Tag Archives: Behaviorism

FHHS Sponsored Session: “Human Science Fictionalized: A Novel, a Visual Narrative and an Indie Film”

This November’s History of Science Society (HSS) meeting features a session sponsored by HSS’s special interest group the Forum for History of Human Science (FHHS). The HSS meeting runs November 3rd through 6th in Atlanta, Georgia. The session “Human Science Fictionalized: A Novel, a Visual Narrative and an Indie Film,” organized by Ben Harris (right), will take place on the morning of Sunday November 6th. Full details follow below.

Sunday Nov. 6, 9-11 am
Session 87. Human Science Fictionalized: A Novel, a Visual Narrative and an Indie Film
Chair(s): John Carson, University of Michigan
Commentator(s): Nadine Weidman, Harvard University
Organizer(s): Ben Harris, University of New Hampshire

A Novelist’s Perspective, Andromeda Romano-Lax, Independent Scholar
An Artist’s Perspective, Matteo Farinella, Independent Scholar and Columbia University
Putting Stanley Milgram on Film, Gina Perry, University of Melbourne


In studies of science popularization the focus is usually on non-fiction. But what about fictionalized portraits of science? This session looks at three attempts to bring the human and neuro- sciences to the public through fiction. Among the questions explored are: how is the fact/fiction boundary negotiated? how do a “fact writer” and a “fiction writer” think about popularization differently? What are the different relationships that they have to their sources, or that they envision with their audiences? Andromeda Romano-Lax is a successful novelist whose most recent work, Behave (2016), dramatizes the life and career of Rosalie Rayner, wife and former student of behaviorist John Watson. Matteo Farinella is an illustrator and artist with a doctorate in neuroscience. His visual narrative, Neurocomic (2013, co-authored with Hana Roz), portrays the history of neuroscience through a young man’s a voyage of discovery in a land of giant neurons and encounters with famous scientists. Gina Perry is an Australian journalist who used her investigative and narrative skills to write a Behind the Shock Machine (2013), a history of Stanley Milgram’s obedience studies. Now a doctoral student in psychology, she will review Experimenter, Michael Almereyda’s 2016 film about Milgram and his work. Our commentator is Nadine Weidman, a historian of science at Harvard University known for her work on public controversy and popularization in the twentieth century human sciences. Our Chair is John Carson, a historian at the University of Michigan and Director of Undergraduate Studies for its Program in Science, Technology, and Society.

Come back tomorrow for a roundup of all the history of human science related programming at HSS!

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Romano-Lax’s Behave: The (Fictionalized) Story of Rosalie Rayner Watson

Way back in the Spring of 2013 we brought you news that author Andromeda Romano-Lax was working on a fictionalized account of the life of psychologist Rosalie Rayner Watson. That book, now titled Behave, has just been published by SoHo Press. A trailer for the book is featured above and a recent Kirkus review of Behave can be found here.

The book is described on the publishers website:

“The mother begins to destroy the child the moment it’s born,” wrote the founder of behaviorist psychology, John B. Watson, whose 1928 parenting guide was revered as the child-rearing bible. For their dangerous and “mawkish” impulses to kiss and hug their child, “most mothers should be indicted for psychological murder.” Behave is the story of Rosalie Rayner, Watson’s ambitious young wife and the mother of two of his children.

In 1920, when she graduated from Vassar College, Rayner was ready to make her mark on the world. Intelligent, beautiful, and unflappable, she won a coveted research position at Johns Hopkins assisting the charismatic celebrity psychologist John B. Watson. Together, Watson and Rayner conducted controversial experiments on hundreds of babies to prove behaviorist principles. They also embarked on a scandalous affair that cost them both their jobs — and recast the sparkling young Rosalie Rayner, scientist and thinker, as Mrs. John Watson, wife and conflicted, maligned mother, just another “woman behind a great man.”

With Behave, Andromeda Romano-Lax offers a provocative fictional biography of Rosalie Rayner Watson, a woman whose work influenced generations of Americans, and whose legacy has been lost in the shadow of her husband’s. In turns moving and horrifying, Behave is a richly nuanced and disturbing novel about science, progress, love, marriage, motherhood, and what all those things cost a passionate, promising young woman.

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Special (31 Article!) Issue of Universitas Psychologica

A special issue of the journal Universitas Psychologica dedicated to the history of psychology is now freely available online. The issue includes 31 contributions which explore the history of psychology in a variety of international locales. Articles in this issue include ones on the work of Christian Wolff, the history of psychoanalysis in Chile, a comparative study of behaviorism in Argentina and Brazil, and much, much more.

While most articles are in Spanish a number are written in English. For more on this issue see this post by the Blog da Rede Iberoamericana de Pesquisadores em História da Psicologia. Full titles, authors, and abstracts follow below.

Happy reading!

