All posts by Christopher Green

About Christopher Green

Professor of Psychology at York University (Toronto). Former editor of the Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences. Creator of the "Classics in the History of Psychology" website and of the "This Week in the History of Psychology" podcast series.

Bandura Wins National Medal of Science

Albert Bandura

Longtime Stanford psychologist Albert Bandura has won the prestigious National Medal of Science in the US. Bandura is best known for his studies of the effects television violence on children, published in the 1960s, in which children were shown a film of an adult beating up a “Bobo Doll,” and the were placed in a room with the same to doll to see what they would do. Many of the children re-enacted the violent behaviour that had been modelled by the adult on the film. The phenomenon was elaborated by Bandura into Social Learning Theory.

Bandura is a Canadian, born in Alberta. He attended the University of British Columbia for his BA, before moving to the University of Iowa for graduate study. He has been a professor at Stanford since 1953.

The APS announcement of Bandura’s award can be found here.

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Why was Wundt’s journal titled *Philosophical* Studies?

Wilhelm Wundt is best known as the founder of first laboratory dedicated specifically to experimental psychology. But he titled the journal that published his famous laboratory’s research Philosophische Studien (Philosophical Studies). Why was that? If his aim was to distinguish between the old philosophical psychology and the new experimental psychology, why confuse the matter by associating himself so closely with philosophy?

First, Wundt was not opposed to philosophical psychology. He just thought that philosophy could be enhanced by adding experimental methods to its toolbox. His Leipzig professorship was, after all, in philosophy, and he wrote a number of treatises on philosophical problems far removed from his experimental work. But still, why didn’t he title his journal something like Psychologische Studien (Psychological Studies), since it reported the psychological research of his students and himself?

The answer is that there was already a journal in Germany entitled Psychische Studien (Psychical Studies) that published work on spiritualism and paranormal phenomena. Wundt regarded this as unscholarly nonsense, and he did not want his own work to be confused with it in the public mind, so he went with the “Queen of the Sciences” instead: philosophy.

Andreas Sommer has just retweeted an excellent little 2013 article on that “other” journal at his blog, “Forbidden Histories.” You can read it here.

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Who Was Little Albert? The Story Continues…

Little Albert and a rat.
Little Albert and a rat. Source: http://hopkins.

For generations, psychology students have been asking the question, “Whatever happened to Little Albert?”, the baby who John B Watson and Rosalie Rayner conditioned to fear furry things back in 1919. Five years ago, it seemed that the question had finally been answered when Hall Beck of Appalachian State University in North Carolina and his colleagues published the results of some intensive archive-snooping. They declared that “Albert B.” (as the baby was called in the original report) had actually been Douglas Merritte, a child who died of hydrocephaly just a few years after the experiment. Now, however, two psychologists in Alberta are disputing that claim, and The Chronicle of Higher Education has just published an article on the matter. Continue reading Who Was Little Albert? The Story Continues…

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New BBC4 Series on Intelligence

BBC Radio 4 begins a new series today on the fraught topic of intelligence. The focus of each of its three half-hour episodes is given by the series title: “Intelligence: Born Smart, Born Equal, Born Different.” The series is hosted by BBC4 science regular, Adam Rutherford. It will cover questions such as what intelligence is, how we have tried to measure it, what difference intelligence makes, and, most controversial of all, what relation intelligence may have to genetics.

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History of Psych on BBC Radio 4

BBC Radio 4 is starting a new series on the history of psychology Monday. It is hosted by Martin Sixsmith and it is called “In Search of Ourselves: A History of Psychology and the Mind.” I don’t know anything else yet, except that you will be able to download it here.

Update: The series will include the following 5 episodes – Jacy Young.

High Anxieties
Duration: 15 minutes
First broadcast: Monday 21 April 2014

Psychology is as old as the human race. People have always sought to understand what makes us think, feel and act the way we do.

In Episode 1, Martin examines the government’s plan for a national ‘happiness index’ and traces our search for ourselves back to the ancients.

The term ‘psychology’ was first used in about 1600 and means, literally, ‘study of the soul’. But it was only in the late 19th century that psychology emerged as a separate science. Today it draws on the intellectual legacy of philosophy, physiology and, increasingly, neurobiology and social science.

