One of Thorndike's major contributions to the study of Psychology was his work with animals. Through long, extensive research with these animals, he constructed devices called "puzzle boxes." This devise is shown in figure 1. This work on animal intelligence used equipment that became both famous and controversial. Thorndike's setup of the puzzle boxes is an example of instrumental conditioning: An animal makes some response, and if it is rewarded, the response is learned. If the response is not rewarded, it gradually disappears. The entire experiment was based on animals being placed into these contraptions, and could only escape from it by making some specific response. Such escape procedures would be pulling a sting or pushing a button.
The way his experiment worked was by placing a hungry cat into the box, then observing its behavior as it tried to escape and obtain some food. For the most part, he noticed that the cats obtained the food only by "trial-and-error." On a successive attempt, the mere trial-and-error behavior decreased and the cat would escape quickly. Thorndike studied several cats, and plotted the time it took for them to escape from the puzzle box on successive trials. These learning curves did not suddenly improve, but rather the amount of time the animal spent in the box gradually got to be shortened. From this, the animal did not merely realize what it had to do to escape, but the connection between the animal's situation and the response that gradually freed him was stamped in. With these observations, Thorndike suggested that certain stimuli and responses become connected or dissociated from each other according to his law of effect. He stated, "When particular stimulus-response sequences are followed by pleasure, those responses tend to be ‘stamped in'; responses followed by pain tend to be ‘stamped out'." The final interpretation of the law of effect was the immediate consequence of a mental connection can work back upon it to strengthen it.
This evaluation led Thorndike to conclude that animals learn, solely, by trial and error, or reward and punishment. Thorndike used the cat's behavior in a puzzle box to describe what happens when all beings learn anything. All learning involves the formation of connections, and connections were strengthened according to the law of effect. Intelligence is the ability to form connections and humans are the most evolved animal because they form more connections then any other being. He continued his study with learning by writing his famous Animal Intelligence. In this he argued that we study animal behavior, not animal consciousness, for the ultimate purpose of controlling behavior.
Sunday, February 8, 2009