.

As a result, Thorndike anticipated that psychologists would challenge his theory on certain grounds. For instance, many researchers would refute that a cat opening the latched gate as a result of a random process is too remarkable an event to accept.

However, Edward Thorndike believed that if an animal can learn to perform an action through trial and success in a controlled experiment, it can definitely learn in any other way in a natural setting.

What Is The Basis Of Thorndike’s Law Of Effect?

Edward Lee Thorndike proposed the Law. This Law was Thorndike’s Primary Law of Learning. It was the result of the experiment that Thorndike conducted on cats using a Puzzle Box.

The Puzzle Box had a loop pulling which would help the cat to escape and grab the food placed outside the box.

Thus, Thorndike conducted this experiment to study the behavior of cats when exposed to a stimulus (food in this case).

Hence, Thorndike observed that the cat performed a series of trials before it was finally successful in pulling the loop to escape the Puzzle Box. Thus, the escape from the Puzzle Box resulted in the cat grabbing the food placed outside the Box.

But what coaxed the cat to finally pull the loop and escape from the Puzzle Box?

Well, initially, the animal (cat) began its pursuit of escape by performing a number of random or ineffective acts. For instance, clawing at the sides of the box. However, over a number of trials, the frequency of ineffective responses decreased and loop pulling (effective response) occurred rapidly and reliably.

Thorndike’s Law of Effect Psychology

Thus, Thorndike’s Law of Effect states that the responses that lead to the satisfaction of the animal would be more strongly connected with the situation. And, such responses are more likely to recur when the situation or similar situation recurs. So, the greater the satisfaction of the animal, the greater the bond between the situation and the response.


Therefore, we can explain Edward Thorndike’s Law based on a parallel to the Darwinian Theory of natural selection.

As per the Darwinian Opinions of Evolution, the favorable consequences of an effective behavior makes the animal (cat) select effective behavior. Further, the cat selects such an effective behavior out of the various responses that it makes inside the Puzzle Box.

Thus, the theory of EL Thorndike explains in detail the manner in which such a selection process occurs.

Empirical Law

There is a Situation (S) that gives rise to a variety of responses. Say, one of the responses ‘R’ leads to the satisfaction (SR) of the entity. Thus, this satisfaction creates a bond between the situation and the response.

As a result of this bond, the Response R is more likely to occur when a similar situation arises. The following is a simple diagrammatic representation of the bond between stimulus and response.

S: (R → SR) → [S-R Bond] → increase in 𝓹(R|S)

This simply means that a situation gives rise to responses. Furthermore, the reinforcers (satisfiers) follow these responses. Thus, these reinforcers further result in an increase in the probability of the specific response to recur.

Now, this bond between a situation and a response is important for two reasons. First, this bond is a result of a procedure. This procedure turns an entity’s past experiences of reinforcement over previous trials in the experimental situation into an overt response in the next trial.

Law of Effect Theory

Thus, we can say that the strength of the bond between the situation and response [S-R Bond] is dependent on the history of reinforcement experiences over previous trials. Further, it also depends on the factors that determine the satisfaction of an entity.

[S-R Bond] = ⨐[S:(R → SR)]

Thus, one should evaluate the results of some sort of test in order to evaluate the strength of such a bond. In such tests, one must analyze the responses by altering the conditions.

Elliott Reinforcer Devaluation Test

Elliott conducted one of such tests in 1928. As a part of this test, Elliott conducted one trial per day wherein he trained two groups of hungry rats in a 14-unit maze.

So one group of rats was the Control Group and the other was the Experimental Group. The Control Group received sunflower seeds in a goal box throughout the training. Whereas, the Experimental Group of rats received bran mash for the first 9 days. Afterward, the Experimental Group of rats received the sunflower seeds.

Elliott observed that the rats in the Experimental Group committed fewer errors relative to the Control Group in solving the maze when they received Bran Mash for the first 9 days. That is, Bran Mash was the more effective reinforcer for such rats. However, the rats in the Experimental Group committed more errors when they received sunflower seeds on Day 10.

Now, as per EL Thorndike’s Law, the rats in the Experimental Group should have at least continued to perform at a level at which they performed when they were receiving Bran Mash. That is, at a level before switching to the Sunflower Seeds.

This is because the reinforcers over the previous trials must have created a bond between the Situation and the Effective Response for rats.

In other words, as per the Law, the performance of rats should have at least continued to improve at a rate that was similar to the rats in the Control Group.

Therefore, the errors that the rats in the Experimental Group commit goes against the very concept of S – R bond.

Collwill and Rescorla Experiment

Then in 1974 conducted and evaluated a host of experiments. As a result, Macintosh concluded that the reinforcement in instrumental learning does not strengthen the antecedent responses.

In other words, the reinforcers or the satisfiers are not responsible for increasing the strength between the stimulus and response. It is due to the association between reinforcers and the responses.

Further, there are certain other versions of Elliott’s study that support Mackintosh’s conclusion.

For example, Colwill and Rescorla carried out studies on rats in 1985. In such studies, Colwill and Recorla trained rats to press a lever for the food pellets. Further, they also trained the rats to pull a chain in order to receive liquid sucrose.

Moreover, the hungry rats received both food pellets and liquid sucrose on identical variable-interval schedules in successive sessions.

After a while, the researchers devalued one of the reinforcers. Furthermore, they delivered the reinforcer along with Illness Inducing Lithium Chloride (LiCl) as per a variable-time schedule. Besides this, the researchers delivered the other reinforcer in the same way but without LiCl.

Thus, the devalued reinforcer delivered along with Illness Inducing Lithium Chloride responded less relative to the other reinforcer.