“La Idea de Psicología Racional en la Metafísica Alemana (1720) de Christian Wolff,” Saulo Araujo and Thiago Constâncio Ribeiro Pereira. The abstract reads,

Christian Wolff (1679-1754) fue una figura central en la Ilustración europea del siglo XVIII. Al mismo tiempo, tuvo una importancia particular para el desarrollo histórico de la psicología, pues fue el primero en darle a ésta su significación moderna. Sin embargo, la historiografía tradicional de la psicología no le ha dado el debido reconocimiento. El objetivo de este artículo consiste en presentar los elementos centrales de su psicología racional en su Metafísica Alemana (1720) y mostrar su importancia para los debates psicológicos posteriores. Con ello, esperamos contribuir a la divulgación de un aspecto importante del desarrollo histórico de la psicología.

““MUJERES EXTRAVIADAS”: PSICOLOGÍA Y PROSTITUCIÓN EN LA ESPAÑA DE POSTGUERRA,” by Javier Bandrés, Eva Zubieta, and Rafael Llavona. The abstract reads,

La brutal depresión económica en que se sumió la España de postguerra empujó a muchas mujeres a recurrir a la prostitución como único medio de subsistencia. Las autoridades franquistas habían anulado el decreto abolicionista republicano por lo que el comercio sexual era tolerado. Sin embargo, el auge incontrolado de la prostitución hizo reaccionar a las autoridades y se establecieron cárceles especiales para prostitutas. Se analizan los trabajos de postguerra sobre la psicología de la prostitución de tres personajes situados en instituciones claves de la época: Antonio Vallejo Nágera (Universidad de Madrid, Consejo Nacional de Sanidad), Eduardo Martínez Martínez (Clínica Psiquiátrica Penitenciaria de Mujeres) y Francisco J. Echalecu y Canino (Patronato de Protección a la Mujer). Los textos de estos tres autores y sus investigaciones sobre prostitutas españolas les llevan a caracterizarlas como afectas innatas de psicopatía sexual, deficiencia mental y amoralidad. Este diagnóstico les lleva a justificar su internamiento para reforma en las cárceles especiales para prostitutas. Los trabajos de Vallejo, Martínez y Echalecu fueron instrumentales para justificar el establecimiento de las cárceles especiales. El marco conceptual de la biopsicología de inspiración alemana se puso al servicio del proyecto social de la biopolítica franquista.

“Scientifics exchanges between France and Brazil in the history of psychology – the role of Georges Dumas (1908-1946),” by Carolina S. Bandeira de Melo and Regina de Freitas Campos. The abstract reads, Continue reading Special (31 Article!) Issue of Universitas Psychologica

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Who Was Little Albert? The Story Continues…

Little Albert and a rat.
Little Albert and a rat. Source: http://hopkins. typepad.com/guest/images/2007/11/03/tanya8.jpg

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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Special Issue: Behaviorism at 100: The Legacies of Watson’s Behaviorist Manifesto

The Mexican Journal of Behavior Analysis (Revista mexicana de análisis de la conducta) has  published a special issue celebrating the centennial of John B. Watson’s behaviorist manifesto. The full issue is freely available in both Spanish and English. Guest guest edited by Kennon A. Lattal and Alexandra Rutherford, the issue includes articles by a number of prominent historians of psychology. Full titles, authors, and abstracts follow below.

“John B. Watson’s Behaviorist Manifesto at 100,” by Kennon A. Lattal and Alexandra Rutherford. The abstract reads,

In this introduction to the special issue of the Mexican Journal of Behavior Analysis on Behaviorism at 100: The Legacies of Watson’s Behaviorist Manifesto, we consider Watson’s seminal 1913 Psychological Review article “Psychology as the behaviorist views it” as a contribution in its own time, and reflect on the significance of the article in both contemporary psychology and contemporary behaviorism. Despite its lukewarm reception at the time of its publication and the mixed reviews of its impact even today, it remains one of the touchstone articles in psychology and an undeniably important text in understanding the evolution of 20th century American psychology. The different contributors to the special issue consider Watson’s article in the context of a number of subdisciplines of psychology.

“John B. Watson’s Early Work and Comparative Psychology,” by Donald A. Dewsbury. The abstract reads, Continue reading Special Issue: Behaviorism at 100: The Legacies of Watson’s Behaviorist Manifesto

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More HOP Graphic Novels: It’s Harry Harlow’s Turn

Cover of Wire Mothers

AHP has previously posted on the relationship between graphic novels and the history of psychology – in terms of psychology’s interactions with the reading of comics, the lie detector-Wonder Woman link, and the ways its history has periodically found its way into the stories themselves (see Freud’s appearance as a superhero and the Kitty Genovese connection to the Watchmen character Rorschach). Thanks to the newly downloaded comiXology app on my iPad, I have another recommendation for AHP readers: “Wire Mothers: Harry Harlow and the Science of Love“.

