Boring, Edwin Garrigues

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(b. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 23 October, 1886; d. 1 July, 1968, Cambridge, Massachusetts),

psychology, history of psychology, psychology of scientific creativity and progress, visual illusions.

From the 1920s to the 1960s Boring, known as “Mr. Psychology,” was a leading figure in academic psychology. He was a tireless builder of the discipline. In his writings and his administrative work he helped achieve the formal separation of psychology from philosophy and helped secure experimentation as the dominant form of inquiry for psychologists. He was the leading historian of psychology and promoted the careful examination of scientific change and scientific creativity.

Early Life and Education. Boring was a lonely and insecure child from a matriarchal family. His father, Edwin McCurdy Boring, a druggist, was a member of the Moravian Church. His mother, Elizabeth Garrigues, was raised in a Quaker family. The young Boring attended a Moravian Church but an Orthodox Quaker school. He credited his religious background with instilling an “ever-present sense of right and duty.” Throughout his career he was known for his eighty-hour work week, fifty-week work year, and rigid administrative style.

After graduating from the George School, a Quaker coeducational high school, Boring entered Cornell University to study electrical engineering, which he later admitted that he never liked. For one of his two electives he chose introductory psychology with Edward B. Titchener, a leading figure in the “new experimental psychology” from Germany and the founder of the Society of Experimental Psychologists. Boring found Titchener’s lectures “magic” and his praise highly motivating. Receiving an ME degree in 1908, he took a position as an electrician with Bethlehem Steel. He resigned after one year when offered a promotion, to prevent himself from being lured into a permanent career in the steel industry. Before taking a position teaching science at the Moravian Parochial School in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, he returned to Cornell for summer school and took a laboratory course in psychology with Madison Bentley. After a rather unsuccessful year of teaching, Boring again returned to Cornell in 1910 to pursue an AM degree in physics, with plans to continue teaching science. However, Bentley provided more financial and intellectual encouragement than the physicists, and Boring switched to psychology. He became a devoted student of E. B. Titchener and a member of Titchener’s laboratory, one of the most important of its time. Boring’s future wife, Lucy M. Day, was also a member of the group and received a PhD in 1912.

Titchener was paternalistic and authoritarian, demanding complete loyalty from his students and controlling all aspects of their lives. Boring was in awe of Titchener’s intellect and erudition and generally submitted to his mentor’s control, including written instruction on what day to return from his honeymoon. However, Boring managed to broaden his background by studying animal behavior. He also worked with Shepherd Ivory Franz on studies of learning in dementia praecox patients, resulting in three publications in 1913. For his dissertation Boring studied a topic assigned by Titchener, sensory processes in the alimentary tract. After receiving a PhD in 1914 he spent four additional years as an instructor at Cornell. Boring and Lucy Day were married in 1914, shortly after he received his degree. They had four children.

Early Career. In 1917 the psychologist Robert M. Yerkes organized his colleagues to contribute to the war effort. He asked Boring to help with the World War I army intelligence testing program, in which 1.75 million recruits were examined. Although he had no involvement in the development of the tests, Boring became chief psychological examiner at Camp Upton, Long Island, a major center for new recruits. Boring’s critical contribution came at the end of the war, when Yerkes asked him to analyze and summarize the enormous body of data and help prepare the 890-page report on the army testing program, published in 1921. Boring sometimes defended the use of intelligence tests but was critical of their interpretation. He did not accept the conclusions on purported hereditary racial differences that some of his colleagues drew from the army data. Boring’s training in engineering never quite left him, and he suggested in the New Republic in 1923 and again in 1926 with Helen Peak, that “intelligence is like ‘power’ as the physicist uses the word: the amount of work that can be done in a given time” (p. 37). His work on the army intelligence testing brought Boring into contact with Lewis Madison Terman, and they remained close friends until Terman died in 1956.

In 1919 Clark University president G. Stanley Hall offered Boring a position as professor of experimental psychology at Clark to replace J. W. Baird. Although Clark added undergraduates in 1902, it remained an important center for psychological research and graduate training. At Clark, Boring was able to enhance his reputation as a careful scientist and a thoughtful writer, but he produced no notable discoveries. Wallace W. Atwood, who succeeded the psychologist Hall as the university’s president, was a geographer, and in Boring’s view Atwood downgraded research and the central place of psychology at Clark. In 1923, during the Red Scare, President Atwood became convinced that Boring was part of a secret Bolshevik underground promoting radicalism at Clark, a charge without foundation. Harvard had been interested in Boring since 1919, and now in 1923 made an offer less financially rewarding than a simultaneous offer from Stanford but more enticing for the challenges it presented.

