Connectionism (E. Thorndike)


The learning theory of Thorndike represents the original S-R framework of behavioral psychology: Learning is the result of associations forming between stimuli and responses. Such associations or "habits" become strengthened or weakened by the nature and frequency of the S-R pairings. The paradigm for S-R theory was trial and error learning in which certain responses come to dominate others due to rewards. The hallmark of connectionism (like all behavioral theory) was that learning could be adequately exp lained without refering to any unobservable internal states.

Thorndike's theory consists of three primary laws: (1) law of effect - responses to a situation which are followed by a rewarding state of affairs will be strengthened and become habital responses to that situation, (2) law of readiness - a series of resp onses can be chained together to satisfy some goal which will result in annoyance if blocked, and (3) law of exercise - connections become strengthened with practice and weakened when practice is discontinued. A corollary of the law of effect was that res ponses that reduce the likelihood of achieving a rewarding state (i.e., punishments, failures) will decrease in strength.

The theory suggests that transfer of learning depends upon the presence of identical elements in the original and new learning situations; i.e., transfer is always specific, never general. In later versions of the theory, the concept of "belongingness" wa s introduced; connections are more readily established if the person perceives that stimuli or responses go together (c.f. Gestalt principles). Another concept introduced was "polarity" which specifies that connections occur more easily in the direction in which they were originally formed that the opposite. Thorndike also introduced the "spread of effect" idea, i.e., rewards affect not only the connection that produced them but temporally adjacent connections as well.

Scope/Application: Connectionism was meant to a general theory of learning for animals and humans. Thorndike was especially interested in the application of his theory to education including mathematics (Thorndike, 1922), spelling and reading (Thorndike, 1921), measurement of intelligence (Thorndike et al., 1927) and adult learning (Thorndike at al., 1928).


The classic example of Thorndike's S-R theory was a cat learning to escape from a "puzzle box" by pressing a level inside the box. After much trial and error behavior, the cat learns to associate pressing the lever (S) with opening the door (R). This S-R connection is established because it results in a satisfying state of affairs (escape from the box). The law of exercise specifies that the connection was established because the S-R pairing occurred many times (the law of effect) and was rewarded (law of effect) as well as forming a single sequence (law of readiness).


1. Learning requires both practice and rewards (laws of effect /exercise)

2. A series of S-R connections can be chained together if they belong to the same action sequence (law of readiness).

3. Transfer of learning occurs because of previously encountered situations.

4. Intelligence is a function of the number of connections learned.


Thorndike, E. (1913). Educational Psychology: The Psychology of Learning. New York: Teachers College Press.

Thorndike, E. (1921). The Teacher's Word Book. New York: Teachers College.

Thorndike, E. (1922). The Psychology of Arithmetic. New York: Macmillan.

Thorndike, E. (1932). The Fundamentals of Learning. New York: Teachers College Press.

Thorndike, E. at al. (1927). The Measurement of Intelligence. New York: Teachers College Press.

Thorndike, E. et al. (1928), Adult Learning. New York: Macmillan