Created in 2007 by Jim Ottaviani and Dylan Meconis for G.T. Labs, the novel – as the title makes clear – focuses on the work of psychologist Harry Harlow. It was released as a part of G.T. Labs’ “science of the unscientific” series (bear with me for a bit here) as a companion to “Levitation: Physics and Psychology in the Service of Deception” (which I’ve only just started to read so perhaps more in a future post?).

Although “Wire Mothers” highlights several aspects of Harlow’s career and alludes to the work of Pavlov, Watson, and Skinner, the bulk of the story focuses on Harlow’s best known work with infant rhesus monkeys beginning in the late 1950s. These studies included questions related to the fear responses of these animals (see some original footage), the effects of contact comfort (see The Nature of Love), and the effects of social isolation (see Total Isolation in Monkeys). The authors also seem to capture a fair characterization of Harlow himself.

Overall, the project is well done – ex. the wire and cloth “mothers” will be easily recognizable to Historians of Psychology – and even concludes with a two page list of recommended primary and secondary source readings. This could be a great way to introduce our students to the topic – or perhaps just a fun read this summer when you want to goof off but still feel productive.


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The Expert: A Novel Based on the Life of Rosalie Rayner

Author Andromeda Romano-Lax has crowd funded, through USA Projects, a book in progress on the life of Rosalie Rayner (left). Tentatively titled The Expert, Romano-Lax’s the novel will be a fictionalized account of Rayner’s short life (1899-1935). Most famously, Rayner was John Watson’s graduate student assistant during the Little Albert study. Following a scandal caused by their affair, while Watson was married to someone else, they married and had two children.

As described on the project’s now closed fundraising site,

He was the founder of behaviorism and the most influential American psychologist of his day—a famous parenting “expert” who counseled mothers never to kiss or cuddle their children, and who went on to apply behaviorist principles to Madison Avenue advertising. She was the 19-year-old graduate student who assisted his research—and within a year, found her own career derailed when their steamy affair made front-page news in the East Coast newspapers.

John Watson is well known in psychology circles, but his second wife, Rosalie Rayner, the narrator of this based-on-real-events novel, is known mostly as a textbook footnote—a woman involved in scandal who retreated from her own career ambitions to support her larger-than-life, controversial husband before dying at the tragically young age of 35. Rayner’s own little-known story (informed by the stories of other women psychologists and professionals of the same time period) aims to shed light on the life of a 1920s Vassar-educated woman and mother, part of a post-suffragette, interwar, Jazz Age generation that looked to science, technology, and corporate slogans for expert answers on how to live.

….I will use project funds to continue the first phase of research (which began with a visit to Baltimore MD, Washington DC, and Poughkeepsie NY and continues with ongoing follow-up historical research) necessary to write dramatically about a woman of cultural and scientific significance who left almost no paper trail. It would be easier to write about her famous husband, but it is the little-known quality of Rosalie’s life – and the story of forgotten women like her – that draws me to this project. To recreate Rosalie Rayner’s life, I will continue to seek out scarce primary sources on Rayner, visit places that were formative to her development, and also continue to learn more about women psychologists and Baltimore life from 1900 to the mid-1930s.

Although this crowd funded project is a literary endeavour — one that just happens to overlap with the history of psychology — this kind of funding initiative raises questions about the future of funding for historical work more generally. What role, if any, will crowd funding have in future research in the history of psychology?

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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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Sidney Bijou Dies at 100

Sidney BijouSidney Bijou, the psychologist who developed behaviorist principles into a therapeutic system for children with a range of disorders, died on June 11 at the age of 100. There is an extensive obituary in the New York Times. Bijou worked with radical behaviorist B. F. Skinner in the 1940s, and he came to believe that reinforcing desirable behavior with praise or a hug or just attention would help children who were not responsive to traditional punishments or therapies. Bad behavior was ignored or, if particularly dispurtive, resulted in a short “time out,” which has since become a culturally pervasive technique. Bijou started using his new approach with defiant children, but as the system grew in popularity, it came to be a standard system for helping autistic and attention-deficit children as well, under the name of applied behavior analaysis, or ABA.

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Rat Guillotines

rat guillotineMy York U. colleague Michael Pettit put me on to an item at the blog of the Medical Museion (U. Copenhagen) about home-made devices for the “sacrificing” of rats (and other small animals) that have completed their “service” as laboratory subjects, such as this improvised guillotine (left).

Most psychologists who have worked in an animal laboratory will be familiar with such objects, but they may come as a surprise to others, as they seemed to have been to the person who told the blogger about her discovery of one in a behavioral neuroscience lab in Sydney, Australia.

It is also worth checking out the comments on this posting, several of which are from people who have used machines such as this, and note that commercially produced versions have long been available as well.

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