Ninth Edition CoverGraziano & Raulin
Research Methods (9th edition)

Edward Lee Thorndike (1874-1949) was an American psychologist, who began his studies under William James at Harvard. 

Thorndike wanted to conduct research on learning in children, but university officials forbade it for fear of negative public reaction to the use of children in research. So Thorndike turned to use of animals--specifically, chicks. He completed his studies at Columbia with Cattell and remained there on the faculty until retirement (1898 to 1939).

Thorndike developed puzzle boxes for his animal research. His dissertation, Animal Intelligence: An Experimental Study of the Associative Process in Animals, was published in 1898. This work was a major contribution to the new animal psychology and is recognized as one of the foundations for the later development of behaviorism.

Thorndike developed several important concepts in learning, which became the bases for much of the subsequent models in behaviorism. These included:

  1. the law of effect, which states that any act will be more likely to occur if it is associated with a satisfying state of affairs;
  2. the law of exercise, which states that a response occurring in a particular situation will become associated with that situation. The strength of the association will vary with the frequency of the occurrence of the response in that setting.

Central to these laws is the concept of association, which Thorndike termed connectionism. All learning, according to Thorndike, is “connecting.” The person’s mind is that person's “connection system.” To be studied effectively, behavior must be viewed in terms of its simplest elements, the stimulus-response unit in which behavior becomes “connected” to environmental factors (the stimuli) through the operation of the laws of learning.

Thorndike soon returned to his original interest, human learning, with an emphasis on children’s learning. He founded the Journal of Educational Psychology in 1910, wrote a number of textbooks including The Elements of Psychology (1905) and Human Learning (1931), became America’s foremost educational psychologist, and was elected to the presidency of the American Psychological Association. 

Thorndike’s huge research output of more than 500 papers and books was monumental in its impact on psychology (Schultz & Schultz, 2008). He contributed to the mental testing movement, educational psychology, animal psychology, behaviorism, learning theory, experimental methods, and the entire functional psychology movement.

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