New Isis: Experimenters & Subjects, & Bounded Rationality

A new issue of Isis, the official journal of the History of Science Society, is now online. The issue includes an article by Jill Morawski (right) on the relationship between experimenters and subjects in postwar American psychology. A special focus section on “Bounded Rationality and the History of Science” also includes a couple of pieces that tackle the history of psychology. Full titles, authors, and abstracts follow below.

“Epistemological Dizziness in the Psychology Laboratory: Lively Subjects, Anxious Experimenters, and Experimental Relations, 1950–1970,” by Jill Morawski. The abstract reads,

Since the demise of introspective techniques in the early twentieth century, experimental psychology has largely assumed an administrative arrangement between experimenters and subjects wherein subjects respond to experimenters’ instructions and experimenters meticulously constrain that relationship through experimental controls. During the postwar era this standard arrangement came to be questioned, initiating reflections that resonated with Cold War anxieties about the nature of the subjects and the experimenters alike. Albeit relatively short lived, these interrogations of laboratory relationships gave rise to unconventional testimonies and critiques of experimental method and epistemology. Researchers voiced serious concerns about the honesty and normality of subjects, the politics of the laboratory, and their own experimental conduct. Their reflective commentaries record the intimacy of subject and experimenter relations and the plentiful cultural materials that constituted the experimental situation, revealing the permeable boundaries between laboratory and everyday life.

“Hypothesis Bound: Trial and Error in the Nineteenth Century,” by Henry M. Cowles. The abstract reads,

Like so many things, “trial and error” has a history. The term first emerged as the name for a technique in eighteenth-century mathematics pedagogy. In the nineteenth century, psychologists and biologists transformed “trial and error” from a mathematical tool into a developmental theory, one that could explain both the learning mind and life on earth. “Trial and error” can thus be seen as a case of the larger process whereby the tools we use to explain the world do not just influence but in many ways become our explanations—a process that the psychologist Gerd Gigerenzer has called the “tools-to-theories” heuristic. This essay uses Gigerenzer’s concept to frame the evolution of “trial and error.” By the end, it suggests how the historical relationship between tools and theories prompts a reconsideration of the terms and assumptions historians of science use in their own work.

“Of Models and Machines: Implementing Bounded Rationality,” by Stephanie Dick. The abstract reads,

This essay explores the early history of Herbert Simon’s principle of bounded rationality in the context of his Artificial Intelligence research in the mid 1950s. It focuses in particular on how Simon and his colleagues at the RAND Corporation translated a model of human reasoning into a computer program, the Logic Theory Machine. They were motivated by a belief that computers and minds were the same kind of thing—namely, information-processing systems. The Logic Theory Machine program was a model of how people solved problems in elementary mathematical logic. However, in making this model actually run on their 1950s computer, the JOHNNIAC, Simon and his colleagues had to navigate many obstacles and material constraints quite foreign to the human experience of logic. They crafted new tools and engaged in new practices that accommodated the affordances of their machine, rather than reflecting the character of human cognition and its bounds. The essay argues that tracking this implementation effort shows that “internal” cognitive practices and “external” tools and materials are not so easily separated as they are in Simon’s principle of bounded rationality—the latter often shaping the dynamics of the former.

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.