As we can see, this devaluation effect is not consistent with Thorndike’s S-R Bond concept. As per the S-R Bond ideology, the response should have been equally strong

Example of Law of Effect

The 19th century saw the development of the tradition of playing Cello ( a string instrument from the violin family). Since then, many schools have understood Cello Education in different ways.

However, there are various schools that still use older Cello teaching methods to develop cello playing capabilities in students. This gives rise to a dilemma in contemporary cello education. Such a dilemma is how the contemporary education system is adapting to the instructions of the 19th-century traditions into the psychological and educational needs of today’s students?

Thus, Asu Perihan Karadut from the music department of Anadolu University, Turkey conducted a study to resolve this dilemma. She conducted this study on 30 students between the ages of 11-15 who were beginner Cello learners.

The aim of the study was to observe the effects of EL Thorndike’s essentials of the Theory of Connectionism on beginner cello students. In addition to this, Asu conducted this study to encourage creativity and self-actualization among the students undertaking traditional Cello Education.

Thus, as a part of the study, Karadut observed these students over a year during Cello lessons. Furthermore, she designed the lessons as per the essentials of modern educational psychology. That is, as per Edward Thorndike’s Theory of Connectionism. These essentials included:

Thorndike’s Laws of Learning

  • Incremental Learning
  • Law of Effect
  • The Law of Exercise
  • Law of Multiple Reasons
  • Prepotency of Elements
  • Response By Analogy
  • Identical Theory of Transfer
  • Associative Shifting
  • Law of Readiness
  • The Law of Trial-and-Error
  • Law of Availability

Thus, Karadut collected various recordings of student’s performances as well as Cello lessons. Furthermore, she collected these recordings to observe the technical and musical development of students.

Hence, Karadut observed that the essentials of Connectionism played a crucial role in developing the Cello playing abilities in students. The students had gained sufficient technical efficiency to express different musical ideas.

This was regardless of their social background and personal differences during this study.

Analysis of the Law

The following is the analysis.

S.No.Essentials of Theory of ConnectionismEffect
1.Incremental LearningStudents were successively introduced to the elements of a given topic, starting from the simplest topic.
2.Law of EffectExams and Stage Performances were conducted to strengthen the relationship between Cello education and the expected outcome.
3.The Law of ExerciseSimilar Cello playing techniques were presented to students on different compositions.
4.Multiple ResponsesStudents were exposed to a composition featuring diverse instrument playing techniques so that they were able to develop the ability to respond to multiple stimuli
5.Prepotency of ElementsStudents were instructed on the most noticeable components of a composition as the initial steps of a training period.
6.Response By AnalogyStudents were exposed to the musical scales structured according to the technical features of a composition so that they were able to make connections between scales and the compositions.
7.Identical Theory of TransferStudents were taught consecutively compositions having technical and musical resemblances.
8.Associative ShiftingStudents could now make use of newly gained Cello playing abilities to more complex compositions.
9.Law of ReadinessDetermining the length of the training period via the performances of compositions taught in class. Such performances indicate the level of skill development in students which further helps in deciding whether the student is ready to play the compositions or needs further training.
10.The Law of Trial and ErrorHelps students to select and employ the beneficial data learned in the previous stages connect it to a topic via trial and error.
11.Law of AvailabilityStudents are able to make precise connections between elements of the topic as the information is permanently internalized and has led to self-actualization.

Law Of Effect In Education

Edward Lee Thorndike is best known for his Theory of Connectionism. Further, the Theory of Connectionism is also called Thorndike’s Theory of Learning.

Education, especially learning, transfer, individual differences, and intelligence interested Thorndike. Thus, he applied an experimental approach while measuring the outcomes of the student’s achievements.

As a result of conducting experiments on animals, he concluded that the animal learned response when exposed to a specific stimulus through Trial and Error.

Besides this, Thorndike also came up with the components or stages in the process of learning while analyzing the experiments. Let’s try to understand these stages with the help of an example.

Suppose, you want to solve a math problem. The following are the stages that you would have to go through in order to achieve your goal.

  • Need

It’s an energy that compels an entity to perform an action or make a response that satisfies the drive. In this example, your very desire to solve the math problem is the need.

  • Goal

In this step, the entity develops an object that satisfies the need. Using the example above, getting the solution to the math problem is your goal.

  • Block

Then, there is an obstacle or a set of obstacles that are necessary for the entity to work hard in order to achieve the goal. Accordingly, you have to learn the mathematical concepts and put in a lot of practice to solve the problem.

  • Random Actions

These are the set of responses that an entity makes randomly or without conscious thought until a response or an action helps in achieving the goal. So to solve the math problem, you will have to put into practice various concepts or formulas that you have learned previously in order to solve the problem.

  • Success By Chance

One of the many responses made by the entity turns out to be successful in achieving the goal by chance. Hence, while working out the math problem, you were able to find the correct answer after applying various formulas or concepts.

  • Reduction in Wrong Response

You unlearn the responses that do not help you in achieving the goal. Thus, you tend to neglect or unlearn all the set of responses that did not help you solve the problem.

  • Selection of Right Response

Here, the individual performs all the responses that help him reach his goal. Finally, the individual is able to develop an efficient series of actions or responses that help him in achieving his object. In the example above, you have been able to come up with a series of steps that you need to follow in order to solve the math problem.

  • Fixation Inside The Brain

In this step, the individual learns the series of steps that he followed in order to solve the math problem.

Now, all of this led to Thorndike’s Theory of Connectionism. As a result, Thorndike formulated three primary laws of learning. And the field of education widely used these laws.

