Edward Lee Ted Thorndike (31 August 1874 - 9 August 1949) was an American psychologist, who developed learning theory that lead to the development of operant conditioning within behaviorism.

Whereas, Classical Conditioning depends on developing associations between events, Operant Conditioning involves learning from the consequences of the behavior. Skinner's Theory of Operant Conditioning was built on the ideas of Edward Thorndike.

Thorndike was a pioneer not only in behaviorism and in studying learning, but also in using animals in psychology experiments.

Connectionism is a learning theory which is based on the concept of bonds formed between stimulus and response i.e., natural connections between Situations (S) and Responses (R) are formed and strengthened. The stimulus affects the organism which responds to it. Thus, S-R bonds are formed which are considered as physical conditions. 

This theory of learning is related to conditioning that utilizes the concept of association of connection. It emphasizes that the behavior begins with conditioned reflexes and natural responses and new behaviors result from the acquisition of new bonds through experience. Thorndike formulated the major laws of learning on basis of his belief in connectionism.

Thorndike’s Puzzle Box:

One of Thorndike major contributions to the study of psychology was his work with animals. He believed that learning occurred through trial and error. The animal made many responses, many of them were wrong and ineffective and eventually learned to repeat those that got desirable results.


Thorndike's Puzzle Box

Puzzle Box

Thorndike felt that the learning was a matter of creating associations between stimuli and response and no speculation about mind was necessary or useful. Through long, extensive research with these animals, he constructed device called puzzle box.

The puzzle box was approximately 20 inches long, 15 inches wide and 11 inches tall. The box had a door that was pulled open by a weight attached to a string that ran over a pulley and was attached to the door. The string attached to the door led to a lever or button inside the box. When the animal pressed the bar or pulled the lever, the string attached to the door would cause the weight to lift and the door to open.

At first, cat put in the cage explored restlessly, but did not know how to escape. Eventually, they stepped on the foot switch and the trap door opened. On succeeding trials, they operated the switch faster.

Cat in Puzzle Box

Cat in Puzzle Box

Thorndike explained learning with his “law of effect”. Animals tended to repeat a behavior that resulted in a pleasing effect. This was an early version of the concept of positive reinforcement that Skinner has used effectively. Behavior was varied during a trial and error phase. Thorndike believed that the animal stumbled upon a behavior that produced a desirable effect.

This created a link between stimulus (cage) and, a response (stepping on switch or pulling the lever). Later, in the same stimulus situation, that response occurred faster.

He produced a graph called a "learning curve" showing the number of seconds the animal took to escape on each trial.

Thorndike’s Laws

Thorndike presented the theory on laws of learning on the basis of his belief in connectionism. These laws are originally the outgrowth of experiments in the field of animal psychology. He first presented his theory in his book Animal Learning published in 1898. The three major laws are:

1.     Law of Excercise

2.     Law of Readiness

3.     Law of Effect

Law of Readiness

“When a bond is ready to act, act gives satisfaction and not to act gives annoyance.” If a person is ready to learn, he/she can learn quickly. 

The law of readiness describes those situations in which the person, who learns either invites the object of his/her learning or rejects it. Readiness means a preparation of action. If a person is not prepared to learn, then learning cannot be instilled in him/her. 

Readiness includes all those preparatory adjustments which immediately precede the activity. Reminding the learner of his/her part experiences, the understanding of new things, diverting attention towards the subject to be learned changing the environment to suit the learning are all included in readiness. The readiness creates a mental set for learning.

In Thorndike’s view the law of readiness is active in three following conditions:

·       When conduction unit is prepared to go into action, its work is quite satisfactory because nothing is done to alter its working.

·       The inactivity of a conduction unit and any reaction may arise in connection with that deficiency.

·       When a conduction unit is forced to act while it is not prepared to do so, its behavior is of a nature calculated to excite anger.

All these three characteristics describes the readiness for learning and is known by the tendency for learning in the learner. 

The tendency for learning results in self-contentment on learning. If the learning is obstructed, even in the event of the presence of the tendency to learn then deep discontentment may result. 

Thus, while on one hand, the tendency towards learning is assistance in learning, it may be on other hand can also be a source of discontentment in case, the learning is absent. In this way, law of readiness is related to mental preparation for action.

Law of Excercise

The second important law has two aspects. It is based on law of use and disuse. The law of use states, “When a modifiable connection is made between a situation and a response, that connection’s strength is being increased”.