The author and broadcaster Martin Sixsmith retrained as a psychologist in the last decade, following careers as a BBC correspondent and government adviser. Martin’s experience both studying applied psychology and as a recipient of therapy reflects the growing acceptance of psychological counselling in Britain and the lessening of the stigma attached to mental illness. There has been a growth of interest in the therapeutic aspects of psychology, but many of us still have a frustratingly incomplete knowledge of its history, techniques and broader applications.

This series taps into a defining aspect of modern existence and addresses the widespread desire to know more, charting the path from today’s democratisation of psychological care back to early beliefs, the birth of modern experimental psychology, the related ‘psy professions’ – psychiatry and psychotherapy – and the splits and controversies of the 20th century.

The Freudian Age
Duration: 15 minutes
First broadcast: Tuesday 22 April 2014

In Episode 2, Martin traces a line from current government interest in ‘talking cures’ back to the father of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, visiting Freud’s private apartments and also Europe’s oldest mental asylum, the Narrenturm – literally, the Tower of Fools – in Vienna.

It’s All about Sex
Duration: 15 minutes
First broadcast: Wednesday 23 April 2014

Freud’s development of a new psychological science, psychoanalysis, provoked controversy because of his focus on sexuality.

In episode 3, Martin examines Freud’s legacy, with audio archive of his one-time colleague then rival Carl Gustav Jung, his daughter Anna Freud and a new interview with Christopher Hampton, author of the play ‘The Talking Cure’.

Pavlov’s Bell
Duration: 15 minutes
First broadcast: Thursday 24 April 2014

Starting with the ‘conditioned reflex’ that the Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov famously identified while studying dogs, Martin explores the development of a significant alternative to the Freudian way of thinking, ‘behaviourism’ – including recordings of the controversial American psychologist BF Skinner and an interview with his daughter Deborah, who as a child was the subject of her father’s close scientific observations.

Talking Cures?
Duration: 15 minutes

Martin considers some of the therapies that combined the psychoanalytic principles of Freud and Jung with the behaviour modifying techniques of the mid-Twentieth Century’s other significant psychological movement ‘behaviourism’.

With reference to the ‘Gloria’ tapes that featured the same patient being treated by three different ‘talking cures’ – Albert Ellis’s Rational Emotive Behavioural Therapy, Fritz Perls’s Gestalt Therapy and Carl Rogers’s Person Centred Therapy.

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Psychology is… A Google Autocomplete Adventure

This is part of a special series of posts on the digital history of psychology from members of the PsyBorgs Lab at York University, in Toronto, Canada. The full series of posts can be found here.

A few weeks ago, I saw in an article on The Guardian website that the organization UN Women was running an ad campaign aimed a demonstrating how badly women are regarded around the world. The campaign centered on entering phrases like “women should” into a Google search box and seeing what suggestions Google made to “autocomplete” the search string. The idea was that, because Google has a massive database of the ways in which people generally finish search strings, the Google suggestions would reflect the most popular completions. Google’s suggestions were not terribly complimentary toward women. “Women should” was autocompleted with phrases like, “stay at home,” “be slaves,” “be in the kitchen,” and “not speak in church.”

 After recovering from my initial horror, I thought that this might be an interesting approach to finding out about trends in popular belief more generally, so I decided to try it out the phrase, “psychology is.” The suggestions I got were: “not a science,” “bullshit,” “the study of,” “empirical,” and “useless.” These completions were not exactly shocking to me, but they are rather disheartening if you think (as many psychologists do) that the discipline has, over the last century-and-a-third, achieved a relatively secure status among the sciences.

Screen Shot 2013-12-05 at 1.55.20 PM

I sent  off to three psychology e-mail lists to which I subscribe the suggestion that other people might try this out. I did not relay my exact results, but I did indicate that the outcomes would be less happy than they might expect. Soon afterwards, one person wrote back saying that they didn’t understand what I was on about. The autocompletes they had gotten to “psychology is” were “defined as,” “the study of,” “best defined as,” “not a science.” Not exactly favorable – three of the four are incomplete sentences – but not nearly as negative as I had gotten: no “bullshit,” no “useless.”

