In A Deep Dive into Innovation, Edward Arnold Wasserman discusses how innovations often come about due to experimentation in a given environment, i.e. depend on context, consequence and chance (coincidence).

Besides describing how the butterfly stroke evolved from the breaststroke, the author discusses more generally, how behaviors emerge and stick.

The law of effect inescapably and mechanically strengthens actions that have succeeded in the past over actions that have either failed or been maladaptive. The law of effect knows no bounds. It operates in all realms of human endeavor: sports, the arts, politics, science, medicine, and technology.


The law of effect generally promotes adaptive behavior, retaining successful actions and eliminating unsuccessful ones. Yet, this decidedly trial and error process is neither rational nor infallible. Whatever its limits and liabilities, the law of effect provides our best means of surviving in a harsh and uncertain world.

Behaviors that produce successful outcomes are more likely to be repeated?


The law of effect as a learning principle was introduced by Edward Thorndike in 1905.

[…] the principle that consequences of behavior act to modify the future probability of occurrence of that behavior. As originally postulated by Edward L. Thorndike, the law of effect stated that if a response R produces a satisfying state of affairs (or a positive reinforcer), then an association is formed between R and the stimuli S present at the time R was made. As a result of this S–R association, R occurs whenever the organism encounters S. This part of the law of effect was the foundation of S–R theories of learning. […]

APA Dictionary of Psychology

To the extent that this encourages for more successful behaviors to survive less successful ones, it has parallels to the mechanism of natural selection.

As such it is of course also closely related to problem solving.

Trial and error

Trial and error is a fundamental problem-solving technique, with examples in many places ranging from video game strategies, to social interactions to biological evolution. It is all around us.

Ray Dalio mentions it repeatedly in his book Principles and discusses it as a method of discovering principles:

I do things through trial and error—making mistakes, figuring out what I did wrong, coming up with new principles, and finally succeeding […]

Dalio, Ray. Principles: Life and Work (p. 92). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.

Of course, it seems that the fewer guesses we have available, the better-informed they should be.

Good or bad?

Who knows.

Perhaps you are experimenting with a dietary change and are feeling positive effects because of it. Or perhaps you started going on short runs in the morning and discovered you are feeling more energetic for hours afterwards during your work day. Perhaps you did all your homework, felt well prepared, then felt comfortable participating in class and finally did well on that exam. And so forth.

On the other hand, you might be sitting at a slot machine and receiving visual or auditory rewards (perhaps even the occasional “win”) in return for repetitively playing the game. Perhaps you discovered that having an extra drink has you feeling more courageous in social situations — so you find yourself drinking more regularly. Social media software platforms are very good at optimizing for engagement; they keep giving you small rewards for your continued attention.

Repetition – and more so, automaticity – is in your favor, when the behavior is actually in your interest.


Deliberate or not, behaviors that produce satisfying outcomes tend to get repeated, for better or worse.


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