Edward Thorndike Theory Explained


The Edward Thorndike theory is a learning theory that focuses on operant conditioning within behaviors. By studying animals, and usually just cats, he devised an experiment to determine how they learn new skills.

Thorndike created a puzzle box. He would then place a cat inside the box, but encourage it to escape by placing a treat outside of the box. Then he would measure the amount of time it took for the cat to escape. As he watched, the cats would experiment with different solutions to determine if or how they could escape so they could reach the treat.

Thorndike designed his puzzle box to have a lever inside of it. If the lever was pressed, then the cage would open. Eventually, the cat would stumble upon the lever as it looked for a way to escape, see the cage open, and then come out to take the treat. Once that happened, Thorndike would take the cat and place it back into the box. He would once again track the time it took the cat to escape.

What Thorndike found was that the cat would adopt the behavior of pressing the lever because the behavior produced a favorable result. They would complete the task faster and faster in subsequent attempts. This information would become the law of effect that he would propose in his theory.

How Does Operant Conditioning Change Behaviors?

Thorndike proposed that behaviors that are followed by a pleasant outcome create the conditions where a person wants to repeat the behavior. If behaviors are followed by an unpleasant outcome, then a person is likely to stop the behavior instead of repeating it.

The definition of “pleasantness” is defined by the individual. A person who sees a red burner on a stove top has a choice: to touch the burner or to not touch the burner. For most people, touching the hot burner resulted in pain, if not a burn, and that stops the behavior from being repeated.

For some, however, the pain or burn might be associated with a pleasant outcome. Maybe the person went to the doctor, was given several free treats, and then found a $100 bill on the ground. Although the pain was still a negative, the other events are seen as a positive, and that could encourage a repetition of the behavior.

The operant condition is therefore based on personal wants, needs, and expectations. A person who is hungry and hasn’t eaten in three days might choose any food, even if it doesn’t taste good, to relieve their hunger. A person who gets three meals per day might only choose specific foods to eat because the level of hunger being relieved isn’t as great.

This led Thorndike to create two additional laws that would become part of his theory.

Updating the Edward Thorndike Theory

One of the most important aspects of Thorndike’s theory is the law of readiness. This takes into account the motivational aspects a person has for a certain behavior. If a hungry wolf spots a prey animal, they’re likely to go hunting. If a hungry person spots a free granola bar, they’re likely to start eating.

Thorndike refers to this process as a “conduction unit.” It is an almost unconscious action and decision that is taken based on internal or external triggers that are being experienced.

There is also the law of exercise that Thorndike included with his theory. This law incorporates use and disuse. When the conduction units are experienced on a regular basis, the urge to complete the behavior grows stronger. It becomes almost impossible to resist the urges that occur once a trigger is encountered.

If the conduction units are not used regularly, then the urge to complete the process is not as great. Some people (and some animals) can resist the urge to complete the process.

Thorndike notes that these processes and laws are supplemented by 5 specific characteristics.

  • Varied reactions and multiple responses.
  • Individual attitudes.
  • Partial activity familiarity.
  • Element assimilation.
  • Associative shifting.

Over time, Thorndike realized that simple exercise did not cause learning, but could influence the law of effect that he had proposed. He also began to question whether repetition was evidence of learning or evidence of unconscious habit development.

With the right rewards and punishments, the Edward Thorndike theory suggests that behaviors can be modified. Although there will always be some individuals who will choose negative outcomes repeatedly, the core of this theory shows how people and animals can learn on a basic level.