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Behavioral Theory: Thorndike and the Law of Effect

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  • 1:04 Thorndike's Research
  • 2:35 Law of Effect
  • 3:42 Applications
  • 4:27 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Wind Goodfriend
How can outside forces change the way we behave? Why are people's actions shaped by rewards, such as money or good grades, or punishments, such as losing money or feeling pain? This lesson is an introduction to the famous psychologist Thorndike and his foundational research on why consequences of behavior, such as rewards or punishments, affect our future choices.

The Behavioral Perspective in Psychology

Imagine it's your birthday, and you're finally old enough to buy a lottery ticket. You go to the local convenience store, purchase your first ticket and scratch it off to see if you won any money. If this happened to you and you won, you would probably be likely to buy more lottery tickets in the future because your behavior was rewarded. However, if this happened to you and you lost, you would probably be less likely to buy more lottery tickets in the future because your behavior was punished by losing money.

All animals, including humans, have the tendency to monitor what happens to us after each behavior. Then, to decide if we want to keep doing that behavior in the future based on if the outcome was good or bad. This tendency to modify our behavior due to the consequences of that behavior is the basic foundation for the behavioral perspective in psychology.

Thorndike's Research

Edward Thorndike was the first psychologist to formally study the consequences of behavior back in the late 1800s. Thorndike's research started due to his interest in intelligence and different types of intelligence, such as whether we are capable of doing multiple tasks simultaneously. He started his research with a series of famous experiments in which he tested how quickly animals, such as cats, could adapt their behavior in order to achieve positive consequences and avoid negative consequences.

Thorndike used puzzle boxes that cats had to escape to study the consequences of behavior
Puzzle Boxes

Thorndike created puzzle boxes. Cats would be put inside the puzzle boxes, and they would have to figure out a series of behaviors to escape the box, such as pushing their paw on a lever, biting a string with their teeth or swishing their tail to open a door. In addition to simply escaping the box due to these behaviors, the cats were further rewarded with a dish of food. The cats were put inside the same puzzle box several times, and each time, Thorndike measured how quickly they did the series of behaviors needed to escape.

From this research, Thorndike learned that even though the cats probably did a particular behavior accidentally the first time, if that accidental behavior got rewarded, they were more likely to do it again the next time they were put in that box. Thorndike said that the behavior had been reinforced, or made stronger, due to the reward of escaping the box and getting food.

The Law of Effect

Based on this research with the cats and puzzle boxes, Thorndike created his famous law of effect. The law of effect has two parts:

1. If a particular behavior is followed by a desirable consequence or a reward, that behavior is more likely to happen again in the future. Thorndike said that the behavior had been reinforced. This was what happened with the cats when they escaped the box. Going back to the example from the start of this lesson, the behavior of buying a lottery ticket would be reinforced if you won money from that ticket. Therefore, you'd be more likely to buy another ticket in the future.

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