Only then  did I remember that the Google search engine does not give the same results for everyone. It customizes its responses based on the search history of the person doing the search. So, my question immediately became, how much variability is there between people in this kind of search? Had this one other person and I covered pretty much the entire range, just by coincidence? Or, was everyone going to be wildly different from each other? I decided to ask a number of people to try it out to see what would happen.

I am not one of these people with hundreds or even thousands of Facebook “friends.” I have “only” 104. Many of these people are other historians of psychology, several from my own school. Quite a few are historians of science, psychologists, and baseball researchers, along with a number of old friends who toil in a random assortment of professions. Not exactly a random sample. Nevertheless… Continue reading Psychology is… A Google Autocomplete Adventure

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Are we Living in a Golden Age of Mesmerism?

This is part of a special series of posts on the digital history of psychology from members of the PsyBorgs Lab at York University, in Toronto, Canada. The full series of posts can be found here.

Digital history seems hard to a lot of people. All those fancy computer programs to count and filter and graph data seem complicated and difficult to learn. But it need not be that way. You can get started on basic digital history of psychology right now with nothing more complicated than the web browser you are using to read this message.

Let me show you how: First, go to the Google Ngrams web page (in another browser tab, so that you can continue to read this post as well).  Ngrams is a program that scans the vast holdings of Google Books for words that you select, and then plots them on a line graph. When you have the Ngrams page up, delete the default words  “Albert Einstein,Sherlock Holmes,Frankenstein” from the search box and replace them with the words “phrenology, mesmerism, hypnosis”  (no quotation marks, but be sure to include the commas). Set the date range to between 1800 and 1900. Make sure the corpus is set to “English,” and leave the “smoothing” at the default value of 3. Click on the “Search lots of books” button.

You should get a graph that looks something like this (click on the graph to enlarge it):

Click to enlarge

You can see that immediately see that phrenology had its peak popularity (in English-language published books) in the late 1830s, and then began to fall off rapidly. It is important to note, on the y-axis, that this peak was only about 2/10,000ths of a percent of all words that appeared, but that was its peak none the less. It also had a secondary peak in the late 1840s, at just about the same time as mesmerism began its own rise. Indeed, some people of the time (including Ada Lovelace of computing history fame) wrote of “phreno-mesmerism”; the two practices began to merge in the public mind. They both fell off in the 1850s to a kind of “background” level of about 4/100,000ths of a percent for the rest of the century. In about 1885, however, a new discipline called “hypnosis” began to rise, surpassing both of the older practices in the late 1880s, and reaching its (19th-century) peak in the mid-1890s.

There is problem with doing the graph this way, however. Many authors  discussed these three ideas using alternate forms of the words: phrenologist instead of phrenology, mesmeric instead of mesmerism, hypnotize instead of hypnotism, etc. So we need to include those forms in our search as well. Go back to the Ngrams search box and insert this instead: phrenology+phrenological+phrenologist, mesmerism+mesmeric+mesmerist+mesmerize+mesmerized, hypnotism+hypnotize+hypnotized+hypnotizer+hypnotist. That covers most of the variants. Be sure to click the “Search lots of books” button. Now your graph should look like this:

Click to enlarge

This graph is not that different from the first one, except that the main peak for mesmerism and its variants (let’s call this mesmerism+) now exceeds the secondary peak for phrenology+ around 1850 (because, as it turns out, “mesmeric” was actually used more frequently than the base term “mesmerism”). Note also that there is a bit more of a secondary peak for mesmerism+ around 1890.

Now we are going to vary the corpus of books we use. Go back to the Ngrams page and change the corpus “English” to the corpus “American English.” This includes only books that were published in the US. Remember to click the “Search lots of books” button. Continue reading Are we Living in a Golden Age of Mesmerism?

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Anti-Psychiatrist Thomas Szasz Dies at 92

Thomas Szasz
Thomas Szasz

Thomas Szasz died on 8 Sept 2012 at the age of 92. His death was reported by Jacob Sullum of today.

Szasz was best known for his vehement opposition to psychiatry as it is practiced in North America. He became a “star” of the anti-psychiatry movement of the 1960s with the publication of his controversial and widely-discussed article, “The Myth of Mental Illness,” which appeared in American Psychologist in 1960. He was also the author of many books critical of psychiatry. Continue reading Anti-Psychiatrist Thomas Szasz Dies at 92

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Was “Little Albert” Disabled?

