[Paleopsych] NYT: Bizarre and Infamous Join Scholarship in an Archive of Psychology

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Bizarre and Infamous Join Scholarship in an Archive of Psychology


    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
    1933 psychograph?

    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
    computer spreadsheet.

    "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
    "institutional memory."

    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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