Boring at Harvard. Boring accepted an associate professorship at Harvard, a move that began inauspiciously with a fractured skull and concussion from an automobile accident. When he recovered in the late fall, he began the task of “rescuing” psychology at Harvard from the philosophers. He became the director of the Psychological Laboratory in 1924, making him the de facto chair of the psychology “department,” which was still part of the Department of Philosophy and Psychology. Boring faced serious challenges in building experimental psychology at Harvard. Funds for the laboratory were extremely tight, and Boring often used his own money to pay his secretary. The growing popularity of applied psychology during the early 1920s was an additional challenge for establishing “pure” experimental work as the premier form of the discipline. With the departures of Herbert Langfeld in 1924 and William McDougall in 1926, Boring carried the entire administrative burden for the development of psychology at Harvard along with a heavy responsibility for graduate teaching and supervision. He performed these duties with fierce dedication and compulsive attention to detail, while also serving as secretary of the Ninth International Congress of Psychology in 1929, secretary of the American Psychological Association from 1920 to 1922, a member of its governing council from 1920 to 1925, and president of the APA in 1928. Although he published on a variety of experimental and methodological topics, he developed no major findings or research programs.

In 1924 Boring began work on the book that made him well known to subsequent generations of psychologists: his History of Experimental Psychology (1929). Using a highly detailed, biographical approach, he traced the development of the new psychology that emerged in the late 1900s out of the disparate strands of philosophy and physiology. Each chapter contained an extended, rather informal “notes” section, with useful suggestions, sources, and expansions. Heavy emphasis was placed on the German origins of psychology, and especially on the WundtTitchener line of descent. Although criticized for neglecting or shortchanging applied, animal, abnormal, and social psychology, the book was praised for its readability and became the classic statement of the discipline’s history. Starting in the 1970s, Boring’s HEP, as it was known, was blamed for creating a whiggish, Titchenerian version of Wilhelm Wundt, overemphasizing Wundt’s Physiologische Psychologie while downplaying the importance of his Völkerpsychologie and his antipositivist voluntarism. There is no doubt that HEP shaped the way in which psychologists viewed their emerging science and the aims of experimentation. Boring planned his complete history as three volumes, but he did not publish the second, Sensation and Perception in the History of Experimental Psychology until 1942 and never produced the third. A substantially revised second edition of the HEP was published in 1950 and was widely used through the 1970s. It continued to be used, cautiously, in the early 2000s as a reference work.

Perhaps Boring’s most important contribution was his analysis of scientific progress, and he interwove his discussions of history of psychology and the “science of science” throughout his career. He addressed the problem of originality in 1927 in the American Journal of Psychology, concluding that progress may be due to the “unusual originality” of an individual but is “more likely to be the result of previous converging tendencies, which render a ‘discovery’ the next natural step in the process” (pp. 88–89). He continued this theme, including the problem of “founders,” in his 1928 APA presidential address, “The Psychology of Controversy,” in which he outlined the necessity of conflict for scientific progress. With explicit reference to Hegel but without Hegelian idealism, he argued that the history of science consisted of a long series of theses, antitheses, and syntheses. In the last chapter of Sensation and Perception in the History of Experimental Psychology, Boring introduced psychologists to the concept of Zeitgeist, and although William James and G. Stanley Hall had occasionally used the term, there is no doubt that Boring transformed and popularized its use by psychologists as the key concept for understanding history. In later publications Boring noted Johann Wolfgang von Goethe rather than Johann Gottfried von Herder as his source of the term, as he believed Goethe’s formulation to be closer to his own. Given that German idealism and romanticism were unsuitable intellectual systems for Boring, he transformed Zeitgeist into “the total body of knowledge and opinion”of a particular time, thereby creating a concept that was acceptable within Boring’s monism and the positivist Zeitgeist of mid-twentieth-century psychology. Boring outlined a view of history of science that reconciled “Great Man” notions with Zeitgeist explanations of scientific change. By adding “erudition,” love of the unexpected, visualization, alertness, and efficient thinking as psychological attributes, he hoped to provide a naturalistic explanation of “scientific genius.”

Boring as Analysand. The daunting administrative responsibilities at Harvard, combined with Boring’s compulsive style, severely limited his time for research. He very rarely took credit or second authorship for his students’ work. If asked to give feedback on a manuscript, his comments might exceed the original in length. He worried over all details, including who should or should not have a key to Harvard’s Emerson Hall. Despite the success of the HEP and the respect accorded his 1933 book The Physical Dimensions of Consciousness, Boring was deeply critical of himself, his level of productivity, and his perceived failure as a laboratory scientist. By 1933 his feelings of insecurity and depression and his desire for the admiration of his peers became overwhelming. At the urging of friends he entered psychoanalysis with Hans Sachs, one of Freud’s original committee, who had fled the Nazis to Boston.

