APA Monitor: McConnell’s Worm Runner’s Digest

The first 2013 issue of the American Psychological Association’s Monitor on Psychology is now online. This month’s Time Capsule section features a piece by Larry Stern on psychologist James McConnell’s efforts to poke fun at the discipline.

In 1959, McConnell began the Worm Runner’s Digest after the appearance of his memory transfer research in the pages of Newsweek. As Stern describes,

… McConnell was inundated with letters from high school students from around the country asking where they could obtain worms for their projects and how they should go about caring for and training them. Some students, according to McConnell, demanded that he send a few hundred trained worms at once since their projects were due within days.

After answering the first few letters McConnell realized that something more efficient was needed. So he and his students wrote what amounted to a training manual describing their work and how to repeat their experiments.

McConnell firmly believed that “anyone who takes himself, or his work, too seriously is in a perilous state of mental health.” So as a joke, he affixed the name Worm Runner’s Digest to the top of the manual. Adorning the front page was a crest that one of his students designed, complete with a two-headed worm with pharynx fully exposed, a pair of diagonal stripes in the maize and blue colors of Michigan across the escutcheon of said planarian, a coronet made up of a Hebbian cell assembly, a ¥ for psychology, a homage to the stimulus-response of behaviorism, and a motto, ignotum, ignotius which, loosely translated, means “When I get through explaining this to you, you will know even less than before I started.” To top things off, McConnell labeled it Volume I, No. 1.

To McConnell’s astonishment, word of this new “journal” got out and he started receiving submissions. So he decided to “pep things up a bit” by scattering poems, jokes, satires, cartoons, spoofs and short stories more or less randomly among the more serious articles.

Other psychologists who joined in on the fun include B. F. Skinner and Harry Harlow, who each wrote satirical pieces related to their own work.

Before long McConnell received criticism that it was difficult to distinguish between the serious scientific contributions to the journal and the comedic contributions. To address this issue, in 1967 the journal was renamed the Journal of Biological Psychology, with the Worm Runner’s Digest relegated to the publication’s back pages where its pieces were printed upside down. Twelve years later, the Worm Runner’s Digest came to an end.

Read the full piece, “Psychological Hijinks,” online here.

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About Jacy Young

Jacy Young is a doctoral student in the History and Theory of Psychology program at York University. Her dissertation explores the early history of questionnaires in American psychology.

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