Time Capsule

In 1939, psychologist Norman R.F. Maier received the $1,000 Newcomb Cleveland Prize (about $13,000 today) from the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) for his work on conflict-induced seizures in rats. It marked the first time the prize had been awarded to a psychologist. The research received national media coverage from The New York Times to Life magazine and a front-page story in The Washington Post.

Yet Maier's celebrity was short-lived. A number of psychologists, led by Clifford T. Morgan, attacked the work, arguing that the seizures were an artifact of Maier's procedures. Morgan's view became the accepted scientific truth and the controversy effectively ended Maier's career as an experimental psychologist.

But was Maier wrong?

Most of psychology is presented in public. We publish in books and journals and present papers at professional meetings, and sometimes we even use mass media. However, a balanced and nuanced understanding of psychology requires attention to that which is not public — psychology's shadows. Excellent sources for this aspect of the field lie in archival collections, such as in the Archives of the History of American Psychology in Akron, Ohio. No better illustration of this point can be found than the conflict that arose between Maier and Morgan and others beginning in the 1930s.

Maier was regarded as a bit of a maverick psychologist, a Midwesterner when the Eastern establishment was dominant, and an opponent of the prevailing behavioristic emphases of his day. In 1939 he claimed to discover two forms of neurotic behavior in rats. Maier's apparatus was a Lashley Jumping Stand, a device that requires rats to jump from a small platform across a gap toward a goal area. The goal area includes two doors with cardboard covers displaying different simple patterns. If the rats choose correctly, the cardboard door falls back and they gain access to food. After incorrect choices, however, the rats bump their noses and fall into a net below the gap.

Rats readily learn simple discrimination among patterns. Once Maier's rats had learned the task, he presented them with an unsolvable problem, an impossible discrimination. Some rats became fixated with one choice so that even if a soluble problem was later introduced they did not break the fixation. Others displayed full-blown seizures, sometimes lasting several minutes. Maier regarded both as similar to human neuroses. He later conceded that only the fixations should be regarded as “neurotic.” The convulsions were another matter.

What brought the phenomenon to prominence was Maier's receiving the Newcomb Cleveland Prize.

Morgan was a recent PhD and a Northeastern young gun who took on the maverick. In 1939, Clifford and Jane Morgan published a paper showing that the convulsions could be triggered by sound alone (a fact already familiar to Maier), in this case the sound of an air puff that encouraged the rat to jump across the gap; the insoluble problem appeared to be unnecessary. This led to a whole series of papers by authors both attacking and defending Maier, but mainly the former.

Maier argued that, although seizures could be triggered by auditory stimuli, they alone could not account for the level of response in the conflict situation. The overwhelming conclusion of authors reviewing the conflict, however, favored Morgan's assertion that the seizures were audiogenic.

Subsequently, Morgan went on to a highly successful career as an experimental psychologist, administrator and publisher. The conflict was one important factor leading Maier to leave animal research. He became a successful industrial psychologist. Later, in 1960, he wrote in “Maier's Law,” “if facts do not conform to the theory, they must be disposed of.” Maier never received the awards and signs of recognition afforded to others of similar accomplishments.

In 1947 Maier co-authored a paper in the Journal of Comparative and Physiological Psychology showing that more rats given unsolvable problems convulsed than in a control group exposed to similar sounds. Morgan submitted a critique of the article to journal editor Calvin Stone. Stone appeared favorably disposed toward Morgan and invited Maier to submit a reply, “so far as is possible,” so that both articles could be given early publication. Maier wrote a succinct and effective reply.

Remarkably, Morgan conceded, writing to Stone that he was “clearly off the beam” and that the wind had been taken from his sails. Fearing embarrassment, he wanted to withdraw his critique without publication but agreed to publication if Maier insisted. Morgan wrote to Maier that “I was quite wrong on the matters of fact in which I attempted to criticize you.”

Maier did what he regarded as the honorable thing to do, agreeing to drop publication. But he suggested the possibility of a joint article resolving the issues. Morgan agreed but noted that he was busy and would have to put off the writing for about a month. The article never appeared. One of Morgan's colleagues noted that Morgan never publicly admitted to his concession to his colleagues; that rests only in the archives. The general conclusion in the field was that Morgan had emerged victorious. Maier was frustrated.

We see in this case study the manner in which the surface view of a conflict can be deceptive. Few journals publish the kind of controversial exchanges discussed here. This case suggests that more such critical articles might be appropriate. It also illustrates the power of those working at the core of a discipline to thwart those whose work challenges the mainstream. Maier's case shows that lying in the shadows may be a story that is very different from the public version.

This complete story can be found only in the correspondence and in a 1967 interview with Maier conducted by archives director John Popplestone that are in Akron. If we are to truly understand historical events, we must look beneath the bright surface and into the shadows.

Donald A. Dewsbury, PhD, is professor emeritus at the University of Florida.


• Dewsbury, D.A. (1993). On publishing controversy: Norman R.F. Maier and the genesis of seizures. American Psychologist, 48, 869–877.

• Maier, N.R.F. (1939). Studies of abnormal behavior in the rat. New York: Harper.

• Maier, N.R.F. (1960). Maier's law. American Psychologist, 15, 208–212.

• Maier, N.R.F., & Longhurst, J.U. (1947). Studies of abnormal behavior in the rat: 21. Conflict and audiogenic seizures. Journal of Comparative and Physiological Psychology, 40, 397–412.

• Morgan, C.T., & Morgan, J.D. (1939). Auditory induction of an abnormal pattern of behavior in rats. Journal of Comparative and Physiological Psychology, 31, 1–11.