Thorndike's Puzzle-Box Studies
E. L. Thorndike had a powerful impact on both psychology and education. He spent most of his academic life at Teachers College, a division of Columbia University. He helped create some of the very first intelligence and aptitude tests, was a strong supporter of educational research; and, with C. L. Barnhart developed a series of dictionaries for children that are still widely used.
Thorndike also conducted some of the first laboratory investigations of animal intelligence. Imagine that you are sitting with Thorndike as he conducts these pioneering experiments. A cat has been placed in a "puzzle-box." The door of the box is held fast by a simple latch. Just outside the cage is a piece of salmon on a dish. The cat moves around the cage, sniffing at its corners. Suddenly, it sees the salmon, moves to the part of the cage closest to it, and begins extending its paws through the bars toward the fish. The fish is just out of its reach. The cat reaches more and more vigorously, and begins scratching at the bars. After a while these responses cease, and the cat begins to actively move around the cage. A few minutes later, it bumps against the latch. The door opens and the cat scampers out and eats the fish. The cat is placed back in the box and a new piece of fish is placed on the dish. The cat goes through the same responses as before and eventually, bumps into the latch once more.
This is repeated again and again. Gradually the cat stops extending its paws through the bars and spends more and more of its time near the latch. Next, the cat begins to direct almost all of its activity near the latch. Ultimately, the cat develops a quick and efficient series of movements for opening the latch.
Thorndike theorized that the cat learned to escape the
"puzzle-box" by trial and error. That is, it performed various responses
in a blind mechanical way until some action was effect in freeing it from
the box. Thorndike postulated the law of effect to account for the behavior
of the cats. According to the law of effect, responses which are followed
by a satisfying state of affairs would occur with greater and greater frequency
over time. On the other hand, responses which were followed by annoying
state of affairs would occur less frequently over time.