Law of Effect in Psychology: Definition & Example

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  • 0:01 Law of Effect Defined
  • 1:30 Examples
  • 2:48 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Chris Clause
In this lesson, you will learn to define the law of effect, as well as develop an understanding of the impact that it had on the field of behavioral psychology. Following this lesson, you will have an opportunity to test your knowledge with a short quiz.

Law of Effect Defined

If I asked you the question, 'What is the best way to predict the likelihood that an organism will repeatedly engage in a specific behavior?' what would you say? The answer has to do with what follows the behavior. Did engaging in that behavior result in something pleasant or unpleasant? If you enjoy making money, then you are likely to get up every morning and go to work. If you like getting good grades in your history class, then you will read the text and complete the assignments. If you don't like getting grounded by your parents, then you will stop missing your curfew. Sounds pretty basic, and for the most part, it is, but it wasn't until around 100 years ago or so that psychologists started to understand the science behind the interaction between behavior and environmental influences.

The law of effect was first published in the early part of the 20th century by behaviorist E.L. Thorndike. Thorndike noticed that the more satisfaction that is gained from engaging in a particular behavior, the more likely that behavior is to be repeated. Conversely, those behaviors that result in a negative or unpleasant experience are likely to occur less frequently.

Thorndike's observations and published writings on this topic laid the foundation for the subfield of behavioral psychology known as operant conditioning. Influential behaviorists, such as B.F. Skinner, built upon the law of effect to develop a better understanding of the impact that environmental rewards and punishments have on behavior.


Let's look at a couple of examples of the law of effect in action in everyday life.

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