Edward Thorndike Biography


Birthday: August 31, 1874 (Virgo)

Born In: Williamsburg, Massachusetts, United States

Edward Thorndike was an American psychologist, professor and educator. He is renowned for his ‘Law of effect’ theory, animal research, and trial-and-error theory of learning. He is often referred to as the father of modern educational psychology. Born into a religious family, he excelled at studies and acquired several degrees from prestigious American institutions in his youth. During his doctoral studies, he conducted his famous puzzle box experiments with cats that led to the introduction of his groundbreaking work, ‘Law of effect’. Thereafter, he switched his focus to educational psychology. After an initial unhappy employment, he became a faculty at Columbia University, where he spent his entire career. During World War I, he even assisted the American armed forces in recruitment of soldiers based on his testing methodologies. As a result, he emerged as an expert in designing tests, which transferred to education, testing and employee exams as well. He held several prestigious positions in the American psychological field and authored many books. His research has influenced many fields like comparative psychology, behavior analysis, animal psychology, education, etc.

Quick Facts

Also Known As: Edward Lee Thorndike

Died At Age: 74


Spouse/Ex-: Elizabeth Moulton

father: Edward Roberts Thorndike

mother: Abbie Ladd Thorndike

siblings: Ashley Horace, Lynn

children: Robert L. Thorndike

Born Country: United States

Educators Psychologists

Died on: August 9, 1949

place of death: Montrose, New York, United States

U.S. State: Massachusetts

More Facts

education: Harvard University, Wesleyan University, Columbia University

Childhood & Early Life
Edward Thorndike was born on August 31, 1874, in Williamsburg, Massachusetts, to Edward R. Thorndike and Abbie Thorndike. His father was a Methodist minister. He had an older brother, Ashley, and a younger brother, Lynn.
In 1891, he passed out of West Roxbury, Massachusetts’ ‘The Roxbury Latin School’. In 1895, he attained a ‘B.S.’ degree from ‘Wesleyan University’.
In 1897, he acquired an M.A. degree from Harvard University, where he first developed an interest in animal learning. Initially, he had selected French literature and English as his subjects, but later switched to psychology after meeting William James, a prominent psychologist and professor at the university.
In 1898, he attained his PhD from Columbia University. In researching his doctoral thesis, he developed puzzle boxes for animals to understand if they could observe or imitate others to learn tasks, and in the process, became the first psychologist to use nonhuman subjects in a doctoral thesis.
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Following his puzzle box experiments, Edward Thorndike developed and advanced the ‘Law of effect’ that, simply put, stated that a pleasant after-effect or result of an action would result in increased probability of the recurrence of the same response for the same action.
From 1898-99, he was briefly employed as an Assistant Professor of pedagogy and psychology at the College for Women at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio.
Unhappy with the job, he left to join Teachers College at Columbia University as a psychology instructor. He was employed at the institution for the remainder of his career.
In 1901, he shifted his focus to educational psychology and along with psychologist, Robert S. Woodworth, studied transfer of learning.
In 1912, the ‘American Psychological Association’ elected him as its president. In 1914, he started to create tests to match personnel interests and aptitudes, in the process giving birth to use of psychology in the employee selection process.
In 1917, he became a Fellow of American Statistical Association and was one of the few first from his profession to be allowed into the National Academy of Sciences.
From 1918-19, he was employed by the US Army to design tests to determine the eligibility of candidates for recruitment to the American armed forces. Separate tests were available for literate and illiterate candidates, and the tests were reportedly taken by two million candidates.
After the war, in the 1920s, he shifted his focus to investigating adult learning processes.
In 1932, he concluded that his ‘Law of effect’ needed to be modified to state that reward, rather than punishment, was a more effective motivator to achieve desired results.
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In 1937, he was appointed the president of ‘Psychometric Society’.
In 1934, he became the president of American Association for the Advancement of Science.
Major Works
In 1903, his first book, 'Educational Psychology’, was published.
From 1904-06, he published ‘Theory of Mental and Social Measurements’, ’The Elements of Psychology’ and ‘The Principles of Teaching Based on Psychology’.
In 1911, his doctoral thesis was published as the book ‘Animal Intelligence’.
In 1912, he wrote ‘Education: A First Book’.
In 1921, he published the first of three books designed to help teachers, ‘The Teacher’s Word Book’.
In 1927, Edward Thorndike authored ‘The Measurement of Intelligence’.
In 1932, the second of his teacher-specific books was published 'A Teacher's Word Book of the Twenty Thousand Words Found Most Frequently and Widely in General Reading for Children and Young People’ along with ‘The Fundamentals of Learning’.
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From 1935-40, he published ‘The Psychology of Wants, Interests, and Attitudes’ and ‘Human Nature and the Social Order’.
In 1944, his final teacher book 'The Teacher's Word Book of 30,000 Words’ was released.
Awards & Achievements
In 1925, Edward Thorndike was awarded the ‘Butler Medal’ by ‘Columbia University’ for his contribution to specific studies in psychology and education.
From 1928 to 29, he was also part of the prestigious ‘Messenger Lectures’, a series of talks given by prominent public figures and scholars at ‘Cornell University’.
In 2002, he was ranked ninth in the survey of most-cited psychologists from the 20th century by the scientific journal, ‘Review of General Psychology’.
Family & Personal Life
On August 29, 1900, Edward Thorndike married Elizabeth Moulton. He had four children: Elizabeth Frances, Edward, Alan and Robert.
On August 9, 1949, he passed away in Montrose, New York.
Both his brothers, Ashley and Lynn, were scholars and highly regarded in their fields; Ashley was a prominent authority on Shakespeare and Lynn specialized in the study of science and magic in the Middle Ages.
Early in his career, he is said to have established a colony of intellectuals and researchers on the land he acquired on the banks of the Hudson river.
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