E. L. Thorndike Essay - Critical Essays

Thorndike, E. L.


E. L. Thorndike 1874-1949

(Full name Edward Lee Thorndike) American psychologist and educator.

Thorndike was a pioneer in American psychology and education theory. His research into reward and punishment in learning—known as connectionism—led to the widely used stimulus-response theories that followed, and he made many other significant contributions to his field.

Biographical Information

Thorndike was born in Williamsburg, Massachusetts, in 1874. He received his bachelor's degree from Wesleyan University in 1895 and another B.A. from Harvard the following year, where he studied under William James. In 1897 he graduated with a master's degree from Harvard and then attended Columbia University, where he earned his Ph.D. in 1898. Thorndike served in the United States Army as chairman of the Committee on Classification of Personnel and as a member of the Advisory Board in the office of the surgeon general's Division of Psychology from 1917 to 1918. Thorndike had an extensive career in education, working as a professor at numerous colleges and universities between 1898 and 1949. He belonged to and served as president of many professional organizations, including the American Psychological Association, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Association for Adult Education, and the Psychometric Society. He died in 1949.

Major Works

Thorndike published more than five hundred books and articles, most of them reports of his own experiments. His doctoral thesis, “Animal Intelligence: An Experimental Study of Associative Processes in Animals” (1898), became one of his best-known works because of its groundbreaking research into the ways animals learn. In particular, Thorndike noted the importance of the completion of an act successfully followed by positive reinforcement, and he would later apply his findings to the learning patterns of humans in Notes on Child Study (1901) and An Introduction to the Theory of Mental and Social Measurements (1904). Thorndike's three-volume Educational Psychology (1913-14) became the standard in its field and ensured Thorndike's reputation as an eminent American psychologist. In the years just prior to the First World War, Thorndike began writing and publishing a series of standardized educational and intelligence tests. During World War I he served on the committee that administered many similar tests to military personnel, and he published several studies on military psychology. Thorndike came to disagree with the common notion of an overall general factor of intelligence, positing instead his idea that there was a limitless number of measurably intelligent acts that may or may not overlap. His Measurement of Intelligence (1926) illustrates this theory and seeks to apply the tests Thorndike had used during the war to civilian children. In Human Learning (1931) and The Fundamentals of Learning (1932) Thorndike presented summarized versions of his experiments and beliefs. Articles published during the 1930s demonstrate the evolution of Thorndike's thoughts on the reward-and-punishment, or connectionism, system of learning. Punishment, Thorndike came to believe, served a lesser purpose and was chiefly useful in causing the subject to search for the correct answer; reward he found to be clearly superior in encouraging students to learn. In the 1940s Thorndike was mainly interested in language studies and the question of the influence of nature versus environment on human psychology.

Critical Reception

Thorndike had many critics during his lifetime, most of whom found the experimental situations he devised to be overly restrictive and his theories of learning to ignore the complexities of human behavior. But while more recent research into educational psychology has shifted significantly from Thorndike's interest in connectionism, Thorndike himself is recognized as having had a profound influence on twentieth-century learning theory.

Principal Works

The Human Nature Club: An Introduction to the Study of Mental Life (nonfiction) 1901

Notes on Child Study (nonfiction) 1901

Educational Psychology (nonfiction) 1903

An Introduction to the Theory of Mental and Social Measurements (nonfiction) 1904

The Elements of Psychology (nonfiction) 1905

Principles of Teaching (nonfiction) 1906

Animal Intelligence: Experimental Studies (nonfiction) 1911

Individuality (nonfiction) 1911

Educational Psychology. 3 vols. (nonfiction) 1913-14

Educational Psychology: Briefer Course (nonfiction) 1914

Reading Scales (nonfiction) 1919

The Teacher's Word Book (nonfiction) 1921

The Psychology of Arithmetic (nonfiction) 1922

The Psychology of Algebra (nonfiction) 1923

The Measurement of Intelligence (nonfiction) 1926

Elementary Principles of Education [with A. I. Gates] (nonfiction) 1929

Human Learning (nonfiction) 1931

The Fundamentals of Learning (nonfiction) 1932

Predictions of Vocational Success (nonfiction) 1934

The Psychology of Wants, Interests, and Attitudes (nonfiction) 1935

The Teaching of Controversial Subjects (nonfiction) 1937

Education as Cause and Symptom (nonfiction) 1939

Your City (nonfiction) 1939

Human Nature and the Social Order (nonfiction) 1940

Man and His Works (nonfiction) 1943

Psychology and the Science of Education: Selected Writings [edited by Geraldine M. Jonchich] (nonfiction) 1962


Henry Davidson Sheldon (review date 1904)

SOURCE: A review of Educational Psychology, in The Dial, Vol. XXXVI, No. 428, April 16, 1904, pp. 263-65.

[In the following excerpt, Sheldon praises Educational Psychology but points out that progress in the field will be slow despite Thorndike's work.]

