Trisha Arora/Photo Editor

From carrying out social experiments to conducting schizophrenia research, the Psychology Department has a long, layered history of testing and discovering. The following timeline, with reflections from current and past University professors of psychology, is a testament to the evolution of the department from its birth in the Philosophy Department in 1894 through the late 1960s. This article is the first part of a two-part series; part II of the article will be published in an upcoming issue of The Argus.


1894: The Psychological Laboratory is founded within the Department of Philosophy

The Psychological Laboratory was among the first 20 labs of its kind founded in the United States. Psychology would remain in the Philosophy Department until 1912. Despite its lack of autonomy, however, it was ahead of its time, thanks in part to Andrew C. Armstrong, who taught at the University from 1888 until 1930.

Armstrong instructed Edward Thorndike and Charles Judd, both future presidents of the American Psychological Association and major contributors to the field. Thorndike, who first stated the Law of Effect (that rewarded behaviors are likely to recur), laid the foundation for influential psychologists such as Ivan Pavlov and B.F. Skinner.

1912: Psychology becomes its own department, splits from Philosophy under supervision of President Shanklin  

“It didn’t become more physiological, but more scientific; it was mostly experiments,” said Professor of Psychology, Feminist, Gender & Sexuality Studies, and Science in Society Jill Morawski. “In the last half of the 19th century more people became interested in psychology as a science. The shift at Wesleyan happened everywhere.”

Associate Professor of Psychology Steven Stemler, agreed that the interest in psychology as an empirical science drove the schism of 1912.

“The behaviorists wanted to be seen as empirical scientists; they wanted to be taken more seriously and wanted to quantify behavior in the same way that physicists were quantifying movement of particles,” Stemler said. “They truly believed that you didn’t need what was going on inside the mind. It was all about behavior. So that was the angle they took. You still see this today: neuroscience is the new hot field, and that’s very physiologically oriented.”

Raymond Dodge, an early pioneer of empirical science, worked in Wesleyan’s laboratory studying retinal movement. Eventually the military funded his work tracking the eye, and during the Second World War Dodge was commissioned to select naval gunners.

“I myself have been funded by the military—the Department of Defense, and the Army Research Institute,” Stemler said. “They’ve funded me to develop tests of mental flexibility, or creativity. The idea was to select individuals who are going to be good at recognizing patterns, because we’re in this era of nontraditional warfare, in which soldiers have to quickly detect changes in the environment that are going to pose a threat to them.”

The military might have appreciated psychology’s turn toward the physiological, but is using research to select skilled soldiers a betrayal of the field of psychology? Stemler doesn’t necessarily believe that to be the case.

“For me, I see the applications as being broader than the military,” he said. “I can see the immediate application, but I can also see the construct of flexibility and pattern recognition as also important for job contexts, and higher education. So for me, being able to get that kind of work supported was important.”

Karl Scheibe, Professor of Psychology, Emeritus, agreed that applying psychology for military testing is a testament to its strength.

“It’s a mark of diversification of the field,” Scheibe said. “Dodge was not denying the purity of psychology, but using it in a more empirical way.”

Scheibe was a member of the faculty from 1963 until 2005. Now he is the director of the Wasch Center for Retired Faculty. Scheibe edited “A Century of Psychology at Wesleyan University, 1894-1994: Centennial Celebration” in celebration of the Department’s centennial anniversary and has published numerous papers about the history of psychology at the University.


1946: Victor Butterfield becomes president; three main emphases created: Learning Theory, under Professor McGeoch, Cultural, under David McAllester, and Psychoanalytic

“The most remarkable thing about psychology at Wesleyan is its diversity,” Scheibe said. “There isn’t one universal method practiced by psychologists: we’ve used all methods, all techniques. It’s a healthy mix.”


1956: McAllester forges ahead with ethnomusicology research

Former Professor of Anthropology and Music and eminent ethnomusicologist David McAllester traveled to the American Southwest many times over the span of his career to observe Navajo ceremonies. A man who professed to have a condition called “osteojoy,” or amazement in the bones while listening to music, McAllester was at the forefront of the movement to use art and culture to understand the mind and society.

Stemler, whose focus lies primarily in the fields of education and intelligence, noted that although he seldom dives into so-called interdisciplinary research, there is enormous value in experiencing other cultures.

“Part of it is just getting people to speak the same language,” Stemler said. “There’s definitely knowledge to be mined from anthropology and the arts in terms of different constructs. I think that what you really want to do is take the empirical methods of psychology and see whether they hold up in these other contexts.”

Morawski affirmed the value of crossing cultures to probe at universal—if such a thing exists—or conditional truth.

“I don’t believe tests done here apply everywhere, or even at other time periods,” she said. “There’s a division among psychologists: those who view what they’re discovering as universal or culture-bound. If we’re willing to do qualitative work, there’s much that can be learned from experiencing other cultures. But there’s a lot of bias, even within America.”


1958: Coopersmith studies the development and dynamics of self-esteem

Although former University professor Stanley Coopersmith developed his test for self-esteem in the 1950s, its influence extends into present-day parenting techniques.

“There’s a fascinating book called ‘Anxious Parents’ by Peter Stearns,” Morawski said. “A lot of psychological research has influenced parents to be more attentive; it’s the ‘helicopter parent’ model.”

In his book, Morawski explained, Stearns argues that concepts of measurement in children, such as those for self-esteem, introversion, and impulse control, have fueled the phenomenon of worried childrearers.

