Richard J. Herrnstein (May 20 1930September 13 1994) was a prominent researcher in animal learning in the Skinnerian tradition. He was one of the founders of Quantitative Analysis of Behavior. His major research finding as an experimental psychologist is called "Matching law" -- the tendency of animals to allocate their choices in direct proportion to the rewards they provide. To illustrate the phenomenon, imagine that there are two sources of reward, one of which is twice as rich as the other. Herrnstein found in his research that animals often chose at twice the frequency the alternative that was seemingly twice as valuable. This 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 B. F. Skinner in the Harvard pigeon lab, where he did research on choice behavior and behavioral economics. In 1965, and with Edward Boring, Herrnstein authored 'A Source Book in the History of Psychology'. Herrnstein's research focused first on natural concepts and human intelligence in the 1970s, and eventually found a meteoric end with Charles Murray in their controversial best-selling 1994 book, The Bell Curve. However, much of the controversy has since centred on the numerous statistical errors and elisions found within The Bell Curve. Herrnstein died of Mesothelioma shortly before the book was released.

The Matching Law[edit | edit source]

Perhaps Herrnstein's most notable accomplishment in this field was the formulation of the matching law. According to the matching law, choices are distributed according to rates of reinforcement for making those choices. An instance of this 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 departures from matching constitute a large and important part of the literature on behavioral choice.

Selected bibliography[edit | edit source]

  • 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
  • The Bell Curve, Richard J. Herrnstein, Charles Murray, 1994 ISBN 0-02-914673-9
  • 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
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