Edward Lee Thorndike Research Paper

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‘Whatever exists at all exists in some amount. To know it thoroughly involves knowing its quantity as well as its quality’ (E. L. Thorndike 1918, p. 16). Few careers as diverse as that of Edward Lee Thorndike could be summarized so succinctly. Yet the hallmark of all the work of this extremely prolific psychologist was his abiding faith in the quantifiability of all aspects of human experience. From his first abortive attempts in 1896 to study mind reading through his last publication on shifts of interest with age, he was committed to quantification and, where possible, the controlled experiment. ‘Professor Thorndike’s major life-purpose was to demonstrate the unrivaled fruitfulness of the scientific method in the solution of social problems and to introduce it in exacting, quantitative forms which had been so productive in the physical fields’ (Gates 1949, p. 31).

1. Life Events

  1. L. Thorndike was born August 31, 1874 in Williamsburg, Massachusetts, the second son of Edward Roberts and Abbie (Ladd) Thorndike. The senior Thorndike was a Methodist minister who served churches in Maine and Massachusetts. The family often spent parts of their summers during E. L. Thorndike’s childhood at an evangelical Methodist camp meeting on Martha’s Vineyard. Perhaps in part as a reaction to the intensely religious nature of his upbringing, E. L. Thorndike rejected religious practices almost as soon as he left home for study at Wesleyan University. Throughout his life, he maintained a posture that favored science over religion.

After graduating with highest honors from Wesleyan in 1895, Thorndike went to Harvard University to study with William James (see James, William (1842–1910)). It was under James that he began his psychological studies, first of mind reading (a failure), then of learning (a success). The course of his studies for the next two years took him from William James at Harvard to James McKeen Cattell at Columbia, and from maze learning in chicks to his famous puzzle box studies with cats, in which he traced for the first time the trial-and-error learning process as his hungry subjects attempted to escape from crude cages to reach food. His doctoral dissertation describing these experiments, Animal Intelligence: An Experimental Study of the Associative Processes in Animals (1898), is one of the most well-known and influential studies in all of psychology.

Upon completion of his doctorate, Thorndike took a position at Western Reserve University. After one year he gladly accepted an invitation to return to New York City and become a member of the founding faculty at Teachers College in the fall of 1899. Thorndike remained at Teachers College until his retirement in 1940, a period that saw the publication of approximately 450 books, monographs, and papers. Another 70 were published in retirement.

Thorndike married Elizabeth Moulton on August 29, 1900. They had four children who survived infancy. Feeling his own training had been very deficient in mathematics, Thorndike insisted that all his children develop a solid background in mathematics. All of the children earned doctorates in scientific fields, and the second son, Robert L., followed in his father’s foot- steps so closely that he eventually occupied E. L.’s office at Teachers College.

  1. L. Thorndike’s work was widely recognized within his own lifetime. He was elected President of the American Psychological Association in 1912, President of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1933, and served as Second President of the Psychometric Society in 1936. In 1925 he was awarded the Butler medal in gold by Columbia University. Cattell found him ranked first among American psychologists in a 1921 poll for American Men of Science. Many of Thorndike’s friends and colleagues said he was a ‘workaholic,’ but what he enjoyed more than anything was simply messing around with data. Other than tennis (he built his own court) and golf (he used a putter anywhere within 50 yards of the green), his recreation was analyzing data. Retirement was not a happy time for Thorndike. His health was not good: he had been a heavy smoker and quite overweight much of his adult life, and he suffered from arteriosclerosis. But what troubled him most in his old age was an acute awareness of his own declining cognitive abilities. His mind was no longer capable of the feats of reasoning that had been central to his professional life (R. L. Thorndike, personal communication). He died of a massive cerebral hemorrhage, at his home in Montrose, New York, on August 9, 1949, the day on which plans to celebrate his 75th birthday were to be finalized.

2. Thorndike’s Research And Theory

As a result of his experiments with learning in cats, E. L. Thorndike formulated a theory of mental associations which he called connectionism. He believed that the central nervous system was the basis of all behavior, that learning and other behavioral modifications took place when connections were formed between neurons, and that there was a continuity among species and a similar continuity in human development. ‘The intellectual evolution of the race consists in the number, delicacy, complexity, permanence, and speed of formation of associations. In man this increase reaches such a point that an apparently new type of mind results, which conceals the continuity of the process’ (E. L. Thorndike 1901, p. 65).

It has been suggested that Thorndike was driven to applied work with humans by employment pressures. This may have been true for Robert Yerkes (R. M. Thorndike 1990) but in E. L. Thorndike’s case his first interest was humans and he resorted to animal research ‘because they wouldn’t let him work with children’ (R. L. Thorndike, personal communication).

Upon returning to Columbia, Thorndike quickly turned his attention to human problems. He was fascinated by individual differences, trying to measure them, explain them, and use them for prediction. He believed, as did many of his generation, that science could solve all human problems, and he set out to apply scientific method to problems of education. Much of the remainder of his career was spent trying to develop methods to measure individual differences and to use these measurements to make education more efficient and successful.

Thorndike set out immediately to place education on a sound scientific footing. Educational practice of the time, the doctrine of mental discipline, was guided by ‘the teachers’ faith that mental abilities are so little specialized that improvement in any one of them will help all the rest; manual training is often introduced into schools on the strength of somebody’s confidence that skill in movement is intimately connected with efficiency in thinking’ (E. L. Thorndike 1903, p. 2).

Curriculum was founded on opinion, not evidence. Based on his transfer of training studies with Woodworth (Thorndike and Woodworth 1901) and similar studies he and his students conducted, he concluded that ‘since those who succeed in the study of Latin are better at general discrimination and judgment than those who fail, we conclude that learning Latin vastly improves general discrimination and judgment … It suits the vanity of educational theory to fancy that the changes [that result from study] are wholly due to discipline’ (E. L. Thorndike 1903, p. 93).

