Sex, drugs, and cognitive psychology

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Recently, two strands of idle thought and reading came unexpectedly together: a paper about the psychology of free recall, published in 1944, and a 2007 book on the history of experimental psychology. I learned a couple of things, which I'll share with any of you who are interested.

A few days ago, an inquiry from a journalist about Dodds et al., "Human language reveals a universal positivity bias" (2015) led me to Jerry Boucher & Charles Osgood, "The Pollyanna Hypothesis", Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior (1969), and from there to Weston Bousfield, "An Empirical Study of the Production of Affectively Toned Items", Journal of General Psychology (1944). From Bousfield's abstract:

The purpose of this study is to present evidence relating to the predominance of pleasant over unpleasant items in free recall. The evidence derives from an examination of the temporal characteristics of sequences of items produced by subjects in response to instructions: (a) to list as many pleasant objects, activities, and situations as possible; ( b) to list as many unpleasant objects, activities, and situations as possible. Bousfield and Sedgewick (4) demonstrated that plots of sequences of this nature show negative accelerations and a tendency to approach horizontal asymptotes. […]

Certain data of this earlier study indicated that the curve for the listing of pleasant items was significantly different from the curve for unpleasant items. The former approached a higher limit and showed a readier production of pleasant than unpleasant items. Results of further experiments have confirmed these earlier findings.

Meanwhile, I've been reading George Mandler's A History of Modern Experimental Psychology: From James and Wundt to Cognitive Science (2007). I was surprised in several ways to read this passage early in the book:

Wilhelm Wundt reflects the ambivalences of his and Germany’s history, Gestalt psychology mirrors the changes in visual and intellectual culture of the turn of the century, behaviorism embodies the parochial and puritanical concerns of early twentieth-century America, and current cognitive psychology is a product of the information and communication revolutions that have taken place since World War II.

I knew Wundt only as the founder of psychophysics, so following up on those "ambivalences" led me to his Völkerpsychologie and the interesting controversy discussed in Adrian Brock, "Was Wundt a 'Nazi'? Völkerpsychologie, Racism and Anti-Semitism", Theory & Psychology 1992.

But I was more surprised by the idea that "behaviorism embodies the parochial and puritanical concerns of early twentieth-century America". I always thought that behaviorism was an idea with essentially European roots, inspired by the logical positivism of Ernst Mach, the Vienna Circle, and the Berlin Circle.

So I was interested to read Mandler's presentation of behaviorism as (early 20th century) Americanism:

In the long run, the atomistic and experiential psychology of Wundt was followed by the holistic and experiential psychologies of Otto Selz and the Gestalt psychologists, whereas in America Edward Bradford Titchener was followed by the atomistic and objectivist tradition of behaviorism. This rather surprising bifurcation was, at least in part, a function of new ways of looking at the world in Europe and new emphases on inward-looking strands in the United States.

Mandler even brings in de Tocqueville:

In the early twentieth century, the United States was turning inward to a new American consciousness. In science and philosophy, the new twentieth century was marked by a pragmatic, antitheoretical preoccupation with making things work—a trend that was to find its expression in psychology in John B. Watson’s behaviorism. I add a remark of Alexis de Tocqueville’s that is apposite of the behaviorist development and relates its origin to a more lasting tradition of American democracy: ‘‘democratic people are always afraid of losing their way in visionary speculation. They mistrust systems; they adhere closely to facts and study facts with their own senses.’’

And at greater length:

In the United States, the new century saw basic changes of values in American society. The new direction was practical and bureaucratic and concerned with the rationalization of industry and the establishment of social order. It was also somewhat nationalistic, pragmatic, and inner-directed. American science was dominated by its pragmatism and its technological emphases, exemplified in the popular view of Thomas Edison (1847–1931) as its premier scientist. […]

In science and philosophy, the period was marked by a pragmatic, atheoretical preoccupation with making things work—a trend to find its expression in psychology in functionalism and behaviorism.

