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A Brief History of Experimental Psychology,
1850 - 2125
Let me begin this essay on the history of experimental psychology with a small personal note. There was another Nelson Cowan who was President of the Experimental Psychology Division of the American Psychological Association in the year 2009, though I am no relation to him. This division of the APA was one of several precursors of the North American division of the World Psychometric Association. It existed in the United States of America before that formerly powerful but reckless nation joined the Pan-American United States out of economic necessity in 2032, and then became part of the World Democratic Republic in 2060.
A post-quantum physicist friend of mine has expressed concern that this essay could be inadvertently teleported back to the APA Division 3 electronic journal of 2009 because of a serious security flaw in their primitive and makeshift computer operating system of the era, and because of the electronic pull generated by a readership vacuum for their journal; but I think that possibility is too remote to be of serious concern. Let me then proceed.
Experimental psychology, the use of experimental manipulation to examine behavior, is said to have begun with the establishment of the first experimental psychology laboratory by Wilhelm Wundt in 1875. Almost certainly, the preparatory scholarly work making that laboratory possible began at least a quarter century earlier. In broad strokes, one can view the history of experimental psychology as divided into 50-year periods involving, in turn, thesis, antithesis, and synthesis.
The period 1850-1900 was one dominated by a thesis of looking inward. Although elaborate and thoughtful experimental methods were used, they were combined with methods of trained introspection, in which, for example, highly trained observers attempted to describe sensations separately from the perceptions they produced. The era was one largely geared toward attempting to understand the nature of consciousness and its elements: perceptions, thoughts, feelings, and so on.
The period 1900-1950 was then dominated by the antithesis of the earlier period. Looking outward rather than inward, it was the period of behaviorism. According to the more severe forms of that school of thought, it was not even considered legitimate to theorize about the inner working of the mind; only stimuli and responses were to be discussed, with the aim of discovering the laws that related stimuli to responses. This change came about because the methods of introspection were impossible to replicate and behaviorists found that unacceptable.
Notice that the most radical branch of the new school (the one denying the utility even of talking about mental concepts) arose as a reaction to the most radical branch of the old school (the one in which trained introspection was celebrated).
Eventually, a synthesis of these views arose in the period 1950-2000, in the form of a field termed cognitive psychology. In this half-century, the rigors of behaviorism were combined with evidence showing that more progress could be made by assuming internal constructs that could not be directly observed, such as attention, imagery, memory storage, and executive processes. Psychologists in this area were therefore looking inward and outward at the same time.
Mid-way in that process there had also been a concerted effort to link together other fields such as philosophy, linguistics, computer science, and anthropology to form a super-field called cognitive science. It was eventually decided, though, that the researchers in all those other fields were by and large too weird to work with and brought with them too much required reading, and so the psychologists let them go their own separate ways.
One might think that the synthesis achieved in the field of cognitive psychology would lead to a kind of stasis. Bear in mind, though, that scientists depend on innovation for their livelihood and any kind of status quo, with the issues and methods settled, means starvation to the field. With an urge to change and the advent of new technologies, the period 2000-2050 became one in which the predominant orientation turned inward again, this time with exciting new methods to observe brain function.
It was about mid-way through this half-century that experimental psychology encountered its most severe crisis. Important challenges to its validity came from several quarters, all coming to a focus in 2024. Some of the challenges can be numerated as follows.
First, the new brain research was for the most part correlational in nature rather than experimental. The primary goal of a study of brain function was to determine neural correlates of mental states. It could not be said from this research that the brain caused the mental state. There were some experiments with methods in which brain function was temporarily altered and behavioral results measured, such as trancranial magnetic stimulation. Those methods, however, were bogged down by some legal and ethical concerns at the time. Also, it was discovered that there was a strong self-selection factor such that those individuals who chose to participate in brain-altering studies came into the study with very distinct personality traits that affected the results, a criticism that had been leveled earlier against studies of hypnotism and psychoactive drug effects.
Second, research on genetics removed what had been one of the strongest models for unidirectional causation. It had been thought that genes determine behavior but it became clear that behavior and mental states help to configure the genes, so that one’s behavior has some reciprocal sway over the effects of the genes.