Thorndike continued his pursuit of quantification and applying scientific method in education with his publication of one of the first books on psychological and educational measurement and statistics in 1904. Here he noted the difficulty of defining interval scales for measuring cognitive activities, advocated the use of norm-referenced measurement as pioneered by Galton, and sounded a strong warning concerning the reliability and validity of measurements.

From the beginning, Thorndike adopted the view that inherited differences in cognitive abilities were important. ‘There is no reason to suppose that the brain is less influenced by [immediate ancestry] than the tissues that cause height. … Immediate ancestry is thus the probable cause for original mental nature’ (E. L. Thorndike 1903, p. 53). ‘The schools always have and always will work to create a caste, to emphasize inequalities. Our care should be that they emphasize inequalities, not of adventitious circumstances, but of intellect, energy, idealism, and achievement’ (p. 96). Thorndike was a thoroughgoing intellectual meritocrat, but he opposed discrimination on any other basis.

The rise of behaviorism in the 1920s shifted psychological research away from an interest in ‘original nature’ for almost 60 years. Many of the findings of modern behavioral genetics and cognitive psychology support positions Thorndike proposed at about the time genes were being rediscovered or the mind was being banished from psychology. For example, he argued that there was an interaction between genotype and environment. Anticipating current thought, he suggested that ‘Each nature in some measure selects its own environment, and each nature may get from an environment a different influence’ (E. L. Thorndike 1911, p. 48).

In addition to his efforts to make education more efficient and scientifically sound, Thorndike expended considerable effort from 1900 to 1925 in developing measures of what he referred to as intellect. He rejected the notion proposed by Charles Spearman that there was a single mental trait of intelligence, arguing instead that each test must specify what aspects of intellect it was designed to measure (see R. M. Thorndike 1990 for a description of the Spearman– Thorndike debate). Beginning in 1903, and anticipating more popular work by Alfred Binet (see Binet, Alfred (1857–1911)), Thorndike and his students developed a wide variety of measures of human abilities. The work culminated in the CAVD, a ‘test constructed (from 1922 to 1925) as a sample of what a measuring instrument for a mental ability should be’ (E. L. Thorndike 1949, p. v). With the CAVD, Thorndike (Thorndike et al. 1927) produced a test that would foreshadow item response theory and the test design methods of the 1990s.

In the 1930s, Thorndike turned his attention to issues of social science and social value. He pioneered the scientific study of environmental quality with his research on urban environments in Your City (1939) and he subjected the domain of values to scientific scrutiny in Science and Values (1936). But perhaps Thorndike had his greatest impact during this period through his contributions to lexicography. In the 1930s Thorndike revolutionized the dictionary by placing the design of these reference works on an empirical footing.

For years Thorndike had been collecting data on the relative frequency of words in published English. A list of the most frequently appearing 20,000 words, along with their relative frequencies, was published in 1931. The list was expanded to 30,000 entries in 1944. Thorndike used word counts to determine which words should appear in his dictionary, and semantic counts (the most common meanings of each word) were used to select the definitions and their order. In addition, Thorndike insisted that each word be defined only in terms of words that would be more familiar than the one being defined. The Thorndike Century Junior Dictionary, published in 1935, was the first dictionary to use these principles and to focus its content on the needs of its most probable users. By 1950, the three Thorndike Century dictionaries dominated the field of dictionaries in education, and every serious competitor was copying his approach. All modern dictionaries follow his pattern.

  1. L. Thorndike’s influence is so pervasive in modern education and psychology that it is almost impossible to detect. If his contributions to lexicography were not enough, he pioneered the scientific study of education, made major contributions to psychological and educational measurement and testing, and put comparative psychology on a firm experimental footing. There is hardly a specialty in either field, with the possible exception of some clinical areas, that has not been significantly touched by his work or that of his hundreds of students, a list of which would read like a Who’s Who of psychology and education in the middle and latter half of the twentieth century, including Abraham Maslow (who rejected his empiricism) and Raymond Cattell (see Cattell, Raymond Bernard (1905–98)) (who embraced it). A fairly complete list of the publications of E. L. Thorndike is available in Gates (1949); a full biography is given in Joncich (1968).


  1. Gates A I 1949 The writings of Edward L. Thorndike. Teachers College Record 51: 28–31
  2. Joncich G 1968 The Sane Positivist: A Biography of Edward Lee Thorndike, 1st edn. Wesleyan University Press, Middletown, CT
  3. Thorndike E L 1898 Animal Intelligence: An Experimental Study of the Associative Processes in Animals. Columbia University Ph.D. thesis
  4. Thorndike E L 1901 Evolution of human intellect. Popular Science Monthly 60: 58–65
  5. Thorndike E L 1903 Educational Psychology. The Science Press, New York
  6. Thorndike E L 1911 Individuality. Houghton Mifflin, New York
  7. Thorndike E L 1918 The nature, purposes, and general methods of measurement of educational products. In: Courtis S A (ed.) The Measurement of Educational Products (17th Yearbook of the National Society for the Study of Education, Pt. 2. pp. 16–24). Public School, Bloomington, IL
  8. Thorndike E L 1949 Selected Writings from a Connectionist’s Psychology. Appleton-Century-Crofts, New York
  9. Thorndike E L, Woodworth R S 1901 The influence of improvement in one mental function on the efficiency of other functions. Psychological Review 8: 247–61, 384–95, 556–64
  10. Thorndike E L, Bregman E O, Cobb M V, Woodyard E 1927 The Measurement of Intelligence. Teachers College Bureau, New York
  11. Thorndike R M 1990 A Century of Ability Testing. Riverside, Chicago, IL
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