Edwin Ray Guthrie

From New World Encyclopedia

Edwin Ray Guthrie (January 9, 1886 – April 23, 1959) was an American behaviorist psychologist and teacher. Guthrie is best known for his teaching and writing on the psychology of learning and applying his learning principles to the understanding of everyday behaviors, including the behavior of people in conflict. He typically lectured and wrote in a style easily accessible to his students, and thus gained a significant popularity and following. He was primarily noted for his work in developing a single simple theory of learning, that is, a "one-trial," "contiguity," theory of learning that did not require reinforcement for learning to occur. While many have criticized his approach as too simplistic, he did succeed in explaining in a parsimonious way how the initial connection between environmental events and behaviors can be established, which can be seen as the foundation for more complex learning. Guthrie's work, while far from a complete account of the complexity of human learning, nonetheless plays a valuable role in understanding all the processes that take place as people obtain knowledge and develop skills that allow them to interact successfully with their environment and with each other.


Edwin Ray Guthrie was born on January 9, 1886, in Lincoln, Nebraska. He was one of five children in the family. His mother was a schoolteacher, and his father a store manager. He graduated and received a master's degree from the University of Nebraska, specializing in mathematics, philosophy, and psychology. He entered the University of Pennsylvania as a "Harrison fellow" and received his doctorate in 1912. His educational training and background reflect his analytical frame of reference in his psychological writings. Two years later, Guthrie accepted an instructorship in philosophy at the University of Washington in Seattle. Soon he transferred to the department of psychology, where he remained until his retirement in 1956.

Between 1921 and 1930, Guthrie coauthored a textbook in general psychology with the American psychologist and neurophysiologist Stevenson Smith. With his wife, Helen M. Guthrie, he translated Principles of Psychothrapy, by the French psychiatrist Pierre Janet. From 1943 to 1952, Guthrie served as dean of the graduate school at the University of Washington.

He pioneered a system for evaluating faculty teaching that made evaluations accessible to the teachers, students, and those responsible for decisions concerning faculty salaries, promotions, and tenure. Participation of faculty members was strictly voluntary.

In 1945, he served as president of the American Psychological Association. Guthrie published a revision of The Psychology of Learning in 1952, and seven years later, he published The State University: Its Function and its Future and Association by Contiguity. In 1958, Guthrie received the American Psychological Foundation Gold Medal.

Edwin Guthrie died on April 23, 1959, at the age of 73, in Seattle, Washington, as a result of a heart attack.


The key to Guthrie’s associationistic theory lies in the single principle that asserts contiguity as the foundation of learning. Guthrie viewed behavior in terms of movement rather than responses. By this distinction, Guthrie meant that movements are the components of larger response units, or behavioral acts. Accordingly, skilled behaviors may be viewed in terms of a gross response level composed of smaller units of movements that are largely muscular. Stimuli were likewise viewed as a complex situation consisting of smaller elements. Guthrie’s principle of contiguity stated that when a combination of stimulus elements is accompanied by movement, the movement sequence will reoccur, given the presence of similar elements. Guthrie held that learning is a pattern or chain of discrete movements elicited by both environmental and internal stimulus cues.

Since Guthrie’s view of associations was dependent on stimulus and response contiguity, the role of effective reinforcement received a unique interpretation. Guthrie believed in one-trial learning. The effects of a reinforcing reward or punishment serve as feedback for the stimulus situation, altering that situation and requiring a new bond between altered stimulus situation and movement. Thus, reinforcement provides a means of changing the stimulus context, requiring movement, and learning proceeds within the behavioral act. Extinction, or forgetting, was interpreted as the result interference from new associations rather than the decay of stimulus–response bonds caused by the absence of reinforcement. Guthrie viewed drives not as causal motivational agents but rather as energizers of behavior acts.

The behaviorist, peripheralist, and theorist

As a behaviorist, Guthrie believed that the observable behavior of an organism, including humans, was the proper subject of psychology. As a peripheralist, he considered thoughts and feelings to be manifested in muscular contractions and glandular secretions. As a theorist, he was more interested in seeking rules to describe learning than in developing a formal program of research.

