Richard J Herrnstein

Richard J Herrnstein

Richard J Herrnstein

Noted for:  The “Matching Law” of the allocation of behavior; the training of complex visual concepts in pigeons; intelligence and class structure in American society

In 1955, Richard Herrnstein received his Ph.D. in psychology from Harvard, having worked with both B.F. Skinner and S. S. Stevens. Two years later Herrnstein joined the Harvard faculty, and he undertook research on the relative frequency of two or more kinds of behavior when each was under the control of a different intermittent schedule of reinforcement. He discovered a simple relationship called The Matching Law: the ratio of rates of behavior equals the ratio of rates of reinforcement.

Herrnstein’s success changed the way that data from reinforcement studies were analyzed; a voluminous body of research supported the law and investigated its variations. Researchers later connected the matching law to signal detection theory in perception, optimal foraging in evolutionary biology, rational-actor models in microeconomics, and the study of the delay of gratification (also known as self-control and temporal discounting). Herrnstein himself examined the role of temporal discounting in crime in his 1985 book with James Q. Wilson Crime and Human Nature.

Herrnstein also showed, in a classic series of experiments beginning in the early 1970s, that pigeons could be trained to pick out diverse exemplars of subtle visual categories, including trees, water, and a particular individual. These astonishing demonstrations challenged the idea that concepts had to be laboriously shaped from simple geometric features.

In a 1971 article in The Atlantic Monthly, and in his posthumous 1994 book with the political scientist Charles Murray called The Bell Curve, Herrnstein argued that intelligence was a major missing factor in analyses of American society. Challenging a taboo among intellectuals and social scientists, Herrnstein and Murray argued that intelligence was measurable by IQ tests, stable over the lifetime of the individual, largely heritable, and predictive of a variety of social outcomes (even when confounding factors were controlled) such as income, crime, health, and rates of marriage. In his 1971 article, Herrnstein argued that as racism and class bias diminished, and cognitive abilities came to play a greater role in technology-driven economies, heritable differences would account for a larger proportion of class differences, and could eventually lead to a genetic, meritocratic caste structure. Most controversially, Herrnstein and Murray suggested in one chapter that the black-white IQ gap would be difficult to eliminate, in part because its causes were both genetic and environmental. Despite the authors’ insistence that a genetic contribution to race differences was not central to their argument, this hypothesis dominated the critical discussion of the book, and remains controversial even among scientists who accept their other conclusions. The analyses in The Bell Curve are still widely debated today.

 Though Herrnstein elicited angry reactions in many intellectual circles, he was respected by students and colleagues in the psychology department for his wit, integrity, and dedication to teaching and science. A prize for graduate student research was set up in his memory.


Heyman, G.M., Maher, B.A., White, S.H. & Wilson, J.Q. (1998).  Richard J. Herrnstien.  Faculty of Arts and Sciences –  Memorial Minute; The Harvard Gazette.  Retrieved December 12, 2007 from:

The Bell Curve.  Retrieved December 12, 2007 from: