Edwin Ray Guthrie

An American psychologist primarily noted for his work in evolving a single simple theory of learning.

Edwin Guthrie.

Edwin Guthrie.
(Archives of the History of American Psychology– The University of Akron.)

Guthrie taught high school mathematics for five years in Lincoln and Philadelphia. In 1914 he joined the University of Washington as an instructor in the Department of Philosophy, changing to the Department of Psychology five years later. During his rise to full professor in 1928, he developed his learning theory in association with Stevenson Smith (1883–1950), who was then the chairman of the Department of Psychology at Washington.

Guthrie married Helen MacDonald of Berkeley, California, in June 1920. They traveled widely, and in France Guthrie met Pierre Janet (1859–1947), whose Principles of Psychotherapy he translated with his wife. Janet's writing had a great influence on Guthrie's thinking. To Janet's descriptive psychology and physiological concepts as sources of action, Guthrie added an objective theory of learning.

In the latter part of the 1920s Guthrie concerned himself with such topics as fusion on nonmusical intervals, measurement of introversion and extroversion, and purpose and mechanism in psychology. His work exploring learning was more concentrated in the 1930s and thereafter.

In 1945, during World War II Guthrie was a lieutenant in the U.S. Army, serving as a consultant to the overseas branch of the general staff of the War Department and Office of War Information. He was made dean of the graduate school at the University of Washington in 1943 and was elected president of the American Psychological Association in 1945.

Guthrie was considered a behaviorist. Behaviorism was a school of psychology that believes that psychology as a science must be predicated on a study of what is observable. Behaviorists excluded self-observation as a scientific method of investigation and preferred experimentation. They examined the concept of association and its limits in explaining how learning takes place. Guthrie's theories and analysis were based on the theory of learning: “A combination of stimuli which has accompanied a movement will on its recurrence tend to be followed by that movement.”

In his writings, Guthrie avoids mention of drives, successive repetitions, rewards, or punishment. He refers to stimuli and movement in combination. He believed that there is only one type of learning; the same principle which applies for learning in one instance also applies for learning in all instances. The differences seen in learning do not arise from there being different kinds of learning but rather from different kinds of situations.

Guthrie was extremely active and continued to publish major works until his death on April 23, 1959, in Seattle, Washington.

See also Educational psychology ; Learning theory .



Gallard, Diahann, and Katherine Cartmell. Psychology and Education. New York: Routledge, 2015.

Guthrie, Edwin. The Psychology of Learning. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1935.

Ormrod, Jeanne. Human Learning, 7th ed. Boston: Pearson, 2014.

Schunk, Dale. Learning Theories: An Educational Perspective, 6th ed. Boston: Pearson, 2016.