[Paleopsych] NYT: Bizarre and Infamous Join Scholarship in an Archive of Psychology
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Sun Oct 2 19:31:29 UTC 2005
Bizarre and Infamous Join Scholarship in an Archive of Psychology
By DAN HURLEY
AKRON, Ohio - Just 45 minutes from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and
Museum in Cleveland, half an hour from the Pro Football Hall of Fame
in Canton and two blocks from the Inventors Hall of Fame in this
city's downtown is an attraction like no other.
Where else but at the Archives of the History of American Psychology
can visitors see the uniforms and billy clubs used in the Stanford
Prison Experiment, in which students ended up acting the role of
guards all too realistically; watch a home movie of Freud batting
fruit out of a tree with his cane; or have the bumps on their heads
measured to calculate their personalities and career prospects with a
Forty years after its founding at the University of Akron as a
national repository for scholars, the archives - psychology's attic -
have amassed not only the papers of more than 740 psychologists, but
also a dazzling array of their instruments, ephemera, photographs and
films. Although it is a beacon to historians from around the world and
the source of hundreds of scholarly articles and books, the archives
remains virtually unknown to the public at large.
"Never heard of it," said the administrator of an office one floor up
in the same building.
No sign on Main Street here indicates the presence of the archives in,
unfittingly enough, the basement of the former Polsky department
store, now a branch of the University of Akron. Not even the directory
next to the elevators on the main floor lists it.
"Isn't it amazing, all this stuff down in a basement in Akron?" asked
the archive director, Dr. David B. Baker, who is also a professor of
psychology at the university.
Surrounded by century-old devices as arcane as they are beautiful, Dr.
Baker described his twin mission to increase the visibility of the
archives and the field it illuminates. The archive was named an
affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution in 2003. In April, Roadway
Express, the trucking company, announced that it was donating a large
building next to the University of Akron to allow the archives to
escape its basement hiding place and expand its public offerings.
"The field of psychology has mushroomed," he said. "It's getting more
and more specialized. But we do have common roots. The place where we
all meet is here, in our history."
He traced the roots of recent efforts to evaluate the level of
consciousness of Terri Schiavo, the comatose Florida woman who died on
March 31, to many of the antique instruments in the archives. Built
more than a century ago of brass and glass, they were designed to
measure perception and the discrimination of visual, audio and tactile
stimuli. One instrument built around 1880, the chronoscope, could
measure how long it took a person to react to a stimulus down to the
hundredth of a second.
"Things like reaction time, which now seem deadly dull, were of the
utmost importance," Dr. Baker said. "They were some of the very first
scientific demonstrations of the ability to measure mind. That's what
got people excited 100 years ago."
Testing was, in fact, the raison d'être of psychology until just after
World War II, he noted, when psychologists were first permitted to
offer clinical care in response to the needs of returning veterans.
Even the bizarre psychograph, Dr. Baker said, was predicated on a
theory that remains a bedrock of modern research, that different
regions of the brain have differing functions that can be measured and
described. Although psychologists and neurologists of today measure
those regions using magnetic resonant imaging, 19th-century
phrenologists believed that those regions could be calculated from
The device is one of three remaining in the United States. With its
1,954 parts housed in a walnut case, it sits in a corner of the
reading room, its crown of calipers ready to measure every nook and
node of the skull.
"You'll have to remove your glasses," John Bean, an undergraduate in
psychology who works as an assistant at the archives, said as he put
on latex gloves to place the sharp, heavy calipers on a visiting
reporter's skull. In less than two minutes, it cranked out a kind of
ticker tape giving a five-point rating, from "poor" to "excellent," on
28 personality variables like benevolence, suavity, caution,
conscientiousness, acquisitiveness and conjugal love. The device
automatically combined the variables to predict suitability for
various professions, a process that Mr. Bean modernized with a
"Do you want to see your results?" Dr. Baker asked. "Your highest
score, you've got 70 percent on mechanic, followed by pugilist, at 60
percent. How did you do on journalist? Forty-five percent. You have a
higher score as a zeppelin attendant."
