Edward Lee Thorndike

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Thorndike, Edward Lee

Thorndike, Edward Lee (thôrnˈdīk), 1874–1949, American educator and psychologist, b. Williamsburg, Mass., grad. Wesleyan Univ., 1895, and Harvard, 1896, Ph.D. Columbia, 1898. Appointed instructor in genetic psychology at Teachers College, Columbia, in 1899, he served there until 1940 (as professor from 1904 and as director of the division of psychology of the Institute of Educational Research from 1922). His great contributions to educational psychology were largely in the methods he devised to test and measure children's intelligence and their ability to learn. He conducted studies in animal psychology and the psychology of learning, and compiled dictionaries for children (1935) and for young adults (1941). The great number of his writings includes Educational Psychology (1903), Mental and Social Measurements (1904), Animal Intelligence (1911), A Teacher's Word Book (1921), Your City (1939), and Human Nature and the Social Order (1940).


See biography by G. M. Joncich (1968).

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Thorndike, Edward Lee


Born Aug. 31, 1874, in Williamsburg, Mass.; died Aug. 9, 1949, in Montrose, N.Y. American psychologist.

A professor at Columbia University from 1904, Thorndike worked primarily in the field of comparative psychology and learning. He devised a system for the study of animal behavior in which problem boxes were used—that is, cages equipped with a hidden mechanism, the secret of which the animal itself must discover. A new type of experiment was thus introduced, wherein movements were registered as responses to a problem situation. Thorndike came to the conclusion that animal behavior lacks goal-directedness—that is, the characteristically human faculty of sudden understanding and decision-making on the basis of a single trial. Picturing the mind of an animal as an instrument for its adaptation to the environment, Thorndike formulated the trial-and-error principle: chance behavior in a trial, when successful, is subsequently reinforced, creating the appearance of purposeful behavior.

Thorndike’s work was instrumental in overcoming anthropomorphic interpretations of animal behavior and introducing objective research methods in the study of behavior. In essence, Thorndike laid down the foundations of behaviorism, although behaviorists have criticized him for not fully eliminating the subjective approach. The limitations of the trial-and-error principle have been demonstrated in Soviet psychology, as well as in works by J. Piaget, G. S. Hall, and E. C. Tolman. The principle has been shown to be applicable only within the narrow sphere of artificially constructed situations.

Thorndike’s Educational Psychology (1903) was a seminal work in the development of learning theory in the United States; the range of its influence included the concept of programmed learning. Thorndike regarded learning as a process of individual adaptation to the environment—that is, from the biological point of view; a central concept in his work was the “law of effect, ” according to which the degree of reinforcement of a reaction depends on the extent or lack of satisfaction that is obtained as a result.


Animal Intelligence. New York, 1911.
Human Nature and the Social Order. New York, 1940.
In Russian translation:
Printsipy obucheniia, osnovannye na psikhologii, 2nd ed. Moscow, 1929.
Psikhologiia arifmetiki. Moscow-Leningrad, 1932.
Protsess ucheniia u cheloveka. Moscow, 1935.


Vygotskii, L. S. Razvitie vysshikh psikhicheskikh funktsii. Moscow, 1960. Pages 397–481.
Iaroshevskii, M. G. Istoriiapsikhologii. Moscow, 1966. Chapter 12.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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