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Edward Thorndike's rejoinder to Romanes' methodology for studying animal intelligence

An excerpt from Edward Thorndike's Animal Intelligence: An experimental study of the associative process in animals (1898)

     In short, the anecdotes give really the abnormal or super-normal psychology of animals. Further, it must be confessed that these vices have been only ameliorated, no obliterated, when the observation is first-hand, is made by the psychologist himself. For as men of the utmost scientific skill have failed to prove good observers in the field of the pet terrier or hunted fox often become like Samson shorn. They, too, have looked for the intelligent and unusual and neglected the stupid and normal.

                 Finally, in all cases, whether of direct observation or report by good observers or bad, there have been three other defects. Only a single case is studied, and so the results are not necessarily true of the type; the observation is not repeated, nor are the conditions perfectly regulated; the previous history of the animal in question is not known. Such observations may tell us, if the observer is perfectly reliable, that a certain thing takes place, but they cannot assure us that it will take place universally among the animals of that species, or universally with the same animal. Nor can the influence of previous experience by estimated. All this refers to means of getting knowledge about what animals do. The next question is, 'What do they feel?' Previous work has not furnished an answer or the material for an answer to this more important question. Nothing but carefully designed, crucial experiments can. In abandoning the old method one ought to seek above all to replace it by one which will not only tell more accurately what they do, and give the much-needed information how they do it, but also inform us what they feel while they act.

              To remedy these defects experiment must be substituted for observation and the collection of anecdotes. Thus you immediately get rid of several of them. You can repeat the conditions at will, so as to see whether or not the animal's behavior is due to mere coincidence. A number of animals can be subjected to the same test, so as to attain typical results. The animal may be put in situations where its conduct is especially instructive. After considerable preliminary observation of animals' behavior under various conditions, I chose for my general method one which, simple as it is, possesses several other marked advantages besides those which accompany experiment of any sort. It was merely to put animals when hungry in enclosures from which they could escape by some simple act, such as pulling at a loop of cord, pressing a lever, or stepping on a platform. (A detailed description of these boxes and pens will be given later.) The animal was put in the enclosure, food was left outside in sight, and his actions observed. Besides recording his general behavior, special notice was taken of how he succeeded in doing the necessary act (in case he did succeed), and a record was kept of the time that he was in the box before performing the successful pull, or clawing, or bite. This was repeated until the animal had formed a perfect association between the sense-impression of the interior of that box and the impulse leading to the successful movement. When the association was thus perfect, the time taken to escape was, of course, practically constant and very short.

    Romanes' methodology for studying animal intelligence

    Morgan on seeing the process leading to an "intelligent" behavior

    Kohler's subsequent criticisms of Thorndike's Puzzle Box Experiments