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William Kaye Estes

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William Kaye Estes

William Kaye Estes
Born June 17, 1919
Minneapolis, Minnesota
Died August 17, 2011(2011-08-17) (aged 92)
Nationality United States
Fields psychology
Mathematical Psychology
Cognitive Psychology
Alma mater University of Minnesota
Thesis An Experimental Study of Punishment (1943)
Doctoral advisor B. F. Skinner
Known for Stimulus sampling theory, Mathematical Psychology
Influenced Association for Psychological Science

William Kaye Estes (June 17, 1919 – August 17, 2011) was an American psychologist.

Background and education

As an undergraduate, Estes was a student of Richard M. Elliott at the University of Minnesota. As a graduate student he stayed at the University of Minnesota, and worked under B. F. Skinner, with whom he developed the conditioned suppression paradigm (Estes & Skinner, 1941).

After receiving his doctorate, Estes joined Skinner on the faculty of Indiana University. After Estes got out of the U. S. Army at the end of World War II, he established his reputation as one of the originators of mathematical learning theory. Estes went from Indiana University to Stanford University, to Rockefeller University in New York, and finally to Harvard University. While teaching at Harvard University, Estes contributed as an instituting first editor of the Psychological Science for the Association for Psychological Science. He was also editor of Psychological Review from 1977-1982 [1]

After retiring from Harvard, Estes returned to Bloomington, Indiana, where he remained active in academics to become professor emeritus at his original academic home department.

One of Estes' most famous contributions to learning theory was stimulus-sampling theory, which conceives of learning as establishing associations to hypothetical stimulus elements that are randomly drawn from a pool of elements that characterize a particular learning situation. This theory predicted probability matching, which has been found in a wide range of tasks for many different organisms.

Estes has had a major influence on theories of learning and memory, both in his own theorizing and in the theories of his many students and collaborators. In honor of his impact within the field of psychology, Estes received the National Medal of Science on December 16, 1997 from President Bill Clinton.

Career highlights

Estes and his mentor B.F. Skinner presented their analysis of anxiety, introducing the conditioned emotional response (CER)/conditioned fear response (CFR) paradigm,[2] where rats were trained to respond on an operant schedule that produced a steady response rate, after which they were tested with an electric shock stimulus that was conditioned as a fear signal. The fear signal suppressed the operant response, and the magnitude of suppression was used as a mesure of anxiety. The CER/CFR became widely used to study Pavlovian conditioning in a variety of organisms.
Estes presented his influential stimulus sampling theory in the Psychological Review article Toward a Statistical theory of Learning. This theory assumes that conditioning involves associating responses to the elements of a stimulus that are sampled on a particular trial. Variability in learning arises because of the statistical properties of sampling elements randomly from a larger population of potential elements.
Later Works
Learning Theory and Mental Development
Statistical Models in Behavioral Research
Classification and Cognition

Notable affiliations

Awards and honors

Selected bibliography

  • Estes, W. K. (1960), "A random-walk model for choice behaviour", in  

See also

Mathematical psychology


  1. ^ Kintsch, Walter; Cacioppo, John T. (1994). "Introduction to the 100th Anniversary Issue of the Psychological Review". Psychological Review 101 (2): 195–199. 
  2. ^ Estes, W. K.; Skinner, B. F. (1941). "Some quantitative properties of anxiety". Journal of Experimental Psychology 29 (5): 390.  
  • Gluck, Mark (November 2011), "Remembering William K. Estes June 17, 1919 - August 17, 2011", Observer 24 (9) 
  • Izawa, Chizuko (November 2011), "William K. Estes Timeline: His Science and Achievements", Observer 24 (9) 
  • Estes, William (2 February 2002). "History Society of Mathematical Psychology". Society of Mathematical Psychology. SMP. Retrieved 5 December 2011. 
  • ,. "William K. Estes". Society of Mathematical Psychology. Retrieved 6 December 2011. 
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