APA Monitor: A History of Maze Research

This month’s issue of the American Psychological Association‘s Monitor on Psychology has just gone online. Featured in this issue’s Time Capsule section is an article by C. James Goodwin on the history of maze research in American psychology. As Goodwin describes,

The idea for the first maze study was sparked by a conversation between Sanford and another Clark graduate student, Linus Kline. Small and Kline were both interested in the then-new Darwin-inspired field of comparative psychology. They had been studying rats and were especially interested in what they called the rat’s “home-finding” ability. Kline told Sanford he had observed “runways … made by large feral rats to their nests under the porch of an old cabin on [his] father’s farm in Virginia.” When these runways were exposed during an excavation, their maze-like appearance immediately suggested to Sanford using the Hampton Court Maze design to study “home-finding.”

At that time, the Hampton Court Maze in England was a popular tourist stop, arguably the world’s most famous hedge maze. It was part of the sprawling attraction of Hampton Court, just outside London, built as a home away from throne for the British royal family. Built in 1690, the maze consists of twists and turns and six-foot-tall hedges that continue to perplex visitors today. At the time of his conversation with Kline, Sanford had just returned from London; it is conceivable that he had visited the maze on that trip.

Whatever the origins of Sanford’s suggestion, the Clark lab soon had its own mini-version of the Hampton Court Maze, redesigned slightly to make it rectangular instead of trapezoidal. The 6′ x 8′ maze had a wooden floor and wire mesh walls. Small became the lead researcher on the project when Kline had to step away for other research. In 1899, Small began his research, publishing his results two years later. This was a time when psychology was the science of mental life, so it is not surprising that Small described his maze study in “mentalistic” terms, rather than in the kind of language one might expect to read in a more modern “learning” study. So instead of reporting results in terms of error rates and time to completion, Small tried to infer what the rats were doing as they made their way through the maze.

The full article, “A-mazing Research: A Look at the Origins and Continued use of the Maze in Psychological Research,” can be read online here.

About Jacy Young

Jacy Young is a professor at Quest University Canada. A critical feminist psychologist and historian of psychology, she is committed to critical pedagogy and public engagement with feminist psychology and the history of the discipline.

One thought on “APA Monitor: A History of Maze Research

  1. I used to show a slide of the Hampton Court maze in my history of psychology classes. I encouraged my students to visit Hampton Court if they went to England and then I imparted an incredible piece of wisdom — If you decide to enter the maze, use the loo first!

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