Darnel Degand @darnel25 | December 16, 2015

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Edward Lee Thorndike

Early Years

Edward Lee Thorndike was born on August 31, 1874 in Williamsburg, Massachusetts; a town in Hampshire county. He was the second of four children (3 boys and 1 girl) born to Edward Roberts Thorndike and Abbie Ladd Thorndike. His father was a lawyer and a Methodist minister from Maine and his mother was a homemaker from Maine. According to the 9th United States Census conducted in 1870, the total number of Americans in the United States was 38,558,371 and it would increase to 50,165,783 by 1880. Hampshire county’s population was 44,388 in 1870 and it would increase to 47,232 by 1880. At the time of Edward Thorndike’s birth in 1874, Ulysses S. Grant was serving his second term as President of the United States and there were 37 states in the Union.

The Thorndike children grew up in a religious household. The family moved multiple times while they were growing up because their father was required to serve in multiple congregations throughout New England. Edward showed an early interest in literature and it stayed with him throughout his academic years. His parents did not make any special efforts to encourage their children to pursue sciences degrees and there is no evidence that Edward considered psychology as a career during his formative years. However, education was extremely important to Edward and Abbie Thorndike and they encouraged their children to excel academically.


Credit: education.com

Thorndike earned a bachelor’s degree in English from Wesleyan University in 1895 but his interest in psychology was sparked after he was assigned several chapters to read from William James’ Principles of Psychology. After Edward completed his undergraduate studies at Wesleyan University, he enrolled in a psychology course taught by William James (the first professor to teach a psychology course in the United States) at Harvard. Thorndike continued studying at Harvard and eventually earned a second bachelor’s degree in 1896 and a master’s degree in 1897. Next, Edward proposed and received approval for his doctoral thesis while at Harvard. However, he decided to transfer to Columbia University and continue his research in New York under James M. Cattell (the first professor of psychology in the United States) after he was awarded a generous fellowship. Ultimately, he completed his dissertation study, Animal Intelligence, and earned his Ph.D. in 1898. By this time, the United States he had known as a child had changed. It had grown from 37 states to 45 states and the nation was mourning the assassination of President William McKinley.

Case Western Reserve University

After graduating from Columbia University in 1898, Edward Thorndike accepted a position as an education professor at the College for Women of Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio. Unfortunately, the university was not a good match for Thorndike. As a result, Harvard’s William James encouraged him to move back to New York and Edward joined Columbia University’s Teachers College faculty in 1899. Thorndike spent the rest of his career at Teachers College. Eventually, Edward and his brothers, Ashley and Lynn, would all work at Columbia University.


A year after joining Teacher’s College, Edward Thorndike married Elizabeth Moulton on August 29, 1900. They raised four children together: Elizabeth Frances Thorndike, Edward Moulton Thorndike, Robert Ladd Thorndike, and Alan Thorndike. All four children earned Ph.D. degrees. Elizabeth Frances became a mathematician, Edward Moulton became a physicist, Robert Ladd became a psychologist, and Alan became a physicist. Interestingly, Robert Ladd followed in his father’s footsteps and became a professor at Teachers College.

Teachers College

Credit: google.com

Edward Thorndike entered Teachers College with a desire to improve the quality of educational psychology research. At this time, education had the reputation for being driven by opinions and it was often thought that there weren’t enough studies that could offer strong evidence to support the claims made by educational researchers. Thorndike’s experiences while studying animals influenced him to believe that scientific methods should always accompany educational experiments. In fact, his doctoral thesis, Animal Intelligence, inspired more education and psychology researchers to establish animal laboratories for their own experiments.

Additionally, his experiments inspired him to establish 3 laws that serve as the origins of what is known today as Connectionism. He believed that our central nervous system was the foundation for all mental associations and he theorized that each time learning occurred, a connection was made between neurons. The following 3 laws serve as behavioral psychology’s original Stimuli-Response framework:

  1. Law of Effect: Desired behavior can be successfully taught when it is followed up by positive reinforcements (e.g. treats) and undesired behavior can be stopped when it is followed up with an unpleasant consequence. A connection between neurons is made each time a desired behavior is learned.
  2. Law of Readiness: Multiple responses can be linked to achieve a desired goal. If these linked responses are blocked, it will result in annoyance.
  3. Law of Exercise: The connections made when a successful behavior is positively reinforced will be strengthened when repeated consistently. The connection will atrophy if the successful behavior is not consistently practiced.

One of Thorndike’s first public contributions to improving the quality of educational studies came in the form of his 1904 book, An introduction to the theory of mental and social measurements . This book argued for the inclusion of statistical techniques and quantitative methods in educational research and it instructed students on how to conduct research that Thorndike described as “exact and logical”. He eventually moved on from studying how animals learn and began to study children and adult learning. By 1912, he would also go on to become the president of the American Psychological Association.

Thorndike had also been involved in research on the assessment of human knowledge and abilities. His expertise with the development of testing methods were recognized and put to use for the United States Army during World War I. As a member of the military’s Committee on Classification of Personnel, he developed a series of tests to evaluate soldiers’ intelligence levels. Around this time, many other academic researchers had also been engaged in the development of intelligence tests (e.g. Théodore Simon, Alfred Binet, Lewis Terman).


Eugenics, the study of or belief in the possibility of improving the human race through selective breeding, was a popular movement at this time. The father of eugenics, Francis Galton (Charles Darwin’s cousin), began the movement because he believed that the British upper class had “desired traits” and “good genetic makeup” and that they should be the only ones encouraged to have children while those from the less affluent and poor classes should not be allowed to reproduce. James Cattell met and learned from Galton while studying in Europe at Cambridge University and he would eventually come back to America as a practicing Eugenicist. In turn, Thorndike adopted these beliefs in eugenics from James Cattell when he was a graduate students at Columbia University. As a proud Eugenicist, Thorndike believed in the idea of reducing the number of “undesirables” in the United States. Some of the groups that fit under the title “Undesirables” included alcoholics, the blind, the deaf, and Blacks. In fact, in 1907, Indiana became the first state to officially support a sterilization bill and many additional states would follow suit several years later. In some cases, Black women were sterilized without their consent.

The research Thorndike conducted on testing were done with eugenics goals in mind. Eugenicist often looked to prove their beliefs in the superiority of the White race by giving exams to children and predicting that the Black children would perform poorly. However, some of the Black students scored higher than expected. For example, in a eugenics inspired test conducted in 1915, some Black students outperformed the expectations of the Eugenicist and the researchers explained away the results by stating that the children may have been born from an interracial union between White and Black parents. Like other Eugenicist, Thorndike continued to believe in the superiority of the White race and even called for the creation of separate schools and different curriculums for Black Americans. In 1920, he was quoted as saying "the change in certain schools for Negroes from a predominantly literary to a predominantly realistic and industrial curriculum" was a successful improvement to the school systems. He published "Intelligence and its uses" that same year. We will summarize its contents in the next section.

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