“There’s a trend towards the idea that no child can fail, and every child is a winner,” Morawski said.


1960: The Laboratory receives its first computer, an IBM1620

“Data analysis was done on huge machines,” Scheibe said. “You would punch data onto IBM cards to do statistical analysis. They were large, they were slow, and they broke down all the time.”

Scheibe also described the early calculators, not the slick machines we use today but clunky, 40 to 50 pound instruments shared among Department members. But despite the early inconvenience of technology, computers would later provide Scheibe with the core of a social psychological experiment.

“I noticed that people would talk to the computers,” Scheibe said of his later research based upon the machines. “Just about everybody said something throughout the study. People began to personalize the computer—almost everyone used ‘he’—and formed an attitude about the computer: fascination, dislike, surprise.”


1961: The Department is in a state of transition, spanning the humanities, biology, social sciences, philosophy, and math; McClelland tests for universal human needs

Throughout his career, Professor David McClelland used the Thematic Apperception Test (TAT), developed by psychologists in the 1930s at Harvard, to examine human needs for achievement, affiliation, and power, and to characterize people accordingly. The test is used in clinical settings, but it has also had implications for management and efficiency in the workplace. Testers will provide an ambiguous story or picture, and subjects will fill in the details of the story, in effect projecting and revealing their own feelings and needs.

For Stemler, the TAT and its subsequent categorizations (people with needs for affiliation, for example, seek collaboration and acceptance, while those who need power strive to lead and direct) raise questions in his own area of expertise: education. To what extent should categorization tests, such as the TAT, be considered in college admissions?

“This is the classic question in the field of psychological testing: What’s the purpose of assessment?” Stemler said. “Do you select people and screen people out on the basis of their scores on X, Y, and Z, or do you say, ‘Well, they’re a little low here, and maybe if they come to Wesleyan we can push them up on their affiliation and intervene’?”

Stemler also pointed out that Wesleyan’s required essential capabilities, such as those for cultural competence, ethical and quantitative reasoning, and creativity, allow for debate about the goal of higher education.

“Do you select people who are high in cultural competence but low in ethical reasoning, with the idea being that you can push up the people when they come to Wesleyan, or do they have to meet a minimum standard?” Stemler asked. “Most universities create a class by mixing people together. The hope is that by putting together everybody with individual strengths and weaknesses, everybody raises their own weakest area and helps other people raise up their own weakest a little bit.”


1967: Scheibe continues work with psychiatric patients at Connecticut Valley Hospital

The Companion Program, Scheibe explained, had begun about a decade before the Connecticut Service Corps. In the program, students worked with patients, most of whom had been diagnosed with schizophrenia, in mental wards through a grant from the federal government and with the collaboration of the Commissioner of Mental Health. The task was to evaluate the impact of an eight-week summer program, in which students resided in the mental hospitals, on the students, patients, and the wards.

“The most fascinating finding was that the program could work without any serious consequences—attack, injury, or anything of that nature,” Scheibe said.

Scheibe also noted that, gradually, the patients began to develop concern for the impression that they gave to the students.

“They were in the presence of young, well-dressed, intelligent people, and so they began to look and act better,” Scheibe said. “Patients paid attention to the impression they left, which made the wards more manageable, with less disordered talking and acting.”

But the implications for Scheibe’s study were even broader than he had imagined. The 1970s and 1980s saw a massive trend towards de-institutionalization of patients formerly deemed too ill to function independently; major changes, some of which were prompted by studies like Scheibe’s, which suggested that exposure to students behooved the behavior of the patients, encouraged desegregation of the mentally ill. Instead, halfway houses and other forms of gradual reintegration took the place of long-term custodial care.


1967: Leaf studies the problems presented by the uses and effects of LSD within the college community.

The 1967 Psychological Department report includes the following statement from Chairman Robert Knapp: “Research in the department has, I believe, continued at a higher level than at any other liberal arts college in the country.”

Scheibe reflected on the campus culture of the late 1960s and early 1970s, which saw the racial integration of the University—the vanguard class with black students graduated in 1969—and women, who arrived on the scene as transfer students in 1968. He noted former Professor of Psychology and Biology Russell Leaf’s thoughts on the use of lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD).

“Leaf and DeBold [another member of the faculty] organized a conference in 1967 to discuss what was known about LSD,” Scheibe said. “It was so new, and some were advocating for it to be used as a way to expand consciousness. I remember Leaf saying to students, ‘If you’re going to use a drug, just use pot, because it’s relatively harmless.’ LSD’s dangers are twofold: first, if you have a bad trip, you’ll literally go berserk and do damage to yourself or others; and second, with repeated use there’s evidence of cerebral dysfunction—trouble maintaining focus or a stream of attention.”

Scheibe noted that there was a fair amount of the drug on campus.


1968: Winter studies female fantasy and motherliness

When Scheibe arrived in 1963, a recent graduate of the University of California at Berkeley’s PhD program, there were no female members of the faculty. Within five years, that changed.

“[Professor of Psychology] Sara Winter was the first person in the Department who would classify herself as a feminist,” Scheibe said. “She opened our eyes to the subtle and not-so-subtle forms of discrimination at Wesleyan and elsewhere. One thing she studied were the fantasies of nursing mothers: what did women think about when they nursed? Was it pleasant? Painful?”


Part II of this article will feature highlights of psychological research at Wesleyan after 1968.

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