Edwin Ray Guthrie (January 9, 1886 – April 23, 1959) was an American behaviorist psychologist and teacher. Guthrie is best known for his teaching and writing on the psychology of learning and applying his learning principles to the understanding of everyday behaviors, including the behavior of people in conflict. He typically lectured and wrote in a style easily accessible to his students, and thus gained a significant popularity and following. He was primarily noted for his work in developing a single simple theory of learning, that is, a "one-trial," "contiguity," theory of learning that did not require reinforcement for learning to occur. While many have criticized his approach as too simplistic, he did succeed in explaining in a parsimonious way how the initial connection between environmental events and behaviors can be established, which can be seen as the foundation for more complex learning. Guthrie's work, while far from a complete account of the complexity of human learning, nonetheless plays a valuable role in understanding all the processes that take place as people obtain knowledge and develop skills that allow them to interact successfully with their environment and with each other.

Contiguity theory or law of contiguity and one trial learning are ideas introduced in 1920s by American philosopher, mathematician and psychologist Edwin Guthrie in collaboration with Stevenson Smith. Law of contiguity states that a close temporal relationship between a stimulus and a response is the only necessary condition for an association between the two to be established.

Contiguity theory and one trial learning

Guthrie attempted to explain learning through association of stimuli with responses. Learning, in terms of behavior is a function of the environment. According to Guthrie, learning is associating a particular stimulus with a particular response. This association, however, will only occur if stimuli and responses occur soon enough one after another (the contiguity law). The association is established on the first experienced instance of the stimulus (one trial learning). Repetitions or reinforcements in terms of reward or punishment do not influence the strength of this connection. Still, every stimulus is a bit different, which results in many trials in order to form a general response. This was according to Guthrie the only type of learning identifying him not as reinforcement theorist, but contiguity theorist.

More complex behaviors are composed of a series of movements (habits), where each movement is a small stimulus-response combination. This movements or are actually what is being learned in each one trial learning rather than behaviors. Learning a number of moves forms an act (incremental learning). Unsuccessful acts remain not learned because they are replaced by later successfully learned acts.  Other researchers like John Watson studied whole acts just because it was easier, but movements are, according to Guthrie what should actually be studied.

Forgetting occurs not due to time passage, but due to interference. As time passes, stimulus can become associated with new responses. Three different methods can help in forgetting an undesirable old habit and help replacing it:

§  Fatigue method - using numerous repetitions, an animal becomes so fatigued that it is unable to reproduce the old response, and introduces a new response (or simply doesn't react).

§  Threshold method - first, a very mild version of the stimulus below the threshold level is introduced. Its intensity is then slowly increased until the full stimulus can be tolerated without causing the undesirable response

§  Incompatible stimuli method - the response is “unlearned” by placing the animal in a situation where it cannot exhibit the undesirable response.

Although it was intended to be a general theory of learning, Guthrie's theory was tested mostly on animals.

Practical meaning of contiguity theory and one trial learning

In Guthrie's own words, “we learn only what we ourselves do”. Learning must be active, but as such must involve both teacher's and students' activity in order to relate stimulus with a response within a time limit. Guthrie also applied his ideas to treatment of personality disorders.

Cross-disciplinary implications


Dewey emphasized that “we learn by doing.” Guthrie extended this to “we learn only what we ourselves do.” If in classrooms the student watches a teacher skillfully solve problems or engage in intricate feats of cogent reasoning, the student will become an intent observer of the teacher solving problems—but he will not become better at solving problems himself, unless he himself is doing something other than watching. The responses we wish to cue to various stimuli must be made by the individual himself in the presence of those stimuli.

Guthrie’s theory of learning leads one also to place considerably less faith in drill. Making the same response over and over again will not further learning unless the circumstances are changed— and only to the extent that the circumstances are changed. Sitting in the same seat in the same room with the same internal stimuli from the same emotional make-up acting upon one while making the same response would add nothing to what was gained by making the response in the presence of those stimuli once.

