Edwin Ray Guthrie: Biography of a Behavioral Psychology Pioneer

Edwin Ray Guthrie (1886-1945) was an American mathematician, philosopher, and psychologist who developed theories important to the behavioral tradition of the twentieth century. Among other things, Guthrie’s proposals impacted learning theories and habit modification interventions.

Below is a biography of Edwin Ray Guthrie and some of his major contributions to behaviorism.

Edwin Ray Guthrie: Biography of the American Behaviorist

Edwin Ray Guthrie was born January 9, 1886 in Lincoln, Nebraska. He was the son of a teacher and a business owner, as well as one of five brothers. He majored in mathematics and later in philosophy and psychology at the University of Nebraska.

In 1912 he obtained a doctorate in symbolic logic from the University of PennsylvaniaAnd two years later, he joined the University of Washington, where he developed much of his career as a psychologist, until 1956, when he retired permanently.

By the 1930s, Ray Guthrie was already one of the most recognized psychologists in the United States. He had been trained under the tutelage of the neuropsychologist Stevenson Smith, from whom he had learned the methods of comparative research applied to psychology, as well as the functionalism of the American tradition.

Likewise, he was trained in the theories most representative of clinical practice at the time. In fact, in the same decade, he and his wife, Helen M. Guthrie, translated important works for psychotherapy, such as the book Principes de psychothérapie by French psychiatrist Pierre Janet, whom they met during a trip to France. .

His approach was behavioral, and since his previous training had been in the exact sciences, Guthrie was convinced that it was possible to develop an objective scientific method to study the mind and intervene in behavior. Also, through his training in philosophy, a large part of his theoretical development was supported by the principles of the latter discipline. Among other things, he developed a principle of association, through which he saw the possibility of relating his theory of learning to contemporary research.

In the same vein, he developed a system of evaluation of teaching in university faculties, which made it possible to make evaluations more accessible to teachers and students, but also to administrators in charge of salary adjustments, promotions and hires.

In 1945 Ray Guthrie was appointed president of the American Psychological Association, and in 1958 he received the Gold Medal from the American Psychological Foundation in the United States. Edwin Ray Guthrie died on April 23, 1959 in Seattle Washington of a heart attack.

Ray Guthrie’s Principle of Association

Guthrie’s association theory is based on the idea that it is adjacency that makes learning possible.. In other words, we learn from the proximity between two elements, which in this case are the stimulus and the response. But unlike classical operative behavioralism, for Guthrie, behaviors are not so much responses as movements. These are the largest units of response and must be analyzed if we are to change behavior.

Contiguity is established when all of the elements that characterize a stimulus are accompanied by movement. Guthrie observed that, in the face of similar elements, the sequence of movement is passed again, which ultimately generates a pattern or a chain of discrete movements caused by stimulus signals, which he defined as “learning. “.

Contributions and differences with functional conditioning

For the behavioral psychology that had developed so far, one of the essential conditions to generate learning is the presence of a reinforcer, whether positive or negative. This reinforcer makes it possible to associate a response to any stimulus. Moreover, for this association to be established as a pattern of behavior, it had to be repeated several times.

What Guthrie argued is that this was not necessarily the case. For him, the association could be realized through the incidental (non-repetitive) interaction between a stimulus and the response. In other words, for Guthrie, a pattern of behavior can be defined from a single trial.

But that doesn’t mean that people acquire complex behaviors by performing them just once. What this suggests is that the first time there is contact between a stimulus and a response, we are exerting a series of bodily movements that come together. These are repeated in the face of similar events and subsequently turn into complex behaviors.

About changing habits

Edwin Ray Guthrie argued that the main thing is not the reinforcer, in fact, learning doesn’t have to be through rewarding behaviors. In the same vein, the key to changing behaviors, and especially habits, is to generate new associations.

It would be a question of detecting the primary signals (those which were associated starting from the first interaction between the stimulus and the response), and to implement different behavioral acts, that is to say other responses.

Bibliographical references:

  • Clarck, D. (2005). From Philosopher to Psychologist: The Early Career of Edwin Ray Guthrie, Jr. History Psychology, 8 (3): 235-254.
  • Edwin Ray Guthrie (2018). New World Encyclopedia. Accessed September 21, 2018.Available at http://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Edwin_Ray_Guthrie
  • Edwin Ray Guthrie (2018). Encyclopaedia Britannica. Accessed September 21, 2018.Available at https://www.britannica.com/biography/Edwin-Ray-Guthrie

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