Edward L. Thorndike (1874-1949)


It is said that Thorndike's interest in psychology started when he read William James's 'Principles' while an undergraduate at Wesleyan University (Schultz 1981). How fortunate this was because he went on to become a great scholar publishing many books and articles on psychology and education. James featured prominently in Thorndikes's early scholarly career. It was at Harvard where Thorndike studied under James and where he began his investigation of animal learning.

Thorndike's early animal research was with chicks that he trained to run through makeshift mazes. At one point he had difficulty in finding room for his chicks when James offered to let him keep them in his basement.

Thorndike did not complete his education at Harvard and was offered a fellowship by Cattell at Columbia University. There he continued his animal research working with cats and dogs and using a puzzle box that he made himself.

Thorndike was awarded his doctorate in 1898 aged 24 and he published his thesis that year titled 'Animal Intelligence: An Experimental Study of the Associative Processes in Animals'.

Thorndike became an instructor in psychology at Teachers College, Columbia soon after gaining his doctorate. He remained there for the rest of his career.

Summary of Theories

Law of Effect:
Responses just prior to a satisfying state of affairs are more likely to be repeated. Responses just prior to an annoying state of affairs are more likely not to be repeated. (Lefrancois 2000)

Law of Exercise:
Bonds between stimuli and responses are strengthened through being exercised frequently, recently and vigorously. (Lefrancois 2000)

Law of Readiness:
Certain behaviours are more likely to be learned than others are. When a conduction unit is ready to conduct…to do so is satisfying and not to do so is annoying…when a conduction unit is not ready to conduct being forced to do so is annoying. (Lefrancois 2000)

Thorndike's conclusions were derived mainly through research using the puzzle box. Thorndike believed that like the cat in the puzzle box, when someone or something is in a situation and are forced to respond which will lead to a solution, a connection is formed between the two. The learning of this connection was phrased 'stamping in' by Thorndike.

Thorndike focused on behaviour rather than consciousness to explain how stamping in occurred. To study behaviour then, it had to be broken down to a simple element called stimulus-response units (Schultz 1981). These elements of behaviour became the composites of more complex behaviours and thus the above mentioned laws relate to different aspects of stamping in behaviours.

I Was Wrong!

Around the time of 1930, Thorndike revised or modified some of the theories. With regard to the Law of Exercise, he claimed that repetition does not affect learning. The Law of Effect he claimed that annoying outcomes do relatively little to the strength of a connection. Thorndike's Learning by Ideas demonstrated that ideas were important in human learning – a more cognitive approach to learning than before.


This site is just a brief overview of the life and theories of Edward Thorndike. Thorndike's theories of learning have made great contributions to education and psychological testing. It is agreed with Lefrancois (2000) that Thorndike presented a very clear and definite point of view which is to his credit. It is an admirable quality in a theorist to admit they were wrong. This shows that we must continue to question theories in an effort to help find the answers.


Lefrancois, G. R. (2000) Theories of Human Learning (4th Ed.) Belmont: Wadsworth

Schultz, D. (1981), A History of Modern Psychology (3
rd Ed.) New York: Academic Press

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