The inward-looking period of the turn of the century was reflected in part in the parochialism and the environmentalism of the behaviorist movement. Behaviorism had also responded to the drive of the new technology in the early 1900s. The new movement in America—the revamping of its values—was in part a parallel to the deliberate German encouragement of industry in the early nineteenth century. In America, a new middle class of urban professionals developed the values of ‘‘continuity and regularity, functionality and rationality, administration and management’’ in response to the sense of disorganization following the end of Reconstruction. What was needed was a ‘‘government of continuous involvement’’ that would make possible the further expansion of American capitalism and a sense of order—some control over economic and social forces. Behaviorism was in part a response to this new set of values, and it also was a very American response to the inherited attitudes of the Puritan ethic.

But in the end, it seems that "behaviorism as Americanism" was as much a matter of public relations as substance:

The stage for this epoch in American psychology was set by John B. Watson in 1913 when he advocated a ‘‘purely objective’’ method for the ‘‘control of behavior.’’ Behaviorism rejected Titchener and the German tradition as being irrelevant to the daily concern of people, and it would have nothing to do with the elaborate theoretical fictions arising in Germany and France. It was a psychology stripped to the bare essentials—pragmatic, at times antiintellectual, self-consciously Puritan American. Like the reformist response to Catholicism, the fancy, complex elaborations of a basic faith were rejected: behaviorism was a call for fundamentals. Watson’s manifestos in the nineteen-teens rejected analyses of consciousness and theoretical invocations and stuck with observables—both in the environment and in behavior. Thought was subliminal speech, and (particularly with the adoption of the Pavlovian approach) complex behavior was to be understood from the combination of simple behavior rules—true of all mammals within the context of a simplistic evolutionary perspective. Watson directly tied behaviorism to the wider American concerns by stressing behaviorism’s native character—that it was ‘‘purely an American production.’’ Erwin Esper noted how extraordinary that statement was, coming from a pupil of the (German-born) protobehaviorist Jacques Loeb, a student of Herbert Spencer Jennings and (the British) Charles Scott Sherrington who picked up much of his experimental method from (the Russians) Pavlov and Vladimir Bekhterev. So much for the ‘‘myth of the immaculate conception of American behaviorism.’’

So what does all this have to do with Peter Dodds, Charles Osgood, Wes Bousfield, and the Pollyanna Hypothesis? Mandler mentions Bousfield's work on free association, unexpectedly to me, as an example of research that was outside the behaviorist pale:

A discussion of behaviorism is important for a book on memory and thought because of the developments that it prevented in the United States. I discuss later some of the motivations of the movements that were instrumental in excluding significant parts of psychology. […]

There is a wealth of anecdotal information about the difficulty of getting research on complex human functions into print during the behaviorist period. Much of the work was eventually reported in relatively obscure (and essentially unrefereed) journals like those of the Murchison group (such as the Journal of Psychology and the Journal of Genetic Psychology) and Psychological Reports. One example of work sidelined into secondary journals was research on clustering (categorical and otherwise) in memory organization and related activities. Weston Bousfield started these major deviations from the stimulus-response orthodoxy with a paper in 1953. When James J. Jenkins and associates sent Arthur Melton, a major establishment stalwart, one of their (later influential) papers, they were told by Melton, scribbled across their submission letter, that ‘‘this would be of no interest to my readers.’’

That 1953 paper was "The occurrence of clustering in the recall of randomly arranged associates", which again was based on the distribution of words in free-recall experiments.

Deviations from the behaviorist stimulus-response orthodoxy occurred early on in the field of verbal learning. A case history of the area is interesting because the field was populated not only by revolutionaries but also by large number of orthodox conservative researchers. I note in chapter 10 some of the excursions prior to 1950 that signaled the coming changes. In the 1950s, one of the early indicators was Weston Bousfield’s work showing that in free recall categorically related words tend to cluster. Then in the early 1950s, Charles N. Cofer convened an informal Group for the Study of Verbal Behavior (GSVB) that met at the fringes of conventions. The GSVB established the early deviations from the verbal-learning dogma by providing a forum for the discussion of such revolutionary topics as free recall (the occurrence of responses without discernible stimuli) and categorical clustering.

Modern readers may find it hard to understand that the psychological establishment once considered such topics unsound and even potentially revolutionary. Talk about "losing their way in visionary speculation"…

Anyhow, maybe Mandler is right to see research on "human information processing" (as cognitive psychology used to be called) as part of a more general rebellion in the 1960s against "the parochial and puritanical concerns of early twentieth-century America".

