Edward Thorndike biography, quotes and books

Edward Thorndike | Toolshero

Edward Thorndike (August 31, 1874 – August 9, 1949) was an influential American psychologist and educator, often referred to as the founder of modern educational psychology. He worked as a psychology professor at Columbia University for most of his career. Edward Lee Thorndike was known for his puzzle box experiments and the law of effect. This article will explain more on this and also dive into Thorndike’s contribution to psychology.

Biography of Edward Thorndike

Edward Thorndike was born in Williamsburg, Massachusetts, on August 31, 1874. He was the son of a minister, but was not religious himself. For him science was “the only sure foundation for social progress.” All four children in the Thorndike household excelled academically and established academic careers. This was not surprising, as excellence was expected from these role models within a church congregation.

The family moved a lot throughout New England, whenever Reverend Thorndike was assigned by the church to minister elsewhere. So, once Edward was able to put down roots in once place, he did. At the age of 33, he built a home at Montrose, New York, and taught at Teachers College, Columbia University, for forty years. He stayed in Montrose till his death in 1949.

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Before he started teaching, Edward earned his M.A. at Harvard University in 1897 and completed his Ph.D. at Columbia University in 1898. While at Harvard, he was first interested in how animals learn (ethology) and after this became interested in the study of man. He then devoted his life to this study.

Edward Thorndike Contribution to Psychology

Puzzle Box

Edward Thorndike is considered a pioneer in behaviorism and the study of learning. He was also a pioneer in using animals in clinical experiments. His now classic study of learning, Animal Intelligence (1898), was the first to use the puzzle box to test animal learning. In each box cats would have to perform a certain response (R), like pushing a button or pulling a lever, in order to escape and get fed, while Thorndike measured how long it took them.

Thorndike believed that animals learned through a process of reward and punishment. His experiments convinced him that animal learning did not involve reasoning, but rested on the presence of some situation or stimulus (S) that required the animal to perform various responses (R). Through trial and error the most adaptive response is eventually made. Thorndike therefore opposed statements that animals use insight in learning.

Law of Effect

In 1905 Edward Thorndike published the law of effect, based on his puzzle box experiments. The law of effect states that “responses that produce a satisfying effect in a particular situation become more likely to occur again in that situation, and responses that produce a discomforting effect become less likely to occur again in that situation.” It introduced the relationship between reinforcing and punishing behavior.

Thorndike stressed the importance of the situation or stimulus (S) in bringing forth the response (R). The cat would not press a lever if it was not in the puzzle box, and it would not press the lever inside the puzzle box if not stimulated by hunger and a desire to escape. Once the cat recognizes the box, the bars, and the lever, it remembers what the correct response is. Thorndike thus argues that learning and the law of effect are context-specific.

Behaviorism, Learning Theory and New Psychology

The law of effect is considered Edward Thorndike’s greatest achievement. He later had to adjust his theories, however, as he found that a satisfying effect indeed reinforced behavior, but punishment was not effective in adjusting behavior. He did stress that the consequences of behavior set the foundation for learning. This marks the transition from the school of functionalism to the school of behaviorism.

Thorndike’s work also allowed for a focus on learning theory within psychology and set in motion further research, like that of B.F. Skinner and Clark Hull. There were several other behavioral psychologists, as well as Gestalt psychologists and psychologists that studied conditioned reflex, who also studied Thorndike’s research as a starting point.

Thorndike taught psychology to many teachers and school administrators at Teachers College. Initially, he taught them about what had already been written about learning and behavior in psychology. Later, he constructed a new educational psychology that was more in line with the ‘new psychology’ that was coming forth from German and American research centers.

Family Life

Edward Thorndike had married his wife Elizabeth Moulton in 1900. They moved into their home in Montrose, New York, in 1907, and the couple had four children. Like their father, they all earned Ph.D. degrees; Elizabeth Frances in mathematics, Edward Moulton and Alan in physics and Robert Ladd in psychology.

Thorndike died in Montrose at almost 75 years of age, on August 9, 1949. He left behind his widow Elizabeth and his then four grown children.