Among the more than 1,000 instruments in the collection, a crown jewel
is the simulated shock generator designed by Dr. Stanley Milgram. It
was used in experiments in the early 1960's to investigate how far
people would go to obey instructions from an authority figure. The
participants were told that they were in a study on using electric
shocks to penalize participants who failed a simple learning test.
They were instructed to flick switches that would deliver steadily
more intense shocks, from mild to dangerously severe. In fact, despite
the convincing labels and knobs, the shocks were imaginary, and
volunteers pretended to react in pain to the nonexistent shocks. Dr.
Milgram found that nearly half of the real subjects followed orders to
inflict pain that they were convinced was real. "It's probably one of
the most important psychological experiments of the 20th century," Dr.
Baker said. "It deals with a very fundamental question about the
nature of good and evil. We like to believe that it would only be a
very sick and evil person who would inflict torture on others. He
showed us otherwise."
Standing 30 feet from the display, he demonstrated a more harmless
test of conformity, conducted on visitors to the exhibition. A sign at
the front entrance instructed visitors to step only on black tiles in
a passageway with a floor of alternating black and white tiles. Sure
enough, Dr. Baker watched as a family of visitors followed the
"They were like a group of ducklings there," he said. "That's what
Milgram said, we're very compliant."
Similar conclusions were reached in the early 70's, when Dr. Philip G.
Zimbardo of Stanford carried out his prison experiment in which
students, told to act and dress as prison guards, quickly began
mistreating other students dressed as prisoners. On display in
addition to the guards' and prisoners' uniforms are fake cans of
Chemical Mace and a cell door used in the experiment.
For all the interest generated by such displays, the primary draw to
historians is a trove of psychologists' papers, the largest such
collection in the world. Ronald F. Levant, president of the American
Psychological Association, said the papers represented the field's
Dr. Alexandra Rutherford, coordinator of one of only two
graduate-level programs in the history of psychology, at York
University in Toronto, said she and many of her students had often
visited the archives.
"AHAP is a world-class resource for any historian of psychology or the
social sciences," Dr. Rutherford said, adding that many articles
published by psychology journals were based on research there.
"I can't tell you how many visits I've made, probably 25," said Ludy
T. Benjamin Jr., professor of psychology at Texas A&M. "Probably 75
percent of what I've written in the last 30 years has come at least
partially from that collection. Those are the best moments of my
professional life, to be able to sit at one of those tables and read
somebody else's mail. There's a real rush to that."
A bit of the frisson of discovery may be felt walking down Row 17 of
the stacks, where the papers of Dr. Abraham Maslow, the humanistic
psychologist, are in numbered boxes. Box M437, picked at random, had a
folder marked "expression, spontaneity." Inside was a column of an
undated article from The New Yorker torn from its surrounding page.
The article, apparently addressing the question of why writers write,
offered this dour answer, "All work and creative action is a way to
snatch ourselves from the meaninglessness of transience."
Dr. Maslow would have none of it. In his angular, easily legible
script, the psychologist famed for extolling the search for peak
experiences had scribbled this typically Maslovian answer: "To
objectify our subjective thought so as to be able to look at it and
improve it toward perfection. To seek peak experiences."
Much as he knows that such papers offer profound insights into the
history of psychology, Dr. Baker's passion for the peculiar and absurd
in the equipment he guards is undeniable.
"It's a shame you won't be here on Friday," he said. "A U-Haul full of
stuff from this place called the IQ Zoo is coming. They were the ones
who worked with Skinner on a pigeon-guided missile. When a collection
arrives, it's like Christmas morning. It's like, 'Oh my gosh, look at
this stuff.' "
It was to make such "stuff" available that Dr. John A. Popplestone and
the late Dr. Marion White McPherson, the married couple who taught
psychology at the university, established the archives in 1965. Forced
to teach a course on the history of psychology, Dr. Popplestone
casually said to his wife one evening that the field would never
amount to anything without a central archive.
He recalled her saying, "That's the best idea you've had in quite a
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