Thorndike’s Instrumental Learning Experiment with cats

This is a guest post from former VCE student Cait Sexton for VCE Psychology. If you want to write a guest post on this blog, check out the guidelines here.

TITLE OF RESEARCH: Thorndike’s Instrumental Learning Experiment with cats (early 1900’s)

AIM: To investigate trial and error learning in cats

HYPOTHESIS: It can be hypothesised that hungry cats when placed in a puzzle box with a food reward outside will use trial and error learning when trying to escape the box so that the time taken for the hungry cat to escape the box will progressively shorten until it becomes a deliberate movement.

IV: Food reward and puzzle box

DV: Time taken to escape the puzzle box, hence how long it took the cat to learn how to escape


MATERIALS: Food reward (fish) to motivate the cat to escape, a puzzle box which contained a latch to keep the door closed and could only be opened by operating a lever inside the box.

PROCEDURE: Cats were placed inside the puzzle box and the time it took them to escape the box to receive their food reward was recorded until it was evident that their movement had become deliberate.

RESULTS: Cats became faster after 7 trials, it was no longer random, and became a deliberate movement so learning had taken place.


-Sample size

-Breed of cat

-How hungry the cats are

-Type of food used for motivation

-Time in between trials


CONCLUSIONS: It can be concluded that the cats were instrumental in learning to escape from the puzzle box in order to get a food reward.

GENERALISATIONS AND IMPLICATIONS: Behaviour which is followed by satisfying consequences is strengthened and is more likely to occur than behaviour which is followed by negative consequences, which is usually weakened. When solving a maths problem many trials may occur until the satisfying outcome is obtained.

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