Thorndike, born in Williamsburg, Massachusetts, was the son of a Methodist minister in Lowell, Massachusetts. Thorndike graduated from The Roxbury Latin School (1891), in West Roxbury, Massachusetts and from Wesleyan University (B.S. 1895). He earned an M.A. at Harvard University in 1897.
While at Harvard, he was interested in how animals learn (ethology), and worked with William James. Afterwards, he became interested in the animal 'man', to the study of which he then devoted his life. Edward's thesis is sometimes thought of as the essential document of modern comparative psychology. Upon graduation, Thorndike returned to his initial interest, educational psychology. In 1898 he completed his PhD at Columbia University under the supervision of James McKeen Cattell, one of the founding fathers of psychometrics.
In 1899, after a year of unhappy initial employment at the College for Women of Case Western Reserve in Cleveland, Ohio, he became an instructor in psychology at Teachers College at Columbia University, where he remained for the rest of his career, studying human learning, education, and mental testing. In 1937 Thorndike became the second President of the Psychometric Society, following in the footsteps of Louis Leon Thurstone who had established the society and its journal Psychometrika the previous year.
On August 29, 1900, he wed Elizabeth Moulton and they had five children.
During the early stages of his career, he purchased a wide tract of land on the Hudson and encouraged other researchers to settle around him. Soon a colony had formed there with him as its 'tribal' chief.
Thorndike was a pioneer not only in behaviorism and in studying learning, but also in using animals in psychology experiments. Thorndike was able to create a theory of learning based on his research with animals. His doctoral dissertation, “Animal Intelligence: An Experimental Study of the Associative Processes in Animals”, was the first in psychology where the subjects were nonhumans. Thorndike was interested in whether animals could learn tasks through imitation or observation. To test this, Thorndike created puzzle boxes. The puzzle boxes were approximately 20 inches long, 15 inches wide, and 12 inches tall. Each box had a door that was pulled open by a weight attached to a string that ran over a pulley and was attached to the door. The string attached to the door led to a lever or button inside the box. When the animal pressed the bar or pulled the lever, the string attached to the door would cause the weight to lift and the door to open. Thorndike’s puzzle boxes were arranged so that the animal would be required to perform a certain response (pulling a lever or pushing a button), while he measured the amount of time it took them to escape. Once the animal had performed the desired response they were allowed to escape and were also given a reward, usually food. Thorndike primarily used cats in his puzzle boxes. When the cats were put into the cages they would wander restlessly and meow, but they did not know how to escape. Eventually, the cats would step on the switch on the floor by chance, and the door would open. To see if the cats could learn through observation, he had them observe other animals escaping from the box. He would then compare the times of those who got to observe others escaping with those who did not, and he found that there was no difference in their rate of learning. Thorndike saw the same results with other animals, and he observed that there was no improvement even when he placed the animals’ paws on the correct levers, buttons, or bar. These failures led him to fall back on a trial and error explanation of learning. He found that after accidentally stepping on the switch once, they would press the switch faster in each succeeding trial inside the puzzle box. By observing and...
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