These Primary or Basic Laws of Learning include the Laws of Effect, Exercise, and Readiness. Let’s try to understand the application of the Law of Effect in Education

Thorndike’s Law of Learning

As stated above, one of the fundamental principles of Thorndike’s Theory of Learning is the Law of Effect. Further, the Theory of Learning is also called Thorndike’s Law of Learning.

Thus, Thorndike’s Law of Learning states that the strength of the connection between a stimulus and a response increases when such a response leads to a satisfying state of affairs for the entity. However, the strength of the connection between a stimulus and a response decreases when such a response leads to an annoying state of affairs.

Thus, Thorndike’s Law lays emphasis on the consequences of a specific behavior.

In other words, an animal or human tends to learn a response to a stimulus when such a response leads to satisfying or rewarding consequences. However, an entity forgets or unlearns a response to a stimulus when such a response leads to annoying or punishing consequences.

Such a connection helps a human being to adapt to an environment.

Thorndike’s Contribution to Education

Now, a student would undergo learning in a proper manner if the outcome of such learning gives satisfaction to the student. And such satisfaction would in return give pleasure to the student.

However, the student undergoes improper or no learning at all when the outcome of such learning makes the student dissatisfied. And such dissatisfaction leads to students facing failure.

Therefore, educational pedagogy should be inclusive. That is, it creates a conducive environment where every child can enhance his capacity in learning. Further, each child has access to quality education.

Secondly, teachers should maintain a productive relationship with children. And a teacher can achieve this by understanding the needs, interests, and experiences of each of the students.

Besides this, the quality of the school is of the utmost importance for the student to undertake learning in a proper manner. Furthermore, there must be an organization and transparency in educational pedagogy so that everything is aligned.

Last but not the least, for proper learning to take place among children, innovative approaches to learning must be adopted.

Thus, effective educational pedagogy can focus on communication, collaboration, creativity, and critical thinking. This way, Thorndike’s Law of Learning was Edward’s contribution to education.

Examples Of Law Of Effect In The Classroom

Classroom is another area where you can see the application of Thorndike’s Law of Learning (Effect). A rewarded behavior is more likely to occur again in the future relative to the unrewarded behavior.

That is, the behavior will be more likely to occur in the future if it gives satisfaction to the student. However, the behavior is least likely to occur in the future if such a behavior annoys or leads to the dissatisfaction of the student.

The following are examples of the Law in the Classroom.

Law of Effect in Teaching

  • Students would be more likely to attend a class if the instructor adopts or makes use of a pedagogy that makes the subject interesting and easy for the students to learn.
  • A student scoring well in exams gets positively reinforced to study harder for the next set of exams.
  • A word of appreciation from the instructor’s end for an introverted student for doing class participation would motivate such a student to participate in the future as well.
  • When a student solves the problems correctly, he gets encouraged to solve more questions.
  • A student should be encouraged to undertake study in a subject that interests him the most. Thus, studying the subject of one’s own interest would lead to the success of the student.
  • The instructor must provide appreciation to the student for work done well as it will encourage the student to work hard.

Edward Thorndike Theory of Learning

The Animal Intelligence monograph published in 1898 set the foundation for comparative psychology as an experimental science. Furthermore, this monograph led to a dramatic shift in thinking about learning in both animals and humans.

Old Theory Of Learning

Most researchers then believed that higher animals like cats, dogs, and birds learned behaviors through the association of ideas. This meant that the animals understood the reasoning behind the relationship between various events.

In addition to this, they also used these ideas or reasoning to solve the problems they encountered.

The evolutionary biologist and physiologist, George Romanes, explained how a cat manipulated the latch. Furthermore, he also explained the procedure that the cat adopted to open the enclosure’s door.

He asserted that the animal must have first observed a hand grasping the door’s handle and then moving the latch. Then it must have reasoned out that if a hand can open the door, then why not a paw? Finally, the cat makes the first trial after the above-mentioned reasoning strongly influences her.

Now, the issue with this theory was that only anecdotal evidence and causal observation supported it. This led to a bias in favor of the evidence promoting animal reasoning.

However, Thorndike straightaway rejected the evidence. Further, he asserted that these anecdotes give a super-normal view of animal psychology.

Also, Thorndike proclaimed that there was no strong evidence supporting the fact that the animals could understand ideas or learn via reasoning.

The following are Thorndike’s arguments against the Theory of Animal Reasoning.

Arguments Against the Theory of Reasoning in Animals

Thorndike argued that:

  • Animal’s Behavior Is Impulsive

The behavior of animals in an enclosure is quite impulsive and random. That is, it is not logical or systematic.

For instance, the cats placed in the puzzle box initially perform random acts of pawing, biting, meowing, etc without any signs of thoughtfulness.

  • Behavior Change In Animals Takes Place Gradually, Not Abruptly

There is a gradual and not sudden change in the behavior of animals.

This means that the escape time would have fallen suddenly if the animal understood the reasoning between pulling the string and opening the door.

Thorndike asserted that none of the time curves that he prepared showed such a pattern.

In fact, the slope of the time-curves was quite gradual and thus it showcased the absence of reasoning in animals.

  • Animals Do Not Understand The Relationship Between Action and Resulting Behavior

Thorndike observed that the animals did not showcase any signs of understanding the relationship between action and the resulting consequence.

Furthermore, he also observed this behavior even after the animals learned to escape the puzzle box by pulling a loop with the paw.

For instance, Thorndike observed that the cat still pawed in the air where the loop initially had been even when there was no loop in the box, .

  • No Evidence For Observational Learning in Animals

Thorndike also asserted that there was no evidence that supported that the animals learned through observing the behavior of other animals.

In fact, animals learned only when they performed the necessary actions by themselves.

Furthermore, Thorndike also asserted that the animal did not learn the requisite behavior even when he intervened. In other words, the animal was unable to learn even when Thorndike put the animal’s limbs into motion for requisite action.