A further implication is that the circumstances under which one wishes the desired response to be made in the future should be approximated as closely as possible by the present circumstances. The responses made get cued only to those stimuli actually present.

The theory implies too that teachers commonly are too prominent a part of the schoolroom situation. Whenever a learner is making desired responses, the teacher would be wise to be as small a part of the stimulating situation as possible. When the teacher is a large part of the situation, the learner’s responses will, of course, be cued to the sight and sound of the teacher (as well as to other stimuli from the teacher); when these stimuli constitute a major part of the total situation, the desired responses are being cued to relatively little else besides the teacher. Hence, in the teacher’s subsequent absence, the desired response is less apt to be made than would be the case had the teacher been less prominent.

Many further implications for formal education are presented in a book by Guthrie and Powers (1950).


We ask “Why did you do this?” assuming the person acts toward some end. We search for “motives” and speculate on what the person gains by his unwanted behavior. But possibly he gains nothing by it—even in his own eyes.

That could be the crux of his problem: he does not customarily act in accord with his own values or goals. His behavior is largely unaimed.

From Guthrie’s theory we should expect that much learned behavior may be unsatisfying even to the person engaged in it. The person does not necessarily direct his behavior toward any goal, conscious or unconscious. He is not necessarily acting in a fashion that meets his basic needs or fulfills his major hopes. He simply is doing what he has been trained to do, making the responses to various stimuli that he last made to those stimuli, responses that in some prior context he had perhaps been forced to make. The responses may meet no need and yet persist.

Instead of assuming that all behavior is goaldirected and meets some need, we should try in psychotherapy to help the person develop more goaldirected behavior and develop behavior consonant with his needs: for example, we should help him to acquire habits of aiming at goals, habits of evaluating his actions, habits of ascertaining whether any need is indeed being met by his behavior.

Further, in light of Guthrie’s theory, instead of concentrating primarily on the circumstances under which the unwanted behavior or feelings occur, we should search also for the circumstances under which the individual currently does make valued responses. The latter offer leads concerning the stimuli which already are cues for valued responses and thereby offer a basis on which to build.

Subsequently, when confronted with unwanted behavior, the appropriate question is not “Why?” but “What are the circumstances eliciting that un wanted response?” and “What stimuli are cues for it?” To get a different response cued to those stimuli, one should not present all at once many of the stimuli that are cues for the unwanted response. (That is, one should not, for example, put the individual back in the original situation.) This would make the unwanted response very likely, according to the probability principle. Rather, we should present only a few of those stimuli that now are cues for the unwanted response while simul taneously presenting many stimuli that are cues for a desired response. When the new response occurs, a few more of the stimuli may be intro duced that are cues for the unwanted response. Thus, gradually, we could detach from unwanted behavior more and more of the stimuli formerly cues for unwanted behavior and establish them as new cues for the new response. On this installment plan, unlearning of the old and learning of the new proceeds most efficaciously.

One of the most brilliant and kindly of men, Guthrie has given us a rich heritage through his teaching, articles, and books. He worked with sustained endeavor on an extraordinary array of topics. His writings, remarkably illuminating, thoughtful, and thought-provoking, reflect his high good humor, courage, and great concern for his fellow men.


The major criticism of Edwin Guthrie’s views may be that they are incomplete and do not deal comprehensively with complex types of learning and memory problems. However, Guthrie’s seeming ability to explain, in a parsimonious way, some of the weaknesses of the more complicated systems, notably Clark L. Hull’s theory, constitutes his appeal. Guthrie’s behaviorist theory—like the theories of Edward C. Tolman and B. F. Skinner—was mainly criticized for failure to meet positivist criteria for good theory.

Guthrie has been praised for the simplicity of his theory, which does not require numerous postulates, principles, and intervening variables to explain the results. It is straightforward and sticks with the observable events. On the other hand, his opponents have claimed that he tried to explain too much on the basis of too few principles. Furthermore, those who stress the importance of reinforcement (reward) as crucial to learning wonder how Guthrie can set forth a theory where the overwhelming experimental evidence supports a concept of reward.