Richard Herrnstein

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Richard Julius Herrnstein (born May 20, 1930 in New York ; † September 13, 1994 ) was an American psychologist .


Herrnstein was the child of Austro-Hungarian immigrants and was initially interested in classical music. He therefore studied at the Music and Art High School in New York and received a Bachelor of Arts in 1952. During that time, however, he came more and more into contact with experimental psychology and moved to Harvard University in 1952 to study psychology. At Harvard he joined the behaviorist research group around BF Skinner and became one of his most important students. In 1974, Herrnstein became Skinner's successor as A. Edgar Pierce Professor of Psychology at Harvard. 20 years later he died of lung cancer after a short period of illness. In 1977 he was appointed a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences .

Research contributions

Herrnstein's most important contribution to behaviorist-oriented psychology was the description of the Matching Law , first published in 1961. This learning law, also known as the "law of relative effect", is an extension of Edward Lee Thorndike's law of effects and describes the behavior of an organism towards a source of reinforcement , taking the reinforcements into account that the organism receives from other sources of reinforcement. The law of relative effect states that the relative frequency of behavior also depends on the consequences of alternative behaviors that are simultaneously available. The frequency of behavior is therefore a function of the subjective quality of an amplifier. Individuals often divide their preferences and, for reasons of curiosity or satiety (variety seeking, the search for variety), choose the less preferred alternative (reference to the purchase risk). If you z. For example, if you have “Wiener Schnitzel” as your favorite dish, you won't want to eat it every day, but also bread or a hamburger.

In the period that followed, Herrnstein worked out the matching law into a theory, the “matching theory”, with which he tried to describe all the behavior of organisms. The Matching Law has become one of the most important descriptions of behavior in behavioral psychology and has been applied to many different areas of human behavior, including addictive behavior, economic behavior, but also basketball and football games.

Another focus of Herrnstein's research was in the field of intelligence research . Herrnstein was of the opinion that the importance of genetic differences in intelligence in a world of increasing freedom of opportunity was growing. This and others of his views, which he most recently in its 1994 together with Charles Murray published book The Bell Curve (dt. The bell curve ) represented, repeatedly led to controversial discussions in which Mr. Stein, among others, racism was accused.


  • The Bell Curve : Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life (1994)
  • The Matching Law : Papers in Psychology and Economics (1997, posthumous collection of Herrnstein's most important essays on Matching Law)


  • Denis Ertelt: Matching - Matching Law and Ideal-Free Distribution. An introduction by means of the synthesis under punishment contingencies . Mensch und Buch Verlag, Berlin 2004, ISBN 3-89820-578-9 .

Individual evidence

  1. Bourett, J. & Vollmer, TR (2003). Basketball and the matching law. Behavioral Technology Today, 3 , 2-6. Articles online
  2. Vollmer, TR & Bourret, J. (2000). An application of the matching law to evaluate the allocation of two- and three-point shots by college basketball players. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 33 , 137-150. Article online ( Memento of the original from September 16, 2006 in the Internet Archive ) Info: The archive link was inserted automatically and has not yet been checked. Please check the original and archive link according to the instructions and then remove this notice. (PDF; 179 kB) @1@ 2Template: Webachiv / IABot /
  3. ^ Reed, DD; Critchfield, TS & Martens, BK (2006). The generalized matching law in elite sport competition: Football play calling as operant choice. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 39 , 281-297. Article online ( Memento of the original from June 20, 2010 in the Internet Archive ) Info: The archive link was inserted automatically and has not yet been checked. Please check the original and archive link according to the instructions and then remove this notice. (PDF; 381 kB) @1@ 2Template: Webachiv / IABot /
  4. cf. also the summary on