Edward Thorndike Theory Of Learning

Many researchers in the field of comparative psychology during Thorndike’s time believed that higher-order animals like cats, dogs, and birds learned through the association of ideas.

But, Thorndike ridiculed the Theory of Association of Ideas as well as the Theory of Reasoning in animals.

He proclaimed that animals learned through the actual performance of an act rather than the mere idea of that act.

Thorndike further stated that animal learning had nothing to do with reasoning or the association of ideas. Rather it occurred as a consequence of the outcomes of ‘trial and accidental success’ of the actions.

Furthermore, he theorized that an animal, say for instance a cat, exhibits certain innate action impulses when placed in a puzzle box. Like, it starts biting or scratching at the objects inside the box.

Therefore, the cat pulls the loop if it is able to escape from the puzzle box. Otherwise, the cat would scratch at bars if it is not able to escape from the box.

Thus, Thorndike asserted that no association of ideas takes place. Rather, there is an association of sensations such as the vision of a loop and an impulse of performing actions like clawing, scratching, etc.

This means that Thorndike’s Theory of Learning distinguished between an act and an impulse. An impulse is the feeling that compels the animal to perform the act.

So, it is the feeling of acting and not the act itself that bothered Thorndike. He stated that what was important was the feeling to perform an act. However, the act itself was a secondary matter.

The Edward Thorndike Experiment

Edward Thorndike adopted a general experimental method to observe animal behavior.

He placed hungry animals in enclosures from which they could not escape unless they performed a specific action.

Besides this, Thorndike also placed food in the animals’ view outside the enclosure. He placed the food outside the enclosure to understand how hungry animals behaved when they viewed the food outside the enclosure.

Furthermore, Edward Thorndike also recorded the amount of time the animals took to escape the enclosure.

To measure the behavior of animals precisely, Thorndike repeated this procedure over and over again. In each of the experiments, he noted down the change in the animal’s behavior as well as their escape times.

Now, Thorndike conducted such experiments with cats, dogs, and chicks. However, the most popular of all the dissertation’s experiments are those undertaken with cats in Thorndike’s Puzzle Boxes.

Thorndike’s Cat Experiment

In the experiments done with cats, Thorndike used 15 boxes made of wooden slats and cloth. Each box consisted of a door that the cat could open after adopting some mechanism.

For instance, a cat could pull a wire loop suspended six inches above the box floor in one of the boxes named Box A. Likewise, the cat could open Box H by just pushing the box’s door aside.

Then, the cat had to press the lever to open Box I. However, the cat had to perform three distinct responses to open Box K. These included: depressing a treadle, pulling on a string, and pushing a bar up or down to finally open the door.

It is important to note that Box K was the only box that Thorndike depicted graphically in his dissertation. Thus, behaviorists are most familiar with this box itself.

Thorndike’s Observations

  • Random Behavior

Thorndike observed that the cat performed a number of actions when it was placed in the puzzle box, it . Such actions include:

  • Squeezing through any opening
  • Clawing and biting the bars or wires
  • Thrusting its paws out through any opening and clawing at everything it tries to reach
  • Strikes anything loose and shaky

While performing all such actions, the hungry cat does not pay attention to the food outside.

Rather, it continues to make an instinctive effort to escape from the enclosure. Moreover, the hungry cat continues to struggle for eight to ten minutes which in itself is extraordinary.

  • Effective Behavior

Thorndike asserted that the cat’s behavior changed significantly after putting the cat innumerable times in the puzzle box.

Initially, the cat’s behavior was seemingly random. However, over a number of trials, it became more orderly, efficient, and intentional.

This means that the cat’s impulsive reactions of clawing, biting, etc. would gradually shift to more deliberate actions like pulling the string over a number of trials.

Finally, the cat would succeed in performing the effective action of pulling the string with the help of trial and error.

  • Time of Escape

Thorndike also recorded the time required for the cat to escape the puzzle box besides recording the overall changes in the cat’s behavior.

He plotted the data collected on a graph to draw a ‘Time Curve’. He noticed that the Time Curve of Cat 12 placed in Box A showcased a rapid and steady decline in Escape Time.

Such a pattern in the Escape Time was quite typical of the cat’s performance in Box A. It was so because the cat was required to make a single response of just pulling on a wire loop when placed in Box A.

However, the Time Curve for Cat 4 in Box K showcased slower and uncertain progress. It was so because Cat 4 was required to display three different responses when placed in Box K.

  • Rate of Change

Edward Lee Thorndike also observed the value of change in the cat’s escape times in addition to observing the escape time.

He calculated the slope of the curve to know the rate at which the response occurs. Thus, Thorndike showcased the rate of learning in cats by calculating the slope of the ‘Time Curve’

  • Thorndike’s Experiments With Dogs

Edward Thorndike also conducted the Puzzle Box experiments with three small dogs of the unspecified breed.

The nine Thorndike’s puzzle boxes to carry out experiments with the dogs were similar to the ones used for cats. Moreover, the procedure to conduct the experiment was also similar.

However, the food was not served to the dogs for a relatively shorter time period. The food deprivation period of dogs was comparatively short to prevent the dogs from barking in the evening.

Therefore, Thorndike observed that the dogs showcased the same behavioral changes as noticed in cats. This means that the effective response became smooth and efficient over a number of trials.

Finally, the effective response persisted while the ineffective behavior dropped after a number of trials.

Thus, these results indicated that the time curves for dogs resembled those for the cats.

  • Thorndike Experiments With Chicks

Edward Lee Thorndike also conducted experiments with chicks. The behavior patterns that the chicks showcased were similar to those of dogs and cats.

