E. L. Thorndike Introduction

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(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.