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Edwin R. Guthrie



Edwin Ray Guthrie was born and raised in Lincoln, Nebraska. After graduating from high school, he attended the University of Nebraska where he obtained his bachelors degree in mathematics. He remained there and received his masters degree in philosophy. Guthrie then taught mathematics at several high schools, while he worked on his doctorate in philosophy at the University of Pennsylvania. After receiving his doctorate, he was hired as an instructor in the department of philosophy at the University of Washington. After five years, he moved to the psychology department where he remained for the remainder of his career. Dr. Guthrie was 33 years old when he made the transition from philosophy to psychology. He was the winner of the second gold medal awarded by the American Psychology Association for outstanding lifetime contributions. During World War II, he worked with the overseas branch as both a chief consultant and psychologist.  He later became Dean of Graduate Studies at the University of Washington. The Psychology Department at the University is in a building named Gutherie Hall. Dr. Guthrie made contributions in the philosophy of science, abnormal psychology, social psychology, educational psychology and learning theory (Dallenbach, Bitterman & Newman, 1959). He is remembered best for his theory of learning based on association.


Law of Contiguity:

Guthrie's law of contiguity states that a combination of stimuli which has accompanied a movement will on its recurrence tend to be followed by that movement (Guthrie, 1952). He said that all learning is based on a stimulus-response association. Movements are small stimulus- response combinations. These movements make up an act. A learned behavior is a series of movements. It takes time for the movements to develop into an act. He believed that learning is incremental. Some behavior involves repetition of movements and what is learned are movements, not behaviors (Internet, 1999).

Guthrie stated that each movement produces stimuli and the stimuli then become conditioned. Every motion serves as a stimulus to many sense organs in muscles, tendons and joints. Stimuli which are acting at the time of a response become conditioners of that response. Movement-produced stimuli have become conditioners of the succession of movements. The movements form a series often referred to as a habit. Our movements are often classified as forms of conditioning or association. Some behavior involves the repetition of movements, so that conditioning can occur long after the original stimulus.

Guthrie rejected the law of frequency. He believed in one-trial learning. One-trial learning states that a stimulus pattern gains its full associative strength on the occasion of its first pairing with a response. He did not believe that learning is dependent on reinforcement. He defined reinforcement as anything that alters the stimulus situation for the learner (Thorne and Henley, 1997). He rejected reinforcement because it occurs after the association between the stimulus and the response has occurred. He believed that learning is the process of establishing new stimuli as cues for some specified response (Sills, 1968).

Guthrie believed that the recency principle plays an integral role in the learning process. This principle states that which was done last in the presence of a set of stimuli will be that which is done when the stimulus combination occurs again. He believed that it is the time relation between the substitute stimulus and the response that count. Associative strength is greater when the association is novel. When two associations are present with the same cue, the more recent will prevail. The stimulus-response connections tend to grow weaker with elapsed time.

Contiguity theory implies that forgetting is a form of retroactive or associative inhibition. Associative inhibition occurs when one habit prevents another due to some stronger stimuli. Guthrie stated that forgetting is due to interference because the stimuli become associated with new responses (Internet, 1999). He believed that you can use sidetracking to change previous conditioning. This involves discovering the initial cues for the habit and associating other behavior with those cues. Sidetracking causes the internal associations to break up. It is easier to sidetrack than to break a habit. Other methods used to break habits include threshold, fatigue, and the incompatible response method. Fatigue is a change in behavior-altered chemical states in the muscle and blood stream. It has the effect of decreasing the conditioned response. The stimulus conditions the other responses thus inhibiting the response. The threshold method involves presenting cues at such low levels that the response does not occur. The stimulus is then increased thus raising the response threshold. The incompatible stimulus method involves presenting the stimulus for the behavior we want to remove when other aspects of the situation will prevent the response from occurring (Thorne and Henley, 1997). Excitement facilitates learning and also the stereotyping of a habit. It is the conflict responsible for the excitement that breaks up the old habit. Breaking up a habit involves finding the cues that initiate the action and practicing another response to such cues.

problem solving Experiment:

Guthrie did a collaborative study with George P. Horton which involved the stereotyped behavior of cats in the puzzle box. Horton set up the trials and supervised the photography, while Guthrie took notes in shorthand. The Guthrie-Horton experiment illustrated the associative theory of learning. They used a glass paneled box which allowed them to photograph the cats' movements. The box was constructed so that the cat could open the door by touching a post. It took approximately 15 minutes for the cat to touch the post. The second time, the cat had the tendency to duplicate its first behavior. The photographs showed that the cats repeated the same sequence of movements associated with their previous escape from the box. This showed an example of stereotyped behavior. The Guthrie-Horton experiment allows us to assume than an animal learns an association between a stimulus and a behavioral act after only one experience. Guthrie stated that numerous trials are not duplications, but learning to respond to similar stimulus complexes. Only after we form several associations can the behavioral criterion of learning be achieved (Wolman, 1973).


Guthrie used the contiguity theory while teaching at the University of Washington. "We learn only what we ourselves do" (Sills, 1968). The responses we wish to cue to various stimuli must be made by the individual himself in the presence of those stimuli (Sills, 1968). He extends this philosophy when emphasizing that circumstances must be changed in order to further learning. Teachers often limit their involvement in the classroom in order to further student learning. By doing this, they allow the student to make the desired responses without stimuli from the teacher. Guthrie had a large interest in the evaluation of teaching ability. He stressed the idea that the circumstances under which he wishes the desired response to be made in the future should be approximated as closely as possible by the present circumstances (Sills, 1968).