In some of the experiments, the chicks would escape the puzzle box after stepping on a platform, pulling a string, pecking the door or a nail.

Whereas in other experiments, the chicks escaped the pens (enclosures) designed using books.

Furthermore, Thorndike built much more complicated pens for chicks like the ones having spiral staircases. He built such pens in addition to the typical enclosures.

Therefore, the birds had to perform the following actions in order to grab food and meet other chicks:

  • Climb the spiral staircase
  • Go through a hole in the wall
  • Walk across a horizontal ladder
  • Finally, jump off the ledge

Initially, Thorndike observed that the chicks perform ineffective actions like peeping, running back and forth, squeezing through any openings, jumping to get over the wall, pecking at bars, etc.

However, over a number of trials, the ineffective behaviors faded away. Plus, the bird performed actions required to escape the enclosure as soon as it was placed in it.

  • Thorndike’s Intervention In Experiments

In most of the experiments, the animals manipulated some of the other devices within the confinement in order to open the door.

However, Thorndike’s intervened for the escape in some of the experiments.

For instance, whenever the bird used to clean its feathers with its beak, Thorndike removed the chick from the puzzle box.

Then, Thorndike opened the door of the puzzle box in some of the experiments with the cats. This happened whenever the cat licked or scratched itself.

Thus, such an intervention generally resulted in the animals escaping the enclosure successfully.

However, these experiments showcased variability in performance as well as slower rates of learning in animals.

Let’s take the example of the chick that successfully escaped the enclosure by preening. Though the bird was successful in escaping the enclosure after a number of trials.

However, the bird poked its feathers this time when it was again in the enclosure after learning how to escape the confinement. This was unlike the previous behavior of escaping the confinement.

Thus, Thorndike asserted that the animals succeeded in escaping and learning behavior faster when they manipulated some device inside the enclosure.

  • Thorndike’s Experiments On Generalization

Edward Thorndike also conducted experiments on the Law of Generalization. Though, he never used this term.

Thus, as a part of the experiment, Thorndike placed the animal in a separate box. This was done after the animal had learned to escape from one box.

Thorndike observed that the animal carried the behavior learned in the previous box to the next box as well.

  • Thorndike’s Experiments On Discrimination

Thorndike observed that some cats climbed the wire netting of their cages whenever he was about to feed them with food.

So, to control this behavior in cats, Thorndike thought of manipulating the environment systematically.

Thus, to test the idea, he performed the following two actions:

  • Thorndike used to say the statement ‘I Must Feed Those Cats’ just before feeding the cats with food.
  • He used to say the statement ‘I Will Not Feed Them’ and then did not give food to the cats.

Furthermore, Thorndike used to record the data regarding the cat climbing the wire netting of its cage after announcing each of the statements.

Thus, Thorndike observed that the cat learned to climb the wire netting of its cage after hearing the statement ‘I Must Feed Those Cats’ in over 60 trials.

However, the cat learned not to climb the wire netting of its cage after hearing the statement ‘I Will Not Feed Those Cats’ in about 380 trials.

  • Thorndike’s Experiments On Observational Learning

Edward Thorndike also conducted a lot of experiments on observational learning. To undertake such experiments, he adopted a very simple procedure.

Thorndike placed two animals of the same species in a box having two compartments separated by a wire screen.

Then, Thorndike recorded the behavior of the observer. That is, whether the observer had the tendency to imitate the escaping animals’ successful actions.

To make things simple, let’s consider Thorndike placing two cats in the box. The wire screen separating the box into two compartments allowed the observing cat to watch the model cat escaping the enclosure.

This means the observing cat could watch the model cat pulling the string and escaping the confinement to finally grab the food placed outside the box.

After observing the model cat’s successful actions, the observer cat could have pulled the string and escaped the confinement. However, this did not happen.

Instead, the cat (or dog or chick) followed the same gradual process of learning that the model cat followed.

Secondary Laws Of Learning By Thorndike

As per Thorndike’s Theory of Connectionism, learning happens when an individual makes precise connections between the new information. That is, an individual learns by forming associations between a particular stimulus and response.

Thus, Edward Thorndike believed that an individual is able to form connections between a stimulus and response through repeated trial and error learning. That is, an individual chooses a response out of the various set of responses that he can perform.

Thus, the individual keeps on making one response after the other till he hits the response that gives him satisfaction. In other words, the response that led to satisfaction was learned. Whereas, the response that led to punishment was forgotten.

Therefore, to explain his Theory of Connectionism, Edward Thorndike formulated various Principles or Laws of Learning.

The following section gives an account of the Secondary Laws of Learning By Thorndike.

1. Trial and Error Learning

Edward Lee Thorndike proposed that the development of associations between the stimuli and responses is the most fundamental type of learning in animals, including humans. He believed that learning happened as a result of trial and error. That is, selecting and connecting.

Therefore, Thorndike started studying learning by conducting experiments on animals. While conducting such experiments, Thorndike observed that animals try to achieve a goal when they are exposed to a problematic situation.

So, in order to achieve the goal, the animals first select one of the responses out of the many responses that they can perform. After they choose a response, they perform such a response and experience its consequences.

So, the more frequently they make a response to a stimulus, the more strongly that response gets associated or connected to that stimulus.

Edward Thorndike Experiment With Cats

As mentioned in the Edward Thorndike Experiment above, the cat finally manages to escape the cage by pulling the chain. It is able to achieve this goal as a result of performing a series of random responses. And eventually, performing a response that makes her pull the chain or open the hatch.

Then, the cat is put into the cage back again. Thus, it is observed that the cat achieves her goal of escaping the cage quicker. Furthermore, it commits fewer errors before responding correctly.

How Does Trial and Error Help in Learning?

