Edwin Ray Guthrie

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Edwin Ray Guthrie
Edwin Ray Guthrie.jpg
Born (1886-01-09)9 January 1886
Lincoln, Nebraska
Died 23 April 1959(1959-04-23) (aged 73)
Known for One Trial Theory
Influences Edward Thorndike
Influenced William Kaye Estes
Spouse Helen MacDonald

Edwin Ray Guthrie (/ˈɡʌθri/; (1886–1959) was a philosopher, mathematician, and later became a behavioral psychologist. Guthrie is best known for his one trial theory, nonreinforcement, and theories on contiguity learning. One word that his coworkers and students used to describe Guthrie was “simple.”[1] Guthrie was often referred to as “simple”, his approach to understanding new theories was to avoid using complex language due to his belief that the learning shown in a laboratory did not reflect real world learning and that relying only on that type of learning kept his colleagues from gaining new knowledge.[1] His simple nature carried into his teachings where he took great pride in working with and teaching students [2]

Early life and education[edit]

Guthrie was born in Lincoln, Nebraska to a father who owned a store selling pianos and bicycles, and a mother who was a school teacher. He remarked that his theories got an early start when he and a friend read Darwin’s Origin of Species and the The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals while they were both in eighth grade. Guthrie graduated at the age of 17 after writing a rather inflammatory senior thesis that argued “that both science and religion, being dependent on words, and words being symbols dependent for their meanings on the experience of their users and auditors, would have no chance at expressing Absolute Truth”.[3] Guthrie received the title of lay reader in his local Episcopal Church while pursuing a philosophy degree from the University of Nebraska. This university he credited with helping him pursue his varied interests because "the university had none of the present apparatus of required courses and set curricula. . . . This freedom made possible the inclusion of courses in both Latin and Greek which had been begun in high school; mathematics through calculus" [3]

Psychology interest[edit]

While Guthrie was going to graduate school he took a seminar as the only student, studying under Wundt’s protégé H.K. Wolfe where they debated the philosophy of science. Guthrie later characterized the classes that he took for his degree as philosophy courses that “took much interest in issues that would now be recognized as psychological”.[3] His focus upon a theoretical approach to psychology as opposed to an experimental research approach can be found in his account of his single experimental psychology course which he described as "a research course under Bolton devoted a winter to observations with an aesthesiometer on the limen of twoness, and served to quench [my] interest in Psychophysics, which was the chief preoccupation of psychological laboratories in those times".[3]

His professional psychology career however did not start in full until he met Stevenson Smith who founded the psychology department at the University of Washington in 1917. While working with Smith, Guthrie and him helped to write Chapters in Early Psychology in 1921 [4]

One trial theory[edit]

Guthrie’s theories went against those of Watson’s classical conditioning and Skinner’s operant conditioning due mainly to Guthrie’s insistence that their “desire for results of immediate practical applications” led to their theories being wrong.[5] Guthrie’s learning theory is called One-Trial Learning and he developed it with Stevenson Smith while they worked together at the University of Washington.[6] Guthrie and Smith’s theory states quite simply that all learning is done within a single exposure to a situation.[5] Guthrie admitted that his own theory required the assumption that people react to a given situation the same way so long as it was still effective.[5] Guthrie’s more ambiguous theories and assumptions were put into more understandable terms after his death.[7] These notes focused upon the following three principles, the principle of association, the principle of postremity, and the principle of response probability.[8]

  • The Principle of Association says that any stimulus that accompanies a behavior or immediately precedes it by less than half a second becomes a cue for that specific behavior.[8]
  • The Principle of Postremity theorizes that a stimulus when followed by more than two responses only becomes associated with the response closest to the stimulus.[8]
  • The Principle of Response Probability states that the chance of a particular response occurring at a specified time relates to the size of the stimulus for that response present at the specified time. The more cues for a stimulus the higher the chance of a desired response.[8]


Guthrie also had theories as to how punishment worked that were at odds with the likes of Thorndike and other learning theorists of his own time. Guthrie thought that punishment was only as effective as the amount of change in behavior the punishment caused.[9] Guthrie’s theory required that presentation of punishment happen while the stimulus is still around. He did warn that if the punishment did not stop the undesirable response or if it was not presented in the presence of the stimulus that the punishment could actually strengthen the undesired response.

Breaking habits[edit]

Guthrie believed that dozens of tiny movements make up what most see as a single behavior; much like waving good-bye actually involves dozens of muscle movements. Guthrie viewed habits as a response connecting with a large number of stimuli, which causes the habit to happen more often to a wide variety of things. He postulated that there were three different ways to break a habit, the threshold method, the fatigue method, and the incompatible response method.