Students of genetic psychology or child study have long been waiting for some well-organized general survey which should present in readable form the results of the many studies in this field. Prof. E. A. Kirkpatrick, in his Fundamentals of Child Study, has attempted to meet this demand and at the same time write a text-book for class use in normal schools and colleges. The larger half of his book is devoted to a discussion of the different human instincts from infancy to manhood; the author by this method avoids the necessity of marking off and characterizing the periods of growth. Aside from instincts, the subjects dealt with are physical growth and development, native motor activities and general order of development, development of intellect, heredity, individuality, abnormalities, and child study applied in schools. Appended to each chapter is a list of questions bearing on the text but not covered by it, designed to stimulate independent thought among the students. Each chapter also contains a bibliography, well adapted for class use, of the materials used. The general bibliography at the beginning of the book is by no means as judiciously selected, works of great value by such men as Preyer, Baldwin, Sully, and Compayré being mentioned by the side of Wiggin's Children's Rights and Du Bois's Beckoning of Little Hands. This, however, is a matter of small importance. Considering the difficulties of the subject, Professor Kirkpatrick's book must be pronounced a success of the first order. The author's thorough knowledge of psychology has protected him from crude generalizations; his sense of proportion is good; the material is well digested, and the practical suggestions that he ventures upon from time to time are...

(The entire section is 846 words.)

The Dial (review date 1905)

SOURCE: A review of Elements of Psychology in, The Dial, Vol. XXXIX, No. 457, July 1, 1905, p. 19.

[In the following review of Elements of Psychology, the critic praises the book but notes a lack of “desirable literary value and consistent exposition.”]

A text-book of Elements of Psychology, recently added to the considerable group that reflects the present-day interest in the subject, brings as its distinctive contribution the emphasis upon the practical reaction which the student is induced to make to the principles set before him. The author is Professor Thorndike, of the Teachers' College of Columbia University, who brings to his task vigor...

(The entire section is 259 words.)

Margaret Floy Washburn (review date 1912)

SOURCE: A review of Animal Intelligence: Experimental Studies, in The Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 9, No. 7, March 28, 1912, pp. 193-94.

[In the following review, Washburn praises Animal Intelligence: Experimental Studies.]

All psychologists will be glad to have Thorndike's experimental work on the intelligence of animals brought together in this convenient form. The thesis on “Animal Intelligence,” which was for many of us the first intimation that a real science of comparative psychology was possible, has been for some time out of print. It is here reprinted, together with the paper on “The Instinctive Reactions of Young Chicks,” the “Note on the...

(The entire section is 1144 words.)

F. C. Bartlett (review date 1945)

SOURCE: A review of Man and His Works, in Mind, Vol. LIV, No. 213, January, 1945, pp. 161-71.

[In the following review, Bartlett asserts that his impression of Thorndike as an ingenious researcher was confirmed after reading Man and His Works.]

Professor Thorndike plunges at once into a discussion of Nature's gifts to Man [in Man and His Works]. He prefers genetic language, and calls the gifts in which he is most interested ‘genes’. Others have called them ‘tendencies’, ‘predispositions’, ‘instincts’, and even, sometimes, ‘faculties’. Whatever name they are given they are always supposed to have some special concern with action. They...

(The entire section is 5243 words.)

Simeon Potter (review date 1945)

SOURCE: A review of Man and His Works, in The Modern Language Review, Vol. 40, No. 3, July, 1945, pp. 149-50.

[In the following review, Potter finds the lectures collected in Man and His Works “eminently readable: shrewd, witty and vivacious.”]

The William James Lectures, delivered recently at Harvard by Edward Lee Thorndike, have now been published in an attractive volume bearing the comprehensive title Man and His Works. These lectures are eminently readable: shrewd, witty and vivacious. Their themes range from the inherited causative agents or ‘genes’ of the mind to the laws of man's ‘modifiability’, human relations in general, and...

(The entire section is 607 words.)

Edward L. Thorndike (essay date 1949)

SOURCE: An introduction to Selected Writings From A Connectionist's Psychology, Appleton-Century-Crofts, Inc., 1949, pp. 1-11.

[In the following introduction to Selected Writings from a Connectionist's Psychology, Thorndike provides an autobiographical account of his life and work.]

I have no memory of having heard or seen the word psychology until in my junior year at Wesleyan University (1893-1894), when I took a required course in it. The textbook, Sully's Psychology, aroused no notable interest, nor did the excellent lectures of Professor A. C. Armstrong, though I appreciated and enjoyed the dignity and clarity of his presentation and admired...

(The entire section is 3789 words.)

Geraldine M. Joncich (essay date 1962)

SOURCE: “Science: Touchstone for a New Age in Education,” in Psychology and the Science of Education: Selected Writings of Edward L. Thorndike, edited by Geraldine M. Joncich, Bureau of Publications, Teachers College, Columbia University, 1962, pp. 1-26.

[In the following essay, Joncich explains the revolutionary influence of Thorndike's scientific method of educational psychology.]