Learning via trial and error happens gradually. In such a type of learning, an animal or a human chooses a response out of the set of responses that it can perform.

After choosing a response, it performs such a response and experiences its consequences. Finally, the responses that help the entity in achieving the goal are established. Whereas, the responses that do not help the animal or the human in achieving the goal are abandoned.

So, in Trial and Error Learning, the connection or bond between a stimulus and a response is established mechanically through repetition. Conscious Awareness is not mandatory.

Thus, Thorndike concluded that an educated adult owns a whole lot of stimulus-response connections.

2. Effect and Exercise Laws

The basic ideas about learning that Thorndike proposed are represented in the form of Effect and Exercise. The Law of Exercise is further divided into the Law of Use and Law of Disuse. As per the Law of Use, the bond between a response and a stimulus strengthens when such a response is made repeatedly to the stimulus.

Whereas, as per the Law of Disuse, the bond between a stimulus and a response weakens when no association is made between them over a long period of time.

In other words, the longer the time interval before you make a response, the greater the decline in the strength of the connection between the stimulus and response.

3. Readiness Law

As per the Law of Readiness, Edward Thorndike proposed that an animal or a human must be ready or motivated to exhibit a previously learned habit. Here, the term ready means the degree of an urge to do a particular activity.

Thus, the performance of an activity or a response is rewarding if the animal or the human being is ready to perform such a response. However, the performance of an activity or a response is punishing if the animal or the human being is not ready to perform such a response.

For instance, it is a waste of time or punishing for a student to learn a skill if such a student does not have prerequisite skills or is not ready to learn such a skill.

4. Principle of Associative Shifting

This principle states that an animal or a human may respond to an entirely different current stimulus just the way they responded to a particular stimulus previously. Provided, there is a small change in the nature of the current stimulus.

Say, for instance, we would first have to teach the students to divide a one-digit into a one-digit number. And then teach them to divide a two-digit number into a four-digit number.

5. Identical Theory of Transfer

As per this principle, Thorndike states that previous learning promotes new learning. But this new learning occurs to an extent that such new tasks consist of elements that are identical to the ones in the previous tasks.

Let’s take an example to understand the Identical Theory of transfer.


Say, the experimental group has to learn both Task A and Task B. Whereas, the control group has to learn only Task B.

Now, there could be three outcomes when it comes to learning Task B:

  • The Experimental Group could learn Task B more easily than the Control Group. If this happens, it would mean there is a positive transfer.
  • The Control Group could learn Task B more easily as compared to the Experimental Group. If this happens, it would mean that Task A muted the learning of Task A in the Experimental Group. Thus, this would be termed as Negative Transfer.
  • Both the Experimental Group and the Control Group could learn Task B equally well. Thus, we can conclude that there is no transfer.

Furthermore, as stated earlier, the transfer happens when there are identical or similar elements in both tasks. Now, there are three ways in which the tasks can be similar. These include:

  • Similarity in Stimulus
  • The Similarity in Response
  • The similarity in procedure or principle

So, now, what would be the impact of this similarity on the transfer of learning?

Impact of Similarity On Transfer of Learning

There would be a high degree of transfer if the stimulus and response parts of Tasks A and Task B are similar.

But what about the situations when the stimulus, response, or both parts of these tasks are different. Poffenberger tried giving an answer to this question via experiments.

The following table shows a comparison of the effects of stimulus and response variables on the transfer of learning.

Comparison of Effects of Stimulus and Response Variables On Transfer of Learning
GroupTask ATask BSimilarity/Differences in Task B
1.S1-R1S1-R1Same Stimulus, Same Response, High Positive Transfer
2.S1-R1S1-R2Same Stimulus, Different Response, Negative Transfer
3.S1-R1S2-R2Different Stimulus, Different Response, Little or No Transfer
4.S1-R1S2-R1Different Stimulus, Same Response, Positive Transfer

So, we need to increase the similarity between the learning task and the testing situation if we want to maximize the transfer of learning in educational situations.

This means that there would be negative, little, or no transfer of learning if we teach in one way and test in some other way.

6. Law of Multiple Responses

As per Thorndike’s Law of Multiple Responses, an animal or a person will keep on making responses to a given stimulus until a particular response brings satisfaction.

Thus, learning happens as a result of making a variety of responses in case the first response does not immediately provide satisfaction or gives positive reinforcement.

In other words, an animal or human attempts to solve a problem or a given challenge through trial and error. Let’s consider Thorndike’s experiment of the puzzle box with the cats once again.

The cat made a number of random responses when it was placed inside Thorndike’s Puzzle Box. These responses included clawing the sides of the box, biting, and pushing.

The cat makes such random responses until it performs the correct response of pulling the chain to escape from the puzzle box.

This means that the cat selects one of the responses out of the various responses that it can perform. Then, she performs that response. Following this, she moves on to performing the next variant of response if the initial response does not lead to satisfaction.

In other words, the cat does not sit passively to die out of starvation in case a particular response fails in helping her escape the box and grab food.

Thus, the display of multiple responses helps the animal to adapt to the environment as these responses ensure the animal’s survival.

7. Prepotency of Elements

As per the Principle of Prepotency of Elements, an individual tends to respond more to the significant or the important aspects of a problem or a stimulus. And an individual tends to respond less to insignificant or irrelevant aspects of a problem or a stimulus.

In other words, a learner reacts to only the prepotent elements in a given problem and does not get distracted by its irrelevant aspects.

Say, for instance, an individual is asked to recognize a particular shape out of the given set of shapes. In order to recognize the shape, the individual would just respond or react to contour or the number of sides of a shape. It would neglect all the other irrelevant or non-essential features like the color of the shape, the size of the shape, etc.