Similarly, the law of disuse states, “when a modifiable connection is not made between a situation and response over a length of time, the connection’s strength is decreased.”

The repeated application of an activity fixes it firmly in the mind, While on the other hand, the relation is weakened through continuous disuse. Drill and Practice helps in increasing efficiency and durability of learning. 

According to Thorndike’s S-R bond theory, the connections are strengthened with trial and practice. Whenever, there is an appropriate situation, the activity which is firmly entrenched, might take place. It is the experience that whenever any action is repeated, it becomes easy and prompts. Learning and relearning helps in mastering the activity.

Repetitions of activities fix knowledge and skills to be learned. Practice makes it perfect. Lack of practice weakens memory and skills. It may be said that longer is the period of disuse, greater is the loss of memory and weakening of skills. 

Law of Effect

The meaning of the law of effect is the effect of learning. The trial or steps leading to satisfaction stamps in the bond or connection. Satisfying states lead to consolidation and strengthening of connection, whereas dissatisfaction annoyance or pain lead to the weakening or stamping out of the connection. 

Success brings with it satisfaction and along with it a strengthening of the relation of the experiences. Failure increases dissatisfaction and the absence of the relation among the experiences Weakens them. 

The success can be compared to reward and failure to punishment. And the desire to repeat Success or avoid failure as the inevitable antecedents

Subordinate Laws

Other five subordinate laws were also mentioned by Thorndike in relation to the three major ones. The five subordinate laws are

Law of Multiple Response:

According to it the organism varies or changes its responses till an appropriate behaviour is hit upon. Without varying the responses, the correct response for the solution might never be elicited. If the individual wants to solve a puzzle, he is trying in different ways rather than mechanically persisting in the same way. Thorndike’s cat in the puzzle box moved about and tried many ways to come out till finally it hit the latch with her paw which opened the door and it jumped out.

The Law of Set or Attitude

Learning is guided by a total set or attitude of the organism, which determines not only what the person will do but what will satisfy or annoy him. For instance, unless the cricketer sets himself to make a century, he will not be able to score more runs. A student, similarly, unless he sets to get first position and has the attitude of being at the top, would while away the time and would not learn much. Hence, learning is affected more in the individual if he is set to learn more or to excel.

Pre-potency of Elements

According to this law, the learner reacts selectively to the important or essential element in the situation and neglects the other features or elements which may be irrelevant or non-essential. The ability to deal with the essential or the relevant part of the situation makes analytical and insightful learning possible. In this law of pre-potency of elements, Thorndike is really anticipating insight in learning which was more emphasised by the Gestations.

Law of Response by Analogy

According to this law, the individual makes use of old experiences or acquisitions while learning a new situation. There is a tendency to utilize common elements in the new situation as existed in a similar past situation. The learning of driving a car, for instance, is facilitated by the earlier acquired skill of driving a motor-cycle or even riding a bicycle, because the perspective or maintaining a balance and controlling the handle helps in steering the car.

Law of Associative Shifting

According to this law we may get any response, of which a learner is capable, associated with any other situation to which he is sensitive. Thorndike illustrated this by the act of teaching a cat to stand up at a command. A fish was dangled before the vat while he said ‘stand up’. After a number of trials by presenting the fish after uttering the command ‘stand up’, he later ousted the fish and the overall command of ‘stand up’ was found sufficient to evoke the response to the cat by standing up on her hind legs.

Educational implications of the theory are the following:

1.     The task can be started from the easier aspect towards its difficult aspect, which will help the children to learn properly.

2.     Trial and error method can be used in teaching;

3.     Rewards and punishment affect the learning of the child.

4.     Habits are formed as a result of repetition with the help of this theory the wrong habits can be modified and good habits can be strengthened.

5.     Practice is the main feature of trial and error method. It helps in reducing errors committed by children in learning a concept.

Critical Evaluation

Thorndike (1905) introduced the concept of reinforcement and was the first to apply psychological principles to the area of learning.

His research led to many theories and laws of learning, such as operant conditioning. Skinner (1938), like Thorndike, put animals in boxes and observed them to see what they were able to learn.

The learning theories of Thorndike and Pavlov were later synthesized by Hull (1935). Thorndike's research drove comparative psychology for fifty years, and influenced countless psychologists over that period of time, and even still today.