In hopes of a personality change and a return to productivity, Boring had 168 sessions with Sachs, five per week from September 1934 to June 1935, at considerable personal expense. Although Sachs reminded Boring of Titchener, and Boring cried and threw things, the analysis was not successful, a point on which Boring and Sachs agreed when both wrote about the analysis four years later in the Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology. Despite this period of despair, Boring collaborated with Harry Weld and Herbert Langfeld on a 1935 introductory psychology textbook that went through several revisions and was reasonably successful. At Harvard he guided psychology through its initial separation from philosophy in 1934 and to its status as a fully independent department in 1936, but he took no credit for this accomplishment, believing that it would have come about without him. He published a careful critique of Gestalt psychology. The PsycINFO database shows eighteen publications of one sort or another between 1934 and 1938, but these publications did not represent important achievements to Boring. The change in his scholarly work that he hoped psychoanalysis would produce did not come about until 1939, when he finally developed a program of research on visual phenomena.

Boring’s Other Contributions. Boring’s one specific and lasting contribution to the experimental literature was a series of well-known experiments on size constancy in visual perception and on the Moon illusion, published between 1940 and 1943 with Alfred H. Holway and Donald W. Taylor. The size constancy studies required the observers to adjust the size of a disk of light until it matched a standard, and showed how the elimination of depth cues changed the perceived size. The studies of the Moon illusion, the apparent increase in size when the Moon is at the horizon, also used an adjustable stimulus for matching. With a clever series of mirrors on adjustable arms positioned on the roof of Emerson Hall, Boring showed that the illusion depended in part on the position of the eyes in the skull. With the head in a fixed position, the illusion increased as the Moon (on the mirror) ascended in the sky. If the Moon was viewed while lying down, the illusion disappeared, and the effect was also eliminated under certain conditions of monocular vision. Boring was not able to develop a suitable theory to explain these effects. The role of angle of regard in the Moon illusion remained under dispute, and Boring’s findings were replicated as recently as 1998.

Less well recognized by psychologists is Boring’s contribution to the mind-body problem. After the death of his domineering mentor, E. B. Titchener, in 1927, Boring was finally able to express fundamental disagreement with Titchener and reformulate Titchener’s dualism. Boring’s 1933Physical Dimensions of Consciousness attempted to transcend Titchener by using monistic physicalism as a guiding principle. This physicalism was conceptually related to operationism, but in 1933 Boring had not yet read the physicist Percy Bridgman’s 1927 The Logic of Modern Physics, in which Bridgman outlined the operational viewpoint. Retrospectively, Boring described operationism as a modern form of physicalism, in that consciousness was reduced to the operations by which consciousness was known to scientists. He was able to “save” Titchener’s work by translating “intensity” and Titchener’s other dimensions of consciousness into physicalist terms. Boring’s position rejected both ontological and epistemological dualism as well as mind-body parallelism, but he did not consider himself a behaviorist. Consciousness was to be understood in terms of neural systems, in a position he called “psychoneural isomorphism” or the “identity theory” of mind.

Boring’s writings on experimental control, measurement, and statistics provided an analysis of basic methodological and theoretical constructs in historical context. Of his concerns with scientific method, his promotion of operationism was the most significant. Boring credited his most talented student, Stanley Smith Stevens, with introducing the concept to psychology, although Boring had hinted at some features of operationism in his writings of the 1920s on the stimulus error and intelligence testing. In the mid-1930s Stevens and Boring began active promotion of their interpretation of Percy Bridgman’s concept, possibly under the influence of Herbert Feigl. Despite the disunity over operationism evident at the famous symposium held in 1945, Boring continued to argue that operations could converge and provide a foundation for the advancement of knowledge, thus revealing his essentially positivist faith. In his obituary for Boring, Stevens outlined the very extensive way in which Boring had shaped and refined Stevens’s ideas on operationism.

Although known as the guardian of pure experimentation, Boring was eager to assist in the application of psychology in World War II, as he had done in World War I. This time he used the premier skill that he had developed for his entire career: editing the work of others. A mass-market textbook of psychology for the average soldier was created by Boring and the science writer Marjorie van de Water from chapters written by fifty-nine specialists. Although the book explained the basics of personnel selection, vision and hearing, propaganda, and psychological warfare, the focus was on practical information for the soldier on morale, food, sex, neurosis, panic, and personal adjustment. Priced at 25 cents, the 450-page Psychology for the Fighting Man was published in 1943. Approximately 400,000 copies were sold. Shortly thereafter, Boring tried his hand at producing a more academic tome, Psychology for the Armed Services, designed as a military textbook.