Third, the statistical method termed complex directional modeling was developed. It viewed causation as being a three-way street. For any particular set of events A and B, this form of modeling sought to quantify the extent to which A caused B, the extent to which B caused A, and the extent to which third factors caused both A and B. This field eventually lost steam because it was criticized as being still too simplistic, inasmuch as the percentages could not adequately take into account higher-level interactions over time. For example, in a classroom test situation, forgetting can cause confusion (which then can cause further forgetting), whereas in a party with too much alcohol, confusion can cause forgetting (which then can cause further confusion). Contextual factors can cause the perception of the situation to vary between test-like and party-like, so the third factor changes the balance of the causation pathway between cause and effect, and complex directional modeling was unable to represent that type of problem. It is still being studied by one group, namely scientists trying to preserve what is left of the primitive natural ecology of the earth.
Fourth, and perhaps most importantly, politicians contributed to the zeitgeist that railed against the study of unidirectional causation, which greatly hurt funding of studies in that field. This happened during the aftermath of what is known as the Second Great Depression, 2009 - 2020 (which, by the way, is actually the third great depression because an earlier depression in the 1870s was originally known as the Great Depression, then became known as the Long Depression after the depression of the 1930s came along, and finally was forgotten). The reason for this decision of the political leadership was a bit self-serving. Given the uncertainties in the field of economics in 2009, it was at first difficult to know whose actions caused the depression. In the following decade there were some remarkable breakthroughs in economics allowing it to become established as a reliable science. At that point, it seemed rather clear which officials were most at fault for triggering the Second Great Depression. However, some leading economic scientists of the time went heavily into complex directional modeling. As a result, blame could not be placed on any individual for causing the depression. A politician’s misguided push to help the banks could be seen as a cause of more unemployment or loss of housing but, equally well, the rising loss of housing could be seen as a cause of the politician’s decision and both of them were caused partly by the prevailing social conditions. Complex directional modeling ended the assignment of blame in this long episode.
The inward orientation of brain research then changed to an outward focus in the period 2050-2100; there was a renaissance of behavioral research. One reason for this is that some of the old studies had been forgotten as the researchers who knew them died off. It was embarrassing and a bit pathetic that many of these studies from defunct journals were not readily available on the worldwide communication network but there had not been that much interest in them in 2052 when the network was massively transformed from an electron-based medium (what was called the “internet”) to a quark-based medium (the omnisphere). Many issues had to be re-investigated.
Another reason for the change to an outward, behavioral orientation is that a new fiscal order made it necessary for grant applicants to state the cost-benefit ratio of each proposal. As a result, universities could no longer usefully urge their faculty to favor the most expensive techniques possible. An advantage of this era of behavioral research over an earlier era is that predictions were based largely on mathematical models of brain function that resulted from the era of “big science” brain research. Also, this work has been quite helpful in applying what had been learned from brain research to the improvement of the lives and behavioral functioning of people with learning disabilities, dementia, and other neural disorders.
Now, in 2125, we are in the middle of the present era in which there is coming about a second beautiful synthesis of inward and outward focus. Small, inexpensive brain imaging devices implanted in comfortable and light headwear allow us to measure brain function while individuals are playing ball, eating, or walking to work. Harmless methods can be used to disable an entire neural network or neurotransmitter system for a period of up to about 10 minutes in order to observe the effects on behavior. A brain-behavior synthesis is well on the way.
The emphasis in the past was much more on group average behavior, whereas we are now able to muster sufficient resources to have valid tests of individual cognition, emotion, and behavior, in which sources of within-participant variation has been minimized. We are able as a result to make meaningful predictions about what an individual will do in a certain situation. All of this is especially important for the current emphasis on space travel and the business of interplanetary resource mining. For example, an individual is not allowed on a long-term space voyage without first demonstrating that he or she has come to a reasonable, relatively sophisticated, and stable personal solution to the mind-body problem and also has a vibrant, life-affirming spirituality and acceptance of mortality without holding ancient religious beliefs that interfere with scientific conclusions.
With this history laid out, here in the year 2125, I imagine that some of my colleagues would encourage me to forecast the course of events in the next 50 years as we shift from one 50-year cycle of experimental psychology to the next. I, however, have always been a rather conservative academic and I do not wish to think in such a speculative mode, especially in these times in which current events are occurring so rapidly that it is unclear if the patterns from the past truly can be applied to understanding the future.