Exemplars in the history of psychology

The magical number 7The latest issue of Teaching of Psychology includes an article by Griggs and Jackson — entitled “Classic Articles as Primary Source Reading in Introductory Psychology” — which reports the results of a citation analysis of recent textbooks.  Their purpose was to determine which among the 40 most well-known and commonly-cited classic studies would still be appropriate to include in a contemporary first course in psychology.  Their examination reduced this number to 22, the top ten of which are reported below (with abstracts and links).  To adjust for the preponderance of papers about learning, memory, and social psychology, they then also suggested supplementary readings in developmental and personality psychology, as well as in psychobiology.

Top ten classic primary source readings for intro psych.

A variety of researches are examined from the standpoint of information theory. It is shown that the unaided observer is severely limited in terms of the amount of information he can receive, process, and remember. However, it is shown that by the use of various techniques, e.g., use of several stimulus dimensions, recoding, and various mnemonic devices, this informational bottleneck can be broken.

  • Sperling, G. (1960). The information available in brief visual presentations. Psychological Monographs, 74(11, Whole No. 498), 1-29.

When a subject looks at a briefly flashed array of a dozen or so letters, he typically reports seeing more letters than he can remember. This paper introduces a method of partial report to demonstrate that the subject has a very short-term visual memory of the array and to measure the decay of this memory during the half-second following the exposure.

  • Schachter, S., & Singer, J. E. (1962). Cognitive, social and physiological determinants of emotional state. Psychological Review, 69, 379-399.

“It is suggested that emotional states may be considered a function of a state of physiological arousal and of a cognition appropriate to this state of arousal. From this follows these propositions: (a) Given a state of physiological arousal for which an individual has no immediate explanation, he will label this state and describe his feelings in terms of the cognitions available to him . . . . (b) Given a state of physiological arousal for which an individual has a completely appropriate explanation, no evaluative needs will arise and the individual is unlikely to label his feelings in terms of the alternative cognitions available. (c) Given the same cognitive circumstances, the individual will react emotionally or describe his feelings as emotions only to the extent that he experiences a state of physiological arousal. An experiment is described which, together with the results of other studies, supports these propositions.”

  • Peterson, L. R., & Peterson, M. J. (1959). Short-term retention of individual verbal items. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 58, 193-198.

The investigation is concerned with individual items instead of lists. “Forgetting over intervals measured in seconds was found. The course of retention after a single presentation was related to a statistical model. Forgetting was found to progress at differential rates dependent on the amount of controlled rehearsal of the stimulus. A portion of the improvement in recall with repetitions was assigned to serial learning within the item, but a second kind of learning was also found.”

If the theory advanced by Watson and Morgan (in ‘Emotional Reactions and Psychological Experimentation,’ American Journal of Psychology, April, 1917, Vol. 28, pp. 163-174) to the effect that in infancy the original emotional reaction patterns are few, consisting so far as observed of fear, rage and love, then there must be some simple method by means of which the range of stimuli which can call out these emotions and their compounds is greatly increased. Otherwise, complexity in adult response could not be accounted for. These authors without adequate experimental evidence advanced the view that this range was increased by means of conditioned reflex factors. It was suggested there that the early home life of the child furnishes a laboratory situation for establishing conditioned emotional responses. The present authors present their experimental findings of conditioned fear responses in a male infant beginning at 11 months of age.

A test of some hypotheses generated by Festinger’s theory of cognitive dissonance, viz., that “if a person is induced to do or say something which is contrary to his private opinion, there will be a tendency for him to change his opinion so as to bring it into correspondence with what he has done or said. The larger the pressure used to elicit the overt behavior . . . the weaker will be the . . . tendency . . . . The results strongly corroborate the theory.”

  • Milgram, S. (1963). Behavioral study of obedience. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 67, 371-378.

This articles describes a procedure for the study of destructive obedience in the laboratory. It consists of ordering a naive S to administer increasingly more severe punishment to a victim in the context of a learning experiment. Punishment is administered by means of a shock generator with 30 graded switches ranging from Slight Shock to Danger: Severe Shock. The victim is a confederate of the E. The primary dependent variable is the maximum shock the S is willing to administer before he refuses to continue further. 26 Ss obeyed the experimental commands fully, and administered the highest shock on the generator. 14 Ss broke off the experiment at some point after the victim protested and refused to provide further answers. The procedure created extreme levels of nervous tension in some Ss. Profuse sweating, trembling, and stuttering were typical expressions of this emotional disturbance. One unexpected sign of tension–yet to be explained–was the regular occurrence of nervous laughter, which in some Ss developed into uncontrollable seizures. The variety of interesting behavioral dynamics observed in the experiment, the reality of the situation for the S, and the possibility of parametric variation within the framework of the procedure, point to the fruitfulness of further study.

  • Holmes, T. H., & Rahe, R. H. (1967). The social readjustment rating scale. Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 11, 213-218.

It has been determined that clustering of social or life events achieves etiologic significance as a necessary but insufficient cause of illness and accounts in part for the time of onset of disease. The interview or questionnaire technique used in these studies has yielded only the number and types of events making up the cluster. This report defines a method to determine some estimate of the magnitude of events to bring greater precision to this area of research and provide a quantitative basis for new epidemiological studies of diseases.

  • Craik, F. I. M., & Lockhart, R. S. (1972). Levels of processing: A framework for memory research. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, 11, 671-684.

Briefly reviews the evidence for multistore theories of memory and points out difficulties with the approach. An alternative framework for human memory research is then outlined in terms of depth or levels of processing. Some current data and arguments are reexamined in the light of this alternative framework and implications for further research considered.

  • Garcia, J., & Koelling, R. A. (1966). Relation of cue to consequence in avoidance learning. Psychonomic Science, 4, 123-124.

An audiovisual stimulus was made contingent upon the rat’s licking at the water spout, thus making it analogous with a gustatory stimulus. When the audiovisual stimulus and the gustatory stimulus were paired with electric shock the avoidance reactions transferred to the audiovisual stimulus, but not the gustatory stimulus. Conversely, when both stimuli were paired with toxin or X-ray the avoidance reactions transferred to the gustatory stimulus, but not the audiovisual stimulus. Apparently stimuli are selected as cues dependent upon the nature of the subsequent reinforcer.


About Jeremy Burman

Jeremy Trevelyan Burman is a senior doctoral student in York University’s Department of Psychology, specializing in the history of developmental psychology and its theory (especially that pertaining to Jean Piaget). Prior to returning to academia, he was a producer at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

One thought on “Exemplars in the history of psychology

Comments are closed.