Much has been written, both perceptive and foolish, of the influence of philosophy, politics, and business on education. Far too little, however, has been said of the influence of science. Yet science is probably the most significant fact of contemporary life,...

(The entire section is 8397 words.)

Geraldine Joncich (essay date 1968)

SOURCE: “The Thesis: A Classic in Psychology,” in The Sane Positivist: A Biography of Edward L. Thorndike, Wesleyan University Press, 1968, pp. 126-48.

[In the following excerpt from her book The Sane Positivist: A Biography of Edward L. Thorndike, Joncich explicates the major points in Thorndike's thesis “Animal Intelligence” and discusses its reception in the academic community.]

As the year 1898 opens, it finds Thorndike “covering yards of paper with ink.” While his experimental work continues until mid-February, writing has already begun on the project conceived and begun at Harvard in 1896. “The title of my thesis,” he writes Bess [Elizabeth...

(The entire section is 9212 words.)

Geraldine Joncich Clifford (essay date 1968)

SOURCE: “E. L. Thorndike: The Psychologist as Professional Man of Science,” in Historical Conceptions of Psychology, edited by Mary Henle, Julian Jaynes, and John J. Sullivan, eds., Springer Publishing Company, Inc., 1973, pp. 230-45.

[In the following essay, which appeared in an unabridged form in American Psychologist in 1968, and was published in 1973 in Historical Conceptions of Psychology, Clifford discusses the ways in which Thorndike propelled the notion of psychologists and educators as scientists.]

During the celebration of Thorndike's twenty-fifth year at Teachers College, Columbia psychologist James McKeen Cattell (1926) quoted William...

(The entire section is 6700 words.)

Clarence J. Karier (essay date 1986)

SOURCE: “Edward L. Thorndike: Toward a Science of Psychology,” in Scientists of the Mind: Intellectual Founders of Modern Psychology, University of Illinois Press, 1986, pp. 89-105.

[In the following essay, Karier explores the larger cultural and ethical implications of Thorndike's focus on the science of education.]

In one of his rare ventures into fictional writing, Edward L. Thorndike, America's most influential educational psychologist, wrote a very revealing morality play, The Miracle. In it he assumed the character of Dr. Richard Cabot, who, discoursing with a traditional clergyman, said:

My God is all the good in...

(The entire section is 6334 words.)

Barbara Beatty (essay date 1998)

SOURCE: “From Laws of Learning to a Science of Values: Efficiency and Morality in Thorndike's Educational Psychology,” in American Psychologist, Vol. 53, No. 10, October, 1998, pp. 1145-52.

[In the following essay, Beatty discusses the ways in which Thorndike developed and then marketed his notions about using scientific methodology in educational psychology to create an empirical way of measuring morality and character.]

In the first sentence of the expanded 1911 edition of Animal Intelligence Edward L. Thorndike listed “intellect” and “character” (Thorndike, 1911, p. 1) as the two topics of behavioristic psychology. Thorndike researched and...

(The entire section is 6840 words.)

Donald A. Dewsbury (essay date 1998)

SOURCE: “Celebrating E. L. Thorndike a Century After Animal Intelligence,” in American Psychologist, Vol. 53, No. 10, October, 1998, pp. 1121-24.

[In the following essay, Dewsbury provides an overview of Thorndike's life and career.]

This is a year in which to celebrate the career of one of the most productive and influential of all American psychologists, Edward Lee Thorndike (1874-1949). It is the centenary of the publication of his doctoral dissertation, “Animal Intelligence: An Experimental Study of the Associative Processes in Animals” (E. L. Thorndike, 1898), a key work in shifting the focus of much thought about animal behavior and in the...

(The entire section is 2760 words.)

Bennett G. Galef, Jr. (essay date 1998)

SOURCE: “Edward Thorndike: Revolutionary Psychologist, Ambiguous Biologist,” in American Psychologist, Vol. 53, No. 10, October, 1998, pp. 1128-34.

[In the following essay, Galef argues that while Thorndike's contributions to the field of comparative psychology as an empiricist are invaluable, his misconceptions about biology remain damaging to his discipline.]

Publication in June 1898 of Edward Thorndike's doctoral thesis, [Animal Intelligence] the first dissertation in psychology in which animals served as subjects, marked a turning point in the history of the study of behavior in North America. There can be little question that Thorndike knew that his thesis...

(The entire section is 5122 words.)

Further Reading


Joncich, Geraldine. The Sane Positivist: A Biography of Edward L. Thorndike. Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1968, 634 p.

Illustrated biography focusing on Thorndike's professional life.


Goodenough, Florence L. “Edward Lee Thorndike: 1874-1949.” The American Journal of Psychology, LXIII, No. 2 (April 1950): 291-301.

Obituary of Thorndike that provides an overview of his life, career, and major works.

Hilgard, Ernest R. “Thorndike's Connectionism.” In Theories of Learning, 2nd ed., pp. 15-47. New York:...

(The entire section is 134 words.)