Richard Herrnstein

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Richard J. Herrnstein
Born(1930-05-20)May 20, 1930
New York City[1]
DiedSeptember 13, 1994(1994-09-13) (aged 64)
Alma materCity College of New York (BA)
Harvard University (PhD)
Known forMatching law, The Bell Curve
Scientific career
Doctoral advisorJoseph V. Brady

Richard J. Herrnstein (May 20, 1930 – September 13, 1994) was an American psychologist and sociologist. He was an active researcher in animal learning in the Skinnerian tradition. He was one of the founders of the Society for Quantitative Analysis of Behavior.


His major research finding as an experimental psychologist is the matching law, the tendency of animals to allocate their choices in direct proportion to the rewards they provide. To illustrate the phenomenon, if there are two sources of reward, one of which is twice as rich as the other, Herrnstein found that animals often chose at twice the frequency the alternative that was seemingly twice as valuable. That is known as matching, both in quantitative analysis of behavior and mathematical psychology. He also developed melioration theory with William Vaughan, Jr.

He was the Edgar Pierce Professor of psychology at Harvard University and worked with Skinner in the Harvard pigeon lab, where he did research on choice behavior and behavioral economics. In 1965, and with Edwin Boring, Herrnstein wrote A Source Book in the History of Psychology.


Herrnstein's research focused first on natural concepts and human intelligence in the 1970s, and peaked in prolificacy with the publication of his and Charles Murray's controversial best-selling book, The Bell Curve. Herrnstein died of cancer shortly before the book was released.[1]

Five levels of classification capacities: discrimination, rote, open-ended categorization, concepts, and abstract relations (Herrnstein, 1990).

Matching law[edit]

Perhaps his most notable accomplishment was the formulation of the matching law: choices are distributed according to rates of reinforcement for making the choices. An instance for two choices can be stated mathematically as


where R1 and R2 are rates of response for two alternative responses, and r1 and r2 are rates of reinforcement for the same two responses. Behavior conforming to this law is matching, and explanations of matching and of departures from matching are a large and important part of the literature on behavioral choice.

Selected bibliography[edit]

  • A Source Book in the History of Psychology, Edited by Richard J. Herrnstein, Edwin G. Boring, Harvard 1965 ISBN 0-674-82410-5
  • I.Q. in the Meritocracy, Richard J. Herrnstein, Atlantic Monthly Press 1973
  • Crime and Human Nature: The Definitive Study of the Causes of Crime, James Q. Wilson, Richard J. Herrnstein, The Free Press 1985 ISBN 0-684-85266-7
  • Herrnstein, Richard J.; Murray, Charles (1994). The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life. New York: Free Press. ISBN 0-02-914673-9. Lay summary (19 May 2013).
  • The Matching Law: Papers in Psychology and Economics by Richard J. Herrnstein, Edited by Howard Rachlin, David I. Laibson, Harvard 1997 ISBN 0-674-06459-3