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.
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.
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