This means that every problem has some prepotent elements. An individual achieves great success when he makes a response based on these prepotent elements. Thus, the very capacity of a person to just responding to the significant features in a specific problem situation depends upon his knowledge and capability.

8. Law of Analogy

Thorndike’s Law of Analogy states that an individual makes responses to a current stimulus or a situation due to the similarity of the current situation with the individual’s prior experience.

That is, an individual makes use of his prior experience to respond to a given problem situation. He responds in a way that is similar to the one in which he behaved previously. Provided, the individual finds some similarity between the two situations.

9. Law of Associative Shifting

The Law of Associative Shifting states that an individual may shift his or her response from one stimulus to the other. That is, the responses that an individual learns to make to a specific stimulus can also learn to make the same responses to another stimulus condition. Provided the overall condition is not changed.

Thus, as we can see, Thorndike’s Law of Associative Shifting is similar to Pavlovian Classical Conditioning. In Pavlovian’s Classical Conditioning, the dog starts salivating immediately when it is exposed to food. However, the dog learns to respond to only the bell without the presence of the food eventually.

This happens because the dog is repeatedly exposed to a ringing bell paired with the dog’s food. Therefore, the ringing bell which was a conditioned stimulus before pairing it with food eventually becomes an unconditioned stimulus for the dog. This is nothing but the case of associative shifting.

Also Read: Instrumental Conditioning on Psychology

10. Law of Availability

This law refers to the ease with which an individual can make a specific response. Thorndike explains that an individual can make use of his knowledge permanently on various discrete occasions. Provided the learning process is complete and accurate connections are developed between the relevant data.

Thus, this means that the development of an important skill after the previous stage of learning depends upon your capacity to make use of the data. That is the data that you learned in the previous stages of learning.

Such skill development does not only depend on your capacity to use the learned data. But it also depends on your capability to connect the learned data to a given situation using Trial and Error.

Law Of Primacy And Recency

E.L. Thorndike postulated multiple laws of learning. Law of Primacy and Law of Recency is the other two laws of learning under Thorndike’s Theory of Learning.

  • Law of Primacy

The Law of Primacy refers to the State of Being First. This means that things learned first to create a strong and unshakeable impression on the mind of an individual. That is, what is learned first is the best.

This is why it is important for instructors or teachers to teach students correctly for the first time. And it is important for the student to learn things correctly the first time. If the student learns a technique incorrectly for the first time, then he would have to relearn the technique all over again.

Thus, the process of relearning could be confusing and time-consuming. That’s why it is important that whatever is taught must be right the first time. Hence, the instructors must explain the subject matter to the students in an orderly manner. They should teach techniques to students step by step.

Furthermore, the instructors must also ensure that the students have properly learned what was taught in the previous step. Hence, it is important for instructors to prepare a lesson plan. Such a plan helps the instructors to deliver the subject matter in a correct manner.

Also, the task should not be learned in isolation

  • Law of Recency

As per APA, “Law of Recency refers to a memory phenomenon in which the most recently presented facts, impressions, or items are learned or remembered better than the material presented earlier”. Such an effect can occur in both formal learning situations and social contexts.

Thus, the recency effect is the tendency of an individual to remember the most recently presented information in the best way. Such an effect occurs as a result of the things getting stored in your short-term memory.

Unlike working memory, short-term memory holds a small amount of information for a very brief period of time. Thus, you tend to forget information if there is a long delay in recalling the information learned most recently.

For instance, a lecturer can perceive a student’s abilities inaccurately due to the influence of the most recent information received about that student. The student can learn the most important topics of a given subject matter at the beginning (primacy effect). And use the last part of the study session to recall the newly learned information. The middle period of the study session acts as downtime and can be utilized for reviewing the previously learned lessons.

Thorndike Reinforcement Theory

In contrast to classical conditioning, the Behavioral Theories of Learning propose that the consequences of past behaviors have an impact on the behavior of an individual in the future. That is the consequences of behavior lead to a change in the future probability of the occurrence of such behavior.

Edward Thorndike’s Law of Effect has been one of the earliest empirical laws in the history of behavioral psychology.

As per this law, the response made to a given situation may firmly connect or bond with such a situation, other things remaining equal. Provided such a response leads to the satisfaction of the animal will. Hence, such a response is more likely to recur when such a situation crops up again.

However, the response made to a given situation may reduce its connection or bond with the given situation, other things remaining equal. Provided such a response leads to the dissatisfaction of or discomfort to the animal will. Hence, such a response is less likely to recur when such a situation recurs.

Hypothesis of Thorndike’s Reinforcement Theory

Thorndike suggested that this description of Law Of Effect is an elementary and complex description of reinforcers and punishers. B.F. Skinner in 1938 proposed the terms reinforcers and punishers. Moreover, the terms used to describe the law are vulnerable to interpretation.

However, Edward Lee Thorndike further postulated that the terms satisfiers and annoyers can be defined independently and not just in the context of learning. He stated that satisfiers and annoyers are the stimuli that an animal or a human accepts or rejects respectively.

Furthermore, Thorndike made a great amount of effort in recommending various ways through which these emotional states can be achieved. However, RA Champion in 1960 via his Journal Reinforcement and Learning Theory empirically tested that Thorndike’s Law had limited application. That is, the implicit supposition of Satisfiers being Strengtheners and Annoyers being weakeners in the Law are limited in scope.

Also, K.F. Muenziner in 1938 in his Journal Part VI of Symposium On The Law of Effect proved via experiments that Edward Thorndike’s Law was incomplete.