Although Guthrie's theory of contiguity has been criticized for its simplicity, it remains popular to many psychologists due to its use of simple terms in illustrating complex ideas.


Time Line

1886 January 9: Edwin Ray Guthrie was born in Lincoln, Nebraska
1903 He graduated from high school and entered the University of Nebraska where he majored in mathematics and minored in philosophy
1907 He graduated with Phi Beta Kappa honors from the University of Nebraska
1907-10 He taught high school mathematics at Lincoln High School
1910 He received his masters degree in philosophy from the University of Nebraska with a minor in mathematics and psychology. He also entered the University of Pennsylvania as a Harrison Fellow in philosophy.
1912 He received his PhD in philosophy from the University of Pennsylvania
1912-14 He taught high school math at Boys Central High School in Philadelphia
1914 He was offered an instructorship at the University of Washington in the department of philosophy. He published Formal logic and logical form and Old Solutions to a New Problem.
1915 He published The Paradoxes of Mr. Russell, with a Brief Account of Their History and Russell's theory of types.
1916 He published The field of logic.
1918 He became assistant professor in philosophy at the University of Washington
1919 He started his collaboration with Stevenson Smith on a textbook called Chapters in General Psychology. He shifted into the department of psychology.
1920 Guthrie married Helen Macdonald. He was promoted to assistant professor in psychology.
1921 He published General Psychology in terms of behavior and Chapters in General Psychology
1922 He published Exhibitionism.
1924 He and his wife translated Pierre Janet's Principles of Psychotherapy. He published Purpose and mechanism in psychology.
1926 He was promoted to associate professor in psychology
1927 He published Measuring Student Opinion of Teachers and Measuring Introversion and Extroversion.
1928 He was promoted to professor in psychology. He published Psychological Bases of War and Peace and The fusion of non-musical intervals.
1930 He published Conditioning as a principle of learning
1933 He published Association as a function of time interval and On the nature of psychological explanations.
1934 He published Pavlov's theory of conditioning and Reward and Punishment
1935 He published Psychology of Learning
1936 He published Psychological principles and scientific truth and Thorndike's concept of "Belonging"
1936-39 He did a collaborative study with George Horton on stereotyped behavior of cats in a puzzle box
1937 He published A Comparative Study of Involuntary and Voluntary Conditioned Responses and Tolman on Associative Learning
1938 He published The Psychology of Human Conflict: The Clash of Motives Within the Individual
1939 He published The Effect of Outcome on Learning
1940 He published Association and the law of effect and a book review, Organizing and Memorizing: Studies in the Psychology of Learning and Teaching
1941-42 He served as a high-ranking civilian consultant to the War Department in Military Intelligence in Washington, D.C.
1942 He wrote a chapter in the Educational Yearbook. He published Conditioning: a theory of learning in terms of stimulus, response, and association and The Principle for Associative Learning.
1942-43 He served in the Office of War Information
1943 He published "Leadership"
1943-51 He accepted the position of Dean of Graduate Studies at the University of Washington
1944 He wrote a chapter in Hunt's volumes in Personality and the Behavior Disorders. He published Personality in Terms of Associative Learning.
1945 He became APA president. He received a LL.D from the University of Nebraska. He also published The Evaluation of Faculty Service.
1946 He published Psychological facts and psychological theories which was his presidential address to the APA. He also published Cats in a Puzzle Box, "The Conditioned Response" and "Recency or effect."
1947-51 He served as the Executive officer in charge of academic personnel
1949 He published Psychology: A First Course in Human Behavior and The Evaluation of Teaching.
1950 He published Educational Psychology.
1951 He achieved emeritus status
1952 He published a revision of The Psychology of Learning.
1956 He retired from the University of Washington
1958 He received the American Psychological Foundation Gold Medal
1959 He published The State University: Its Function and its Future and Association by Contiguity
1959 Edwin Guthrie died April 23 at the age of 73 in Seattle, Washington as a result of a heart attack.


Corsini, Raymond. Concise Encyclopedia of Psychology. John Wiley and Sons, Inc: New York. 1987.
Dallenbach, Karl M., M.E. Bitterman and E.B. Newman. American Journal of Psychology. Volume 72. Texas. 1959. pps 642-650.
Guthrie, E.R. The Psychology of Learning: Revised Edition. Harper Bros: Massachusetts. 1952.
Guthrie, E.R. and F. Powers. Educational Psychology. Ronald Press Co: New York. 1950.
Hothersall, D. 1995. History of Psychology, 3rd ed., Mcgraw-Hill:NY
Marx, Melvin H., and William A. Hillix. Systems and Theories in Psychology. Third edition. McGraw-Hill Book Co: New York. 1979.
Sills, David L. International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. Volume 6. Crowell Collier & Macmillan Inc. 1968. pps 296-302.
Thorne, B. Michael and Tracy B. Henley. Connections in the History and Systems of Psychology. Houghton Mifflin Co: New York. 1997.
Wolman, Benjamin B. Handbook of General Psychology. Prentice Hall: New Jersey. 1973.


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