  • The Threshold Method involves introducing stimuli that are associated with the habit response at such a weak level that it doesn’t actually elicit the response. The strength of the stimuli is increased slowly until the stimuli can be presented at full strength without eliciting the habit response. Guthrie compared this method to “horse whispering.”[9]
  • The Fatigue Method is quite simple, you keep presenting the stimulus until the person with the habit no longer replies with their habitual response. Guthrie considered this method similar to “breaking the horse.” [9]
  • The Incompatible Response Method pairs the stimuli that causes the habitual behavior with another stimulus that triggers are response that is opposite or incompatible with the habit that you want to get rid of.[9]

Historical relevance[edit]

According to his students, Guthrie’s writings and theories were intentionally vague and “ambiguous” much to his insistence on his work not being biased in a similar fashion and due to this resulted in most of his theories not being tested while Guthrie was alive.[7] Thankfully, his peers and students turned his theories into more precise ideas that allowed experiments to test them. His theories on learning were wrong but his ideas about behaviorism helped make the case that Psychology as a whole had important applications to real life issues. His real effect on the course of Psychology however, came from those he left behind. His student Voeks was the one who formalized Guthrie’s theories into a more testable form and his colleague William Kaye Estes took Guthrie’s ideas and created a statistical theory of learning that he is now famous for.


  • Guthrie, E. R. (1946). Psychological Facts and Psychological Theory., Psychological Bulletin, 43, 1-20
  • Guthrie, E. R. (1959). Association by contiguity. In Sigmund Koch (Ed.), Psychology: A study of a science (Vol. 2, pp. 158–195). New York: McGraw-Hill.


  1. ^ a b Sheffield, F. D.Edwin Ray Guthrie: 1886-1959. American Journal of Psychology, 1959, p.642-650
  2. ^ Clark, D.O. From Philosopher to Psychologist: The Early Career of Edwin Ray Guthrie History of Psychology, 2005, Vol. 8, 235-254
  3. ^ a b c d Guthrie, Edwin, Association by contiguity. In Sigmund Koch (Ed.), Psychology: A study of a science 1959, pp.158-198
  4. ^ Edwin Ray Guthrie, Encyclopedia of Psychology 2001
  5. ^ a b c Guthrie, E. R. (1946). Psychological Facts and Psychological Theory., "Psychological Bulletin" Vol. 43, 1-20
  6. ^ Smith, S. & Guthrie, E. Exhibitionism, University of Washington, 1920, 205-211
  7. ^ a b Cech, C. G. Chapter 5 - The Nature of Reinforcement & Its effects on Acquisition: Guthrie’s Contiguity Theory 1998
  8. ^ a b c d Voeks, V. W. Formalization and clarification of a learning of theory, Journal of Psychology 1950, Vol. 30, 341-362
  9. ^ a b c d Guthrie, E. R. Reward and Punishment, Psychological Review 1934, Vol. 41, 450-460


  • Cech, C. G. (1998). Chapter 5 - The Nature of Reinforcement & Its effects on Acquisition: Guthrie’s Contiguity Theory. Retrieved October 12, 2006, from http://www.ucs.louisiana.edu/~cgc2646/LRN/Chap5.htm
  • Clark, D.O. (2005). From Philosopher to Psychologist: The Early Career of Edwin Ray Guthrie, Jr. History of Psychology, 8, 235-254.
  • Contiguity Theory. (2005). The Psychology of Learning. Retrieved November 23, 2009, from http://psychology.org/guthrie.html
  • Encyclopedia of Psychology. (2001). Guthrie, Edwin Ray. Retrieved November 23, 2009, from http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_g2699/is_0004/ai_2699000486/.
  • Sheffield, D. D. (1959). Edwin Ray Guthrie: 1886-1959. American Journal of Psychology (Vol. 7, pp. 642–650).
  • Smith, S., & Guthrie, E. (1920). Exhibitionism. University of Washington, 205-211.
  • Theories of Learning in Educational Psychology. (2008). Edwin Guthrie and “One Trial Leaning”. Retrieved November 23, 2009, from http://www.lifecircles-inc.com/Learningtheories/behaviorism/guthrie.html.
  • Thorne, M. B., & Henley, T. (2005). Connections in the History and Systems of Psychology (3rd ed). Houghton Mifflin Company.
Educational offices
Preceded by
Gardner Murphy
53rd President of the American Psychological Association
Succeeded by
Henry Edward Garrett