Skinner’s Law Of Effect

Edward Thorndike’s Law postulated that the consequences of behavior lead to changing the future probability of occurrence of such behavior. As per Thorndike’s Law of Learning, responses that lead to a satisfying state of affairs are strengthened. Whereas, the responses that result in an unpleasant or annoying state of affairs are weakened.

Now, B.F. Skinner adopted this notion in his contemporary conception of reward and punishment. B.F. Skinner’s Law of Effect further enhanced Thorndike’s incomplete description of reinforcement.

As per Skinner’s Operant Conditioning Theory, there are two types of behaviors: respondent and operant behavior.

Respondent Behavior

Respondent Behavior refers to a response that is quite spontaneous as a result of an individual being exposed to a stimulus occurring in the environment.

For example, your eyes shut automatically when you get exposed to too much sunlight. This is a reflexive behavior and it is evoked by the environment directly

Whereas, many of our behaviors are not generated by the environment. Rather, they are generated by us, humans. By showcasing such behaviors, we operate upon the environment. These behaviors are referred to as Operant Behaviors.

For example, eating, talking, dancing, singing, reading, writing, etc are all behaviors that are not forced upon us by the environment. Instead, these behaviors are emitted by us.

Operant Behavior

Operant Conditioning is a process that involves changes in human behavior depending upon the consequences that follow a specific behavior.

That is to say, in B.F. Skinner’s Theory of Operant Conditioning, the likelihood that a particular behavior will occur changes depending upon the behavior that followed as a result of the outcome of an event.

Thus, if the outcome of an event is positive and it leads to a positive change in human behavior, then there is an increased likelihood that such behavior would be repeated.

However, if the outcome of an event is negative and it leads to a negative change in human behavior, then there is an increased likelihood that an individual would avoid repeating such behaviors.

Now, four basic principles of operant conditioning determine the occurrence of a particular behavior. Two of these procedures result in strengthening, enhancing, or increasing the rate of behavior. While the other two result in weakening or decreasing the rate of behavior.

The principles of operant conditioning that strengthen or increase the rate of behaviors are called Reinforcement. Whereas the procedures that reduce the rate of behavior are called Punishment.

I. Reinforcement

As per Skinner’s theory, operant conditioning reinforcement refers to the stimulus events that strengthen or increase the rate of behavior occurring before such events or reinforcers. The Operant Reinforcement can be of two types: positive reinforcement and negative reinforcement.

  • Positive Reinforcement

Operant conditioning positive reinforcement refers to the consequences or stimulus events that result in strengthening or increasing the rate of behavior that precedes them. This means if the consequence of a specific behavior leads to an increase in the occurrence of such behavior in the near future, such a consequence or stimulus event acts as a positive reinforcer.

  • Negative Reinforcement

Negative Reinforcement in Operant Conditioning refers to the negative reinforcers which are the stimulus events or unpleasant consequences that result in increasing or enhancing specific behaviors that allow an individual or an organism to avoid or escape such stimulus events. Skinner’s Negative Reinforcement, thus means that the unpleasant consequences reinforce the individual not to exhibit the behavior that resulted in unpleasant consequences. In a nutshell, negative reinforcers are unpleasant events that increase the rate of behavior that results in escaping from or avoiding such stimulus events.

  • Primary Reinforcement

Primary reinforcement is also sometimes referred to as Unconditional Reinforcer or Unconditioned Stimulus. Such reinforcers are the ones that occur naturally as a response to the presented stimulus. Positive reinforcers are associated with our basic needs and are biologically important for our survival. These reinforcers do not require any kind of learning in order to perform the work. For instance, food, air, water, and sleep are a few of the examples of primary reinforcers.

  • Secondary Reinforcement

Secondary Reinforcement is also referred to as Conditioned Reinforcement. It acquires its reinforcement value only when it is associated with a primary reinforcer. Such reinforcement involves using a stimulus that becomes reinforcing after it is paired with a primary reinforcer. For instance, money is not a primary reinforcer. Rather, it is a secondary reinforcer as you can utilize it to meet basic necessities such as food, shelter, and clothing.

II. Punishment

Under Operant Conditioning Punishment refers to an event or condition that reduces the likelihood of the occurrence of a specific response or behavior. Provided the punishment is given on a consistent basis following such a specific response or behavior.

For instance, if you are unable to submit an assignment on time to your class teacher, your teacher scolds you or maybe refuses to accept your assignment. By giving such a punishment, your teacher expects that you would submit your assignments on time in the near future.

So just like Reinforcement, Punishment can also be Positive or Negative.

  • Positive Punishment

Operant Conditioning Positive Punishment refers to a situation where the occurrence of a specific behavior reduces as an unpleasant event, condition, or thing is presented in consequence of exhibiting such a specific behavior.

Say, if your child misbehaves and you scold him so that he doesn’t behave in such a way in the near future, this is what is called positive punishment.

  • Negative Punishment

Operant Conditioning Negative Punishment refers to a situation where the probability of specific behavior to occur reduces as a pleasant event, condition, or a thing is withdrawn or removed in consequence of exhibiting such a specific behavior.

Say, if your child misbehaves and you stop talking to him in your normal cheerful way so that he doesn’t misbehave in near future, this is what is referred to as Negative Punishment.

Now, you might be wondering that both Negative Reinforcement and Negative Punishment in Operant Conditioning involve the use of unpleasant stimuli. So, does this mean that negative reinforcement and punishment are one and the same?

Well, negative reinforcement in operant conditioning is used to bring out the desired behavior. Whereas, Punishment is used to stop undesirable behavior.

Thus, a negative reinforcer compels you to act in the desired way and stop the unpleasant condition. Whereas, Punishment makes you associate an unpleasant condition with the undesirable behavior you exhibited before. In other words, a punishment stops you from repeating unpleasant behaviors.

Advanced Psychology