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Edward Lee Thorndike

portrait de Edward Lee Thorndike

(USA 1874-1949)

The American psychologist Edward Lee Thorndike (1874-1949) is known as the father of modern educational psychology. His landmark dissertation, Animal intelligence: An experimental study of the associative processes in animals, published in 1898 (when he was only 23) marks the beginning of the experimental analysis of behavior (Chance, 1999).

Thorndike studied animal behavior through painstaking empirical work with cats in "puzzle boxes" - cages which he constructed to allow the animals to escape by different actions, such as pushing a lever or pulling a loop of string. The animals were rewarded with food upon successful escape. By observing and timing repeated escape episodes, he discovered that a cat would learn to escape through trial and error. His experiments showed a gradually declining time curve exhibiting no sudden drop which would indicate comprehension through reasoning on the part of the animal, leading him to formulate the law of effect.

Thorndike's work paved the way for B.F. Skinner's experiments in operant conditioning.


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