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Famous quotes

  1. “Amongst the minds of animals that of man leads, not as a demigod from another planet, but as a king from the same race.”
  2. “Dogs get lost hundreds of times and no one ever notices it or sends an account of it to a scientific magazine.”
  3. “For origin and development of human faculty we must look to these processes of association in lower animals.”
  4. “From the lowest animals of which we can affirm intelligence up to man this type of intellect is found.”
  5. “Human beings are accustomed to think of intellect as the power of having and controlling ideas and of ability to learn as synonymous with ability to have ideas. But learning by having ideas is really one of the rare and isolated events in nature.”
  6. “Human education is concerned with certain changes in the intellects, characters and behavior of men, its problems being roughly included under these four topics: Aims, materials, means and methods.”
  7. “Human folk are as a matter of fact eager to find intelligence in animals.”
  8. “It will, of course, be understood that directly or indirectly, soon or late, every advance in the sciences of human nature will contribute to our success in controlling human nature and changing it to the advantage of the common weal.”
  9. “Just as the science and art of agriculture depend upon chemistry and botany, so the art of education depends upon physiology and psychology.”
  10. “Nowhere more truly than in his mental capacities is man a part of nature.”
  11. “On the whole, the psychological work of the last quarter of the nineteenth century emphasized the study of consciousness to the neglect of the total life of intellect and character.”
  12. “Psychology helps to measure the probability that an aim is attainable.”
  13. “Psychology is the science of the intellects, characters and behavior of animals including man.”
  14. “So the animal finally performs in that situation only the fitting act.”
  15. “Some statements concern the conscious states of the animal, what he is to himself as an inner life; others concern his original and acquired ways of response, his behavior, what he is an outside observer.”
  16. “The commonest error of the gifted scholar, inexperienced in teaching, is to expect pupils to know what they have been told. But telling is not teaching. The expression of facts that are in one’s mind is a natural impulse when one wishes others to know these facts, just as to cuddle and pat a sick child is a natural impulse. But telling a fact to a child may not cure his ignorance of it any more than patting him will cure his scarlet fever.”
  17. “The dog, on the other hand, has few or no ideas because his brain acts in coarse fashion and because there are few connections with each single process.”
  18. “The function of intellect is to provide a means of modifying our reactions to the circumstances of life, so that we may secure pleasure, the symptom of welfare.”
  19. “The intellectual evolution of the race consists in an increase in the number, delicacy, complexity, permanence and speed of formation of such associations.”
  20. “The real difference between a man’s scientific judgments about himself and the judgment of others about him is he has added sources of knowledge.”
  21. “The restriction of studies of human intellect and character to studies of conscious states was not without influence on a scientific studies of animal psychology.”
  22. “The un-conscious distortion of the facts is almost harmless compared to the unconscious neglect of an animal’s mental life until it verges on the unusual and marvelous.”
  23. “There is no reasoning, no process of inference or comparison; there is no thinking about things, no putting two and two together; there are no ideas – the animal does not think of the box or of the food or of the act he is to perform.”
  24. “This growth in the number, speed of formation, permanence, delicacy and complexity of associations possible for an animal reaches its acme in the case of man.”
  25. “To the intelligent man with an interest in human nature it must often appear strange that so much of the energy of the scientific world has been spent on the study of the body and so little on the study of the mind.”
  26. “When, instead of merely associating some act with some situation in the animal way, we think the situation out, we have a set of particular feelings of its elements.”

Books & Publications Edward Thorndike et al.

  • 2017. Animal intelligence: Experimental studies. Routledge.
  • 2013. The principles of teaching: Based on psychology. Routledge.
  • 2013. The elements of psychology. Routledge.
  • 2013. Education Psychology: briefer course (Vol. 31). Routledge.
  • 1946. The psychology of semantics. The American journal of psychology, 59(4), 613-632.
  • 1944. The teacher’s word book of 30,000 words.
  • 1943. The origin of superior men. The Scientific Monthly, 56(5), 424-433.
  • 1943. Man and his works. Harvard University Press.
  • 1936. Science and values. Science, 83(2140), 1-8.
  • 1935. The psychology of wants, interests and attitudes.
  • 1933. A proof of the law of effect. Science, 77(1989), 173-175.
  • 1932. The fundamentals of learning.
  • 1931. The evolution of learning in recent times: Future possibilities.
  • 1927. The law of effect. The American journal of psychology, 39(1/4), 212-222.
  • 1925. The measurement of intelligence. New York, Bureau of Publications, Teachers College, Columbia University.
  • 1924. Mental discipline in high school studies. Journal of Educational Psychology, 15(1), 1.
  • 1924. Measurement of Intelligence. Psychological Review, 31(3), 219.
  • 1921. The original nature of man (Vol. 1). Рипол Классик.
  • 1917. Reading as reasoning: A study of mistakes in paragraph reading. Journal of Educational psychology, 8(6), 323.
  • 1916. Notes on practice, improvability, and the curve of work. The American Journal of Psychology, 27(4), 550-565.
  • 1914. The measurement of ability in reading: Preliminary scales and tests. Teachers College Record, 15(4), 1-9.
  • 1914. Mental work and fatigue and individual differences and their causes. Educational Psychology (Vol. 3).
  • 1913. An introduction to the theory of mental and social measurements.
  • 1912. The measurement of educational products. The School Review, 20(5), 289-299.
  • 1910. Handwriting. Teachers College Record, 11(2), 1-11.
  • 1908. The elimination of pupils from school (No. 4). US Government Printing Office.
  • 1908. Memory for paired associates. Psychological review, 15(2), 122.
  • 1901. The influence of improvement in one mental function upon the efficiency of other functions. III. Functions involving attention, observation and discrimination. Psychological Review, 8(6), 553.
  • 1901. The influence of improvement in one mental function upon the efficiency of other functions. II. The estimation of magnitudes. Psychological Review, 8(4), 384.
  • 1901. The influence of improvement in one mental function upon the efficiency of other functions. I. Psychological Review, 8(3), 247.
  • 1900. Mental fatigue. I. Psychological Review, 7(6), 547.
  • 1898. Some experiments on animal intelligence. Science, 7(181), 818-824.
  • 1898. Animal intelligence: An experimental study of the associative processes in animals. The Psychological Review: Monograph Supplements, 2(4), i.

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Sheryl Lynn Baas
Article by:

Sheryl Lynn Baas

Sheryl Lynn Baas is our Communications Manager at Toolshero and you might recognize her from our learning videos. Sheryl’s academic background is in Cultural Anthropology and Development Sociology and she is the founder of the Sheryl Lynn Foundation, a non-profit for children and education in the Philippines. She’s a jack-of-all-trades and furthermore shares her gifts as a spiritual coach, presenter and DJ. Fun fact: she is former Miss Netherlands 2006.


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