"Albert B.", Watson, and Rayner Most psychology students have heard the story of “Little Albert,” the infant conditioned by behaviorism-founder John B. Watson and his research assistant (later wife) Rosalie Rayner to fear objects (such as rabbits) that had originally evoked no aversion in the tot.

Now a new article has been published in History of Psychology arguing that the baby Watson and Rayner used in the famed study (“Albert B.”, as he was dubbed in the original research report) was not “normal” and “healthy” as they claimed, but was, instead, seriously neurologically impaired as a result of congenital hydrocephalus and a number of other medical conditions from which he suffered in his short life.

The new paper was authored by Alan J. Fridlund of UC Santa Barbara, Hall P. Beck of Appalachia St. U., William D. Goldie of UCLA and U Southern California, and Gary Irons who is a nephew of the boy claimed to have been been the real “Albert B.”

Back in 2009, Beck, Irons, and another researcher, Shaman Levinson, argued on the basis of archival records that “Albert B.” was, in fact, an infant named Douglas Merritte, the son of a wet-nurse employed by the Harriet Lane Home for Invalid Children at Johns Hopkins University. The records available at that time indicated that Merritte had died later, at the age of six years, of hydrocephalus. It was thought that he had contracted the condition a couple of years before — long after the Watson and Rayner study — possibly as a result of exposure to meningitis in the family home.

In the new article, however, Fridlund et al. report the discovery of medical records from Merritte’s infancy that establish not only that the child had hydrocephalus from within a month of his birth, but that he suffered from substantial neurological damage as a result. Fridlund (a clinical psychologist) and Goldie (a paediatric neurologist) note that the child in the film Watson and Rayner made of the “Albert B.” study does not appear developmentally normal for an 11-month-old. His responses to people, animals, and object are abnormally reserved (even Watson and Rayner described him as “stolid”). He appears to use little or no verbal language.  In addition, some of his movements (particularly his grasp) are characteristic of a much younger child. Indeed, in addition to the possibility of social, cognitive, and behavioral deficits, Merritte might even have been significantly visually impaired at the time of Watson and Rayner’s famous experiment. Although both Fridlund and Goldie concede that firm diagnosis is difficult when one only has a few minutes of grainy black and white film to go on, they are both convinced that there was something developmentally out of sorts with “Albert B.”, and that his abnormalities are consistent with the congenital hydrocephalus from which Douglas Merritte is known to have suffered. Irons, Merritte’s nephew, adds that family stories report that Merritte was unable to walk throughout his entire short life, and that his verbal language was minimal.

All of this raises the question of why Watson and Rayner used this particular child for their landmark study. Is it possible that there were wholly unaware of his medical condition? That hardly seems likely, though they may not have known the full extent of his disabilities. Even so, what impact did Merritte’s condition (presuming the identification of him with “Albert B.” is correct) have on the results, and on their generalizability to other children who are not suffering from such deficits? And what are the ethical implications of Watson and Rayner’s (a) having subjected an infant in such a precarious medical condition to the rigors of their fear-conditioning procedure, and (b) not having reported what they knew of Merritte’s medical condition in the published report of their study?

No doubt, these questions will be discussed and debated vigorously in the months and years to come.


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The Return of Hysteria?

Hysteria is a condition strongly associated with the 19th century, and with long-past historical figures such as Jean-Martin Charcot and Sigmund Freud. It was finally dropped from the psychiatric vocabulary in the mid-20th century because of its uncertain scientific basis, and because of the widespread perception that it was being used more as a way to control the behavior of women who did not conform to social norms than to label a coherent psychiatric condition.

A recent column in the New York Times, however, suggests that hysteria has made a comeback in the very same population that it was thought to be most prevalent in in times long past: teenage girls and young women. Author Caitlin Flanagan recounts the story of “a high school cheerleader” in a town near Buffalo, NY, who “lay down for a nap,” last October “and woke up changed….  facial tics, uncontrollable movement, stuttering, verbal outbursts.” She continues, “several other schoolmates have been afflicted, for a total of 14 girls. One boy reported symptoms.”

Continue reading The Return of Hysteria?

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