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When approaching the history of psychology, it is often difficult to get a sense of the psychologists as people. We have biographies of many of the psychologists--some, like William James and B. F. Skinner, have inspired many biographies--but readers are always searching for more information on what the psychologists thought of their own ideas and those of their contemporaries. Similarly, there are colorful anecdotes about many of the great psychologists, but their accuracy is often dubious, and something better is needed. Since its first volume was published in 1930, A History of Psychology in Autobiography has been just what is needed--a set of accessible, concise sketches by the great psychologists themselves.
The newest volume (Volume 9) is particularly welcome, in part due to its unexpectedness--indeed, it has been 18 years since Volume 8 was released, and as we learn in this new volume's preface, a chance meeting between three psychologists at a memorial service for a fourth (Ernest Hilgard) prompted another installment of the series. It was reasonable enough (if sad) to think that the series had ended, if only because it has become much more difficult to select psychologists. Not only are there so many more psychologists to choose from, but the increasing diversity of psychology means that researchers may be very influential in their area without being important in the mainstream of psychology.
Nine psychologists have contributed autobiographies to this volume (the smallest number in the history of the series): Elliot Aronson, Albert Bandura, Gordon Bower, Daniel Kahneman, Jerome Kagan, Elizabeth Loftus, Walter Mischel, Ulric Neisser, and Richard Thompson. Although any introductory psychology textbook will contain citations to the work of most of these scholars, and it would be difficult to argue that any of them do not deserve the special honor of contributing to this volume, it is interesting to note that these individuals differ greatly in their degree of "name recognition"--all academic psychologists would immediately recognize Bandura or Loftus, while some may need a reminder of just who Bower or Thompson are (even if their names sound familiar and results from their research are well known).
One of the most interesting aspects of these volumes is the way that they allow for generalizations about what was important in psychology at a certain point in time. If a reader had to choose two words that recur again and again in the present volume, they would be "Stanford" and "cognitive." Two thirds of the contributors were either faculty members at Stanford or went to graduate school there; two of the remaining three contributors held one-year fellowships there as well, leaving Kagan as the only one who may never have held a Stanford affiliation. Currently, Stanford's psychology department is ranked first in the U.S., and given these faculty and students, it is easy to see why. Also, most of the contributors to this volume either defined themselves against behaviorism or contributed to the rapid growth in cognitive psychology. Bandura describes his intellectual battles with behaviorists, while Aronson describes the excitement of cognitive dissonance theory replacing reinforcement models of behavior. Kagan's dissertation caused problems for Hull's behavioral learning theory, and Neisser tells us that he always disliked behaviorism because of its popularity, being attracted to the underdog of Gestalt psychology. Mischel connects the importance of Stanford to the cognitive movement, saying that when he arrived as a professor at Stanford, he and his colleagues "shared the conviction that we were…uncovering the mental processes that for half a century behaviorism had declared taboo."
In addition to these general implicit trends, of course, A History of Psychology in Autobiography contains many small facts that may surprise readers who are familiar with the work of each of the contributors. Loftus recounts how an informal poll was taken among her fellow graduate students, in which she was voted least likely to succeed as a psychologist (she admits this was related to having been bored by the mathematical learning theory in vogue at the time). Aronson describes a childhood of abject poverty and discrimination, and how he rose from that to an assistant professorship at Harvard. Mischel discusses the origin of his famous delay-of-gratification work in a summer spent in Trinidad with little to do. And in perhaps the most colorful anecdote in the volume, Kagan tells us how his first research assistanship as a graduate student at Yale included the task of masturbating male dogs to examine the effects of hormones on erection strength.
It seems odd--even a bit improper--to critique autobiographical reflections, but the book has some limitations that potential readers should be made aware of. First, the chapters are very uneven with regard to the proportion of each chapter spent on the individual's personal life, professional chronology, and research ideas--some contributors spend significant time on their childhoods, whereas others devote many pages to discussing their current theoretical perspectives. Second, many of the contributors make reference to various theories and studies (including their own) without fully describing them, and readers who are unfamiliar with the scholarly work of the contributors may find these references cryptic. Finally, although the autobiographical accounts offered here are historical documents in a certain sense, many of them include historical characterizations of psychology that may reflect the contributors' limited vantage points. For instance, certain contributors claim that at different times in the past, psychoanalysis (or behaviorism) was the reigning system of psychology, without providing evidence to support these claims. However, this limitation, like the others, results from the freedom given to contributors, a freedom that has more benefits than limitations for readers.
In sum, then, this most recent volume of A History of Psychology in Autobiography is not only useful for teachers and students of the history of psychology, but it will be enjoyed by most academic psychologists, especially those who grew up (professionally speaking) at the same time as the contributors and already have a general sense of their work. It is an engaging, accessible, and above all humane look at the recent past in psychology, and an inspiration to those in the present.
© 2008 Benjamin J. Lovett
Benjamin J. Lovett, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of psychology at Elmira College, where he teaches classes on a variety of topics in applied psychology and his research focuses on the conceptual and psychometric foundations of psychoeducational assessment and psychiatric diagnosis.
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