Edward Thorndike: Puzzle Box & Explanation

Instructor: Orin Davis
The significance of Thorndike's Puzzle Box is that learning can occur through trial and error. It showed that the connection between stimulus and response is not always obvious and may need to be discovered through trial and error.


Remember those action movies where the hero(ine) gets trapped in a room somehow and needs to get out? Unless it's a spoof film, opening the door tends not to work. If you were the hero(ine), what would you do? Most likely, you would fiddle around with everything in the room that might be related to getting out of there (and perhaps some things that are not directly related, just to get the lay of the land). Eventually, you might find that doing some combination of things gets you out of there - cue the chase scene!

Unfortunately for you, the villain, Dr. Evilfool, is a bit better at chases than you are, so back in the locked room you go. The villain, however, only studied Behaviorism as far as Pavlov and thinks you are back at square one. You already know how to break out of this room, however, so while Dr. Evilfool is gloating, you are slipping out and getting ready to smite some evil!

Thorndike's 'Hero(ine)s' in the Puzzle Box

Much like the hero(ine) in the movie, a bunch of animals were locked up by Dr. Thorndike and shown a nice reward if they could get out of the cage. Through trial and error, the animals figured out the three things they needed to do to get out of Thorndike's Puzzle Box and claimed their reward. When Thorndike put them back in the same cage, the animals did not need to go through the trial and error again, which proved that they had actually learned how to get out of the cage.


Adding Trial and Error to Stimulus-Response Theory

What Pavlov Can't Explain

According to Stimulus-Response (S-R) Theory, a response is preceded by a stimulus, and a connection between the two is made because the stimulus and response are contiguous (occurring in close succession). Pavlov's work showed that we can use the relationship between a stimulus and a response to create behavior by connecting chains of stimulus-response reactions to generate higher-order conditioning.

But, how does Pavlov's theory explain what happened in Thorndike's Puzzle Box? At first, it might seem like the animal is just moving around in response to fear of being trapped and thus all of the so-called 'trial and error' was just incidental to the fear response of thrashing. But, if that were true, then why does the animal immediately go through the exact three movements to get out of the box if placed in it a second time? If Pavlov was correct, the animal would be thrashing again out of fear, but the reality is that the animal learned through trial and error instead of through stimulus-response!

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