Edward Thorndike

Edward Lee Thorndike (pr [θ’oRn Daik].) ( Williamsburg , 31 August of 1874 – Montrose , 9 August of 1949 ) was an American psychologist and pedagogue, considered a forerunner of behaviorism American. His main contributions were trial / error learning and the law of effect . His studies on animal behavior allowed him to develop the theory of connectionism .


He was born in 1874 in a Protestant family of Methodist confession ; Was the second son of Edwward Roberts Thorndike and Abbie Ladd Thorndike (his father was pastor of one of these churches), which made discipline and austerity the sign of the early years of his life. Thorndike was one of the first psychologists to receive his education entirely in the United States. In 1891 he finished high school as a student at Wesleyan University , where he graduated in 1895. He entered the Wesleyan University of Connecticut , where he graduated in 1895.

He then went to Harvard University , where he had William James as his teacher . His research with chicks did them in the same basement of James. In principle, he became interested in communication through unconscious gestures (due to the information that came to him on a horse that performed arithmetic operations). He later worked as a tutor at Columbia University in New York , where he obtained his doctorate in 1898. He married on August 29, 1900, with Elizabeth Moulton. He was the father of five children, only one dedicated to Educational Psychology and specializing in Psychometrics .

He continued teaching at Columbia until his retirement in 1941. He died in 1949.


His most important contribution is the formulation of the so-called law of effect , based on the studies he made with cats in problem boxes from which they had to escape. The law of effect will explain Skinner ‘s theory of operant conditioning.

Edward L. Thorndike was professor of psychology for more than thirty years in the Teachers College of Columbia, the United States. What most attracted his interest was the theory of learning, and is among the important precursors of behaviorism. Watson was based largely on Thorndike’s work and Pavlov’s. Thorndike’s interest in psychology appeared after a course at Harvard where he taught William James. Thorndike’s earliest experiments on learning, in which experimental subjects were chicks, were performed precisely in the basement of James’s house, to the delight of James’s children. The many fables and traditional tales that tell the wonders of the intelligence of the animals did not impress Thorndike, who on the contrary maintained that no one had bothered to describe animal stupidity. ” For every dog ​​that finds its way home, ” he said ,there are perhaps a hundred that are lost.” Thorndike argued that animals do not reason or advance in solving problems through sudden outbursts of introvision, but rather learn in a more or less mechanical way, starting from a method of trial and error. The behaviors that are fruitful and rewarding are “imprinted” on the nervous system.

According to Thorndike, learning consists of a series of connections between a stimulus and a response, which are strengthened whenever they generate a satisfactory state of affairs for the organism. This theory provided the basis upon which Burrhus Frederic Skinner later built his entire edifice on operant conditioning .

Later, Thorndike applied his methods for the training of animals to children and young people, with considerable success, and came to have great predicaments within the field of educational psychology.

Thorndike and Operant Conditioning

Thorndike’s experiments show two important factors of operant conditioning. The first is the operant response, it is performed when a particular response (operant response) is chosen between several behaviors and then we focus on observing and modifying it.

The second element is the consequence that accompanies the behavior, that is to say what is known as reinforcement . A reinforcement is an action (consequence) that aims to increase the likelihood of a repeat behavior.

For Thorndike, the use of reinforcement is of the utmost importance. This is reflected in his law of effect, which says, “Under equal circumstances, the responses that are accompanied or followed immediately by satisfaction will tend to be repeated; Those that are accompanied or followed immediately by annoyance will be less likely to occur. ”


His book Educational Psychology ( Educational Psychology or Educational Psychology ) was published in 1903, and the following year was awarded the rank of full professor. Another of his influential book was Introduction to the Theory of Mental and Social Measurements ( Introduction to the theory of mental and social measurements ) of 1904. Today it is recognized Thorndike as a leading figure in the early development of tests Psychological .


  • Educational Psychology , ( 1903 ).
  • Introduction to the Theory of Mental and Social Measurements , ( 1904 ).
  • The Elements of Psychology , ( 1905 ).
  • Animal Intelligence , ( 1911 ).
  • The Teacher’s Word Book , ( 1921 ).
  • The Measurement of Intelligence , ( 1927 ).
  • A Teacher’s Word Book of the Twenty Thousand Words Found Most Frequently and Widely in General Reading for Children and Young People , ( 1932 ).
  • The Fundamentals of Learning , ( 1932 ).
  • The Psychology of Wants, Interests, and Attitudes , ( 1935 ).
  • The Teacher’s Word Book of 30,000 Words (in collaboration with Irving Lorge ), ( 1944 ).


Morris, C. (2001). Introduction to Psychology – 10b: Edicion . United States: Prentice Hall

Vargas Mendoza, JE (2008). Edward Lee Thorndike. Retrieved from http://www.conductitlan.net/edward_lee_thorndike.ppt

PsicoA. (1998). Biography of Edward Lee Thorndike . Retrieved May 20, 2016, from http://www.psicoactiva.com/biografia/edward-lee-thorndike.htm