Guthrie was not a systematic experimenter and his arguments were mainly based on general observations and information. His major experimental work, written in conjunction with G. P. Horton, studied the problem solving behavior of cats, and was published as Cats in a Puzzle Box in 1946. Guthrie’s most influential theoretical work was The Psychology of Learning, published in 1935 and later revised in 1952.

Guthrie’s Contiguity Theory

Like John B. Watson, Guthrie advocated a psychology of observable behavior consisting of muscular movements and responses elicited by environmental stimuli. His theory of associations was in the tradition of Ivan Pavlov and Edward L. Thorndike, asserting relatively few principles to account for learning. However, Guthrie did not accept Thorndike’s reinforcement principle based on the "law of effect." Rather, Guthrie viewed Thorndike’s secondary notion of associative shifting as the basis of learning.

Guthrie's law of contiguity states that a combination of stimuli that has accompanied a movement will on its recurrence tend to be followed by that movement (Guthrie 1952).

Motivation and reward, according to Guthrie, are not essential to the learning process. In animal experimentation, deprivation of food merely causes greater activity, thus allowing for the possibility of more new connections to be established. Reward is useful only because it allows the organism to move away from a situation so that previous learned associations will not be destroyed.


The major criticism of Edwin Guthrie’s views may be that they are incomplete and do not deal comprehensively with complex types of learning and memory problems. However, Guthrie’s seeming ability to explain, in a parsimonious way, some of the weaknesses of the more complicated systems, notably Clark L. Hull’s theory, constitutes his appeal. Guthrie’s behaviorist theory—like the theories of Edward C. Tolman and B. F. Skinner—was mainly criticized for failure to meet positivist criteria for good theory.

Guthrie has been praised for the simplicity of his theory, which does not require numerous postulates, principles, and intervening variables to explain the results. It is straightforward and sticks with the observable events. On the other hand, his opponents have claimed that he tried to explain too much on the basis of too few principles. Furthermore, those who stress the importance of reinforcement (reward) as crucial to learning wonder how Guthrie can set forth a theory where the overwhelming experimental evidence supports a concept of reward.


Edwin Guthrie is considered one of the most important learning theorists of the twentieth century. His theory is extremely simple. He starts out with one basic law of learning; namely, that what is being noticed becomes a signal for what is being done. Thus learning is simply a matter of stimulus–response (S–R) association by contiguity. Further, a sub-principle states that when S–R connection occurs, it reaches its full strength on the first trial (one-trial learning), and will remain so indefinitely unless some succeeding event occurs to replace or destroy it. He accounts for improvement with practice simply by adding more and more S–R connection to a given performance. The loss of behavior either through extinction or forgetting is accounted for by "associative inhibition," which means that an incompatible response has been learned that interferes with the previous one. No new learning principle is needed.

Like Watson, Guthrie maintained that psychology should be the study of observable behavior that was measurable and subject to proper experimental procedures. He played an important role in the development of the contiguity theory of learning.

Guthrie’s arguments and interpretations influenced many psychologists. F. D. Sheffield defended Guthrie’s views and extended them to include the use of positive reinforcement as a guide to the refinement of behavior. Similarly, Virginia Voex demonstrated many of the implications of Guthrie’s writings under close experimental scrutiny. The extensive application of Guthrie’s associationism and statistical models of learning have generally found Guthrie’s theory amenable to analyses and computer simulation of associative processes.

Major Works

  • Guthrie, E. R. 1946. "Psychological Facts and Psychological Theory." Psychological Bulletin 43: 1–20.
  • Guthrie, E. R. 1952. The Psychology of Learning. New York: Harper and Row.
  • Guthrie, E. R. 1959. "Association by Contiguity." Psychology: A Study of a Science. Vol. 2: General Systematic Formulations, Learning, and Special Processes. New York: McGraw-Hill.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

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  • Tolman, E. C., B. F. Ritchie, and D. Kalish. 1946. "Studies in Spatial Learning, II: Place Learning versus Response Learning." Journal of Experimental Psychology 37: 385–92.
  • Voeks, V. W. 1950. "Acquisition of S–R Connections: A Test of Hull’s and Guthrie’s Theories." Journal of Psychology 30: 341–63.
  • Williams, K. 1931. "Five Behaviorisms." American Journal of Psychology 22: 337–61.
  • Woodworth, R. S. 1924. "Four Varieties of Behaviorism." Psychological Review 31: 257–64.


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