Boring’s war efforts, and those of his colleagues, helped to change his view of applied psychology and professional practice as problematic for the discipline. He now saw that those he termed “biotropes,” psychologists drawn to the traditional experimental topics of sensation, psychophysics, perception, learning, and physiology, could also do important applied work, as in the case of S. S. Stevens’s research on soundproofing at the Harvard Acoustical Laboratory. “Sociotropes” such as Henry Murray and Gordon Allport, interested primarily in personality, culture, individual differences, social psychology, and clinical problems, could do basic research and were of more value to society than Boring had previously allowed. In his 1950 revision of The History of Experimental Psychology, Boring suggested that the schism of experimental psychology and mental testing was partially healed and that testing, especially ability testing for selection, was working well. Although he was forced to adapt to the 1946 splitting off of the sociotropes into Harvard’s Department of Social Relations, he was no longer their adversary, and both biotropes and sociotropes were part of his broadened vision for psychology.

Boring as Gatekeeper: The Jewish Problem and the Woman Problem. From the 1920s to the 1950s Boring served a leading role as a gatekeeper for those seeking to enter academic psychology. His recommendations and evaluations were actively sought, and he referred to his files as his “employment agency.” His letters of reference were highly detailed, often ranking a number of candidates. Not all Harvard students were helped by these letters. Boring followed the common practice in academia of identifying which students were Jews and whether they showed the “unpleasant personal characteristics” thought to be likely in the Jewish “race.” He felt obliged to do so, even though it meant that the candidate might therefore be rejected. Although he wielded substantial power within the discipline and believed himself fiercely devoted to principles of fairness, he never challenged these practices.

Boring also did little to support the growing feminist movement within psychology. He had never made it easy for women graduate students at Harvard in the 1920s and 1930s, but when he discovered that the psychologist Alice Bryan was correct in her challenge that women were underrepresented in APA offices, he invited her to collaborate in 1943 on a study of the role of women in psychology, resulting in three jointly authored articles. They surveyed women’s positions, salaries, and opportunities. But their conclusions were tepid, and Boring insisted that culture and biology were the explanation, not discrimination. He repeated this conclusion on his own in the American Psychologist in 1951 in an article he titled “The Woman Problem.” Again, Boring did not use his considerable influence to bring about change, even though his own wife had been unable to pursue a career in psychology. In the case of both Jewish students and women, Boring was unable to see himself as part of a system of discrimination, and it would have been intolerable for him to think of himself as having been unfair.

Boring’s Later Years and General Influence. In his late fifties and sixties, Boring continued his tireless efforts to organize and promote the discipline of psychology. He played a key role in the reorganization of the American Psychological Association and the unification of the APA with other psychological organizations in 1945. He was the principal founder and the first editor of the APA journal of book reviews, Contemporary Psychology, and set high standards for the intellectual tone and quality of the reviews. Boring was one of the first to present a psychology course on public television, as the 1957 Harvard Lowell Television Lecturer. He was made Edgar Pierce Professor of Psychology in 1956, and he officially retired from Harvard in 1957. He continued active publication on history and other topics until two years before his death in 1968 from multiple myeloma.

In 1959 the American Psychological Foundation awarded Boring a Gold Medal for his achievements as an experimentalist, teacher, critic, theorist, administrator, popularizer, and editor. Inspired in part by Boring, psychologists developed journals and organizations specifically devoted to the history of their discipline and made the study of history a part of the discipline. All who subsequently taught or studied the history of psychology began with Boring’s fundamental conception of naturalistic versus personalistic interpretations, the role of the Zeitgeist, and the dangers of eponyms. This creation of historical self-consciousness in a scientific discipline is certainly a more enduring legacy than the often transitory findings of the laboratory.



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“Intelligence as the Tests Test It.” New Republic 34 (1923): 34–37.

“The Problem of Originality in Science.” American Journal ofPsychology39 (1927): 70–90.

A History of Experimental Psychology. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1929.

The Physical Dimensions of Consciousness. New York: Century, 1933.

With Herbert Sidney Langfeld and Harry Porter Weld. Psychology: A Factual Textbook. New York: Wiley, 1935.

“A Psychological Function Is the Relation of Successive Differentiations of Events in the Organism.” Psychological Review 44 (1937): 445–461.

Sensation and Perception in the History of Experimental Psychology. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1942.

“The Moon Illusion.” American Journal of Physics11 (1943): 55–60.

As coeditor with M. Van de Water. Psychology for the FightingMan. Washington, DC: Infantry Journal, 1943.

As editor. Psychology for the Armed Services. Washington, DC: Infantry Journal, 1945.

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Andrew S. Winston