But I spent a few months in 1965 working for James L. Jenkins, recruiting and running subjects at post-secondary institutions in the Bay Area for experiments on orthographic vs. phonological influences on errors in tachistoscopic word identification. And it never occurred to me, then or since, that those experiments were part of the broader social movements that I observed and participated in at the time. Live and learn . . .



  1. Rodger C said,

    November 14, 2015 @ 4:03 pm

    Forty-one years ago I was rooming with two housemates who were grad students in the IU psychology department, not too long earlier chaired by B. F. Skinner. Every time I'd raise an objection to behaviorism, they'd say, "But Rodger, it's the great American contribution to psychology! It's American! Don't you understand?!" Apparently this line was still being hewed (hewn?) to by their professors at the time.

  2. Brett said,

    November 14, 2015 @ 5:28 pm

    At MIT in the 1990s, we heard about behaviorism as a particularly American movement in psychology. That may still be the conventional wisdom.

    [(myl) This has clearly been correct from the beginning — I just missed it. But in my defense, there's clearly a connection with the early-20th-century posivitivist philosophies in Europe, and I always thought of "behaviorism" as just an American name for the application of those ideas in psychology.

    What I also didn't understand was the hostility of orthodox behaviorists towards most empirical studies of human information-processing behavior.]

  3. Rodger C said,

    November 14, 2015 @ 10:00 pm

    What is "the reformist response to Catholicism"? Should that have been "Reformed" (i.e. Calvinist) somewhere up the editing stream?

  4. Michael said,

    November 15, 2015 @ 4:36 am

    These changes must be discussed with parallel developments in the 2nd (psychoanalytical) and 3rd (humanistic) worlds of psychology. The rises and falls in attitudes towards Freud and Rogers, for example, are definitely related to what happened (and is happening) in experimental psychology.

  5. Michael said,

    November 15, 2015 @ 4:36 am

    These changes must be discussed with parallel developments in the 2nd (psychoanalytical) and 3rd (humanistic) worlds of psychology. The rises and falls in attitudes towards Freud and Rogers, for example, are definitely related to what happened (and is happening) in experimental psychology.

  6. Bill Benzon said,

    November 15, 2015 @ 7:13 am

    When I was at Johns Hopkins in the 1960s I took a psycholinguistics course with James Deese in either the fall of 66 or the spring of 67. That's where I learned about Chomsky; Deese had us read Chomsky on Skinner and Lees on Chomsky. Deese himself was, at the time, studying word associations and had just published The Structure of Associations in Language and Thought. I certainly had the impression then that behaviorism was the enemy.

    I also studied developmental psych with Mary Ainsworth, who introduced me to Piaget. While Piaget was fairly well-known in European circles, by that time he'd been publishing for decades, he was still relatively new to America. I then arranged for an independent study with her where I was introduced to primate ethology and to John Bowlby's reconstruction of psychoanalytic object relations theory (that is, infant-mother bonding).

    And then there was phenomenology, structuralism, and the beginnings of deconstruction, all in literary studies. To me these are all part of the same thing, namely, the way we (should) think about things. But it didn't occur to me that these intellectual developments were of a (somewhat large piece) with hippies and such, though I had my finger in that pie as well.

  7. J. W. Brewer said,

    November 16, 2015 @ 7:36 pm

    For some reason this reminded me of a point I very vaguely remembered reading during my college years in the '80's from a writer who was I believe more popular among myl's cohort of college students in the '60's, the late Alan Watts, and thanks to the wonders of post-'80's technology I was starting with a fairly vague memory to come up with the exact wording: "The self-styled practical man of affairs who pooh-poohs philosophy as a lot of windy notions is himself a pragmatist or a positivist, and a bad one at that, since he has given no thought to his position."

  8. David Hilbert said,

    November 18, 2015 @ 10:36 am

    I'm a little late to the discussion but this reminded me of an anecdote from Roger Shepard (the Stanford psychologist) reports from his 1955 dissertation defense. After the defense, which among other things presented an early version of multi-dimensional scaling, Shepard reports being told that one of the senior members of the committee had said that, "This sort of thing should not be encouraged." The sort of thing that was to be suppressed was the use of mathematical models in psychology. Shepard would have had a very different career had he taken that advice.

    Shepard, R. N. (2004). How a cognitive psychologist came to seek universal laws. Psychon Bull Rev 11(1): 1-23.

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