On Oct. 20, 1945, Gustave Gilbert arrived in Nuremberg, Germany, to begin what was perhaps the most compelling assignment ever given to an American psychologist — working for the International Military Tribunal at the first Nazi war crimes trial. Fluent in German, Gilbert was given the assignment to work as a morale officer and translator. Nuremberg was a high-stakes affair, and the Allied powers wanted the trial to proceed in an orderly and dignified manner. Gilbert’s job was to keep the prisoners — Hitler’s leading henchmen — in a reasonably calm, rational state.
With the approval of his superiors, he quickly recast the position as “prison psychologist” and began studying the prisoners as well. Gilbert used all the standard psychological tools of the day — intelligence tests, Rorschach and Thematic Apperception tests. However, his preferred method was casual conversation. Gilbert befriended the prisoners, visiting them in their cells daily and chatting with them at meal times. At the end of each day, he wrote about these conversations, providing a fascinating window into the thoughts and motivations of the prisoners as they faced what they all knew was a likely death sentence.
Early on, Bruner explored the ways that experience affects perception. His paper “Value and Need as Organizing Factors in Perception” (Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 1947) reported the finding that children were more likely to overestimate the size of coins than cardboard discs — and the greater the value of the coin, the more likely the children were to overestimate its diameter. What’s more, poor children were significantly more likely than rich children to overestimate the size of coins. In other words, both value and need influenced the way the children perceived the world around them.
Through research and observation, Bruner understood that human behavior is always influenced by the world and culture in which we live. His work helped move the field of psychology away from strict behaviorism and contributed to the emergence of cognitive psychology.
The Time Capsule section of the December 2014 issue of the APA‘s Monitor on Psychology includes an articles on psychologist David Boder’s work with Holocaust survivors. As Victor Colotla and Samuel Jurado describe,
Boder began his research on the victims of the Holocaust when Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, then supreme commander of the Allied Forces, invited journalists to “come and see for yourselves” the atrocities that the Allied forces were uncovering in the Nazi death camps. Boder brought with him a magnetic wire recorder that had been developed at the Illinois Institute of Technology, where he was heading the psychology department. The idea was to record the experiences of displaced persons in their own languages — something Boder hoped he could accomplish without interpreters since he spoke several languages. After a year of preparation and with limited financial support, he made his way to Europe in July 1946.
Boder interviewed 109 men and women, and three children, most of them Jews, while he traveled through camps of displaced persons in France, Germany, Italy and Switzerland. He asked each person to tell the story of what happened to them during the war. Boder sat giving his back to the interviewees so that they wouldn’t be affected by his facial reactions to their stories.
Alongside mentions of monuments, churches and historical sites, a 19th-century tourist in New York might have found this recommendation in his or her guidebook: Visit the Bloomingdale Asylum for the Insane, in the Morningside Heights neighborhood of Manhattan (on the grounds of what is now Columbia University).
“The approach to the Asylum from the southern entrance … is highly pleasing,” reads the 1880 guide “Miller’s New York As It Is.” The author continues, “The sudden opening of the view, the extent of the grounds, the various avenues gracefully winding through so large a lawn. … The central building … is always open to visitors, and the view from the top of it being the most extensive and beautiful of any in the vicinity of the city, is well worthy of their attention” (Miller, 1880, p. 46-47).
Recommending a visit to a mental hospital might seem surprising to modern readers, but this was not unusual at the time. In fact, the “asylum tourism” of the late 1800s was less voyeuristic than its earlier incarnations. The patients — sometimes including the powerless wives of jealous or bored aristocrats — had often been treated like animals, housed in institutions that were little more than human zoos. (It cost only a shilling to see “the beasts” rave at Bedlam, as the Bethlem Royal Hospital in London, England, was then known.)
In the 1940s, at the height of World War Two, researchers at the University of Minnesota recruited 36 young men to participate in a nearly year long study of the physical and psychological effects of starvation. Over the course of the study the men were charged with losing 25 percent of their normal body weight. The hope was that the findings of such research could be used in war related relief efforts. Needless to say, participation in this study was difficult. As Baker and Keramidas describe,
During the semi-starvation phase the changes were dramatic. Beyond the gaunt appearance of the men, there were significant decreases in their strength and stamina, body temperature, heart rate and sex drive. The psychological effects were significant as well. Hunger made the men obsessed with food. They would dream and fantasize about food, read and talk about food and savor the two meals a day they were given. They reported fatigue, irritability, depression and apathy. Interestingly, the men also reported decreases in mental ability, although mental testing of the men did not support this belief.
For some men, the study proved too difficult. Data from three subjects were excluded as a result of their breaking the diet and a fourth was excluded for not meeting expected weight loss goals.
The men and the study became subjects of national interest, even appearing in Life magazine in 1945. But in some ways, world events overtook the study. The war in Europe ended on May 8, 1945, barely halfway through the starvation phase of the experiment. Keys and the men worried that the data they had sacrificed for would not get to relief workers and the starving people they wished to serve in time to help them. Relief efforts were underway and there was no clear guide for rehabilitating those who were starving.