Bartlett, Frederic (1886-1969)

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Frederic Charles Bartlett was born on October 20, 1886, in Stow on the Wold, Gloucestershire. He studied literature, logic, and philosophy before becoming a tutor at the University of Cambridge in 1909. At Cambridge, his interests turned to psychology, partly through his acquaintance with James Ward; he was awarded a fellowship at St. John's College in 1913 and obtained a first-class degree in moral sciences in 1914. Cambridge then was in the forefront of the movement to make experimental psychology a recognized branch of science in the British university system; C. S. Myers (1873-1947), a lecturer in experimental psychology there, not only had campaigned for Cambridge to build a laboratory, a wish fulfilled in 1912, but also had helped to found the British Journal of Psychology in 1904. Bartlett wrote an account (1937) of the early history of the Cambridge laboratory.

When World War I began in 1914, Myers appointed Bartlett "relief director" of the laboratory. Bartlett instigated research into a variety of topics, including studies of the detection of faint sounds, a project in which he collaborated with Emily Mary Smith, whom he married in 1920, and studies of individual differences in how subjects described pictures. These individual differences, Bartlett believed, reflected above all subjective interests and socially determined interpretations: He ascribed the latter to "conventionalization"; over the next few years he focused on the role of conventionalization in perception but also in the retrieval of memories. Another interest concerned perception and memory performance in people of other cultures, including South Africa, a country he had visited. His discussions of conventionalization leaned heavily on evidence collected in other societies; in the late twentieth century there was a revival of interest in Bartlett's contributions to cross-cultural psychology (Saito, 1999).

In 1922 Myers left Cambridge to head the National Institute for Industrial Psychology, and Bartlett was appointed reader and director of the Cambridge laboratory; two years later he also became editor of the British Journal of Psychology, a position he held for twenty-four years. In 1925 he wrote an important paper on the role of the difficult word feeling in scientific psychology. In 1931 he was elected to a chair in experimental psychology at Cambridge. During his term as laboratory director, the number of faculty members grew and an increasing number of students graduated in experimental psychology. An indication of the success of the program was that, of the sixteen professorships of psychology in Great Britain in 1957, ten were held by students of Myers and Bartlett. From 1922 to the beginning of World War II, Bartlett continued to study conventionalization and memorizing and wrote three books that show his interest in applied psychology: Psychology and the Soldier (1927), which dealt with personnel selection and war neuroses, among other topics; Psychology and Primitive Culture (1923), in which he stressed the similarities rather than the differences between people in different societies; and The Problem of Noise (1934).

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The work for which Bartlett is best known is Remembering (1932), an elaboration of his research on conventionalization. In it he describes how he used two experimental paradigms to study memory: the method of repeated reproduction, in which a participant studied a story or a picture and then reproduced it several times over a period of weeks or months; and the method of serial reproduction, in which a participant recalled a story or a picture, then passed this production on to a second participant, who studied it, and so on down a chain of participants. Bartlett observed that the two methods yielded similar results: Recall was not duplicative but represented a reconstruction of the original story or picture based on memories of key details; the reconstruction could be biased by conventionalization and importation.

Given the fact that recall was not simply a duplication of the same pattern over and over again, Bartlett, following the suggestion of his neurologist friend Henry Head, argued that memories were not stored as static traces waiting to be revived; instead they formed parts of large complexes, called schemata, in which individual components could be changed any time there was a retrieval act. He argued that if traces were lifeless entities waiting to be revived, we should always be at the mercy of old habits; but with a schema one could revive individual memories that had been laid down at widely varying periods of time and from them form new combinations. He believed that consciousness had evolved for this purpose, the "looking at" or "turning round on" one's own schemata; the ability to do this was greatly aided by the use of visual images in addition to speech memory.

This insight could not be gained, argued Bartlett, from studies of rote memory along the lines of Hermann Ebbinghaus's experiments; further, the schema theory allowed closer ties to be formed between experimental psychology and social psychology. Schemata, he believed, were linked by "appetites, instincts, interests, and ideals," the first two laid down particularly in childhood, the latter two in later life. At the end of the twentieth century memory researchers still used the word schema, though some criticisms had been raised about Bartlett's terms schema and reconstruction (reviewed in Zangwill, 1972; Zangwill preferred the term abstraction).

Bartlett was made a fellow of the Royal Society in 1932, the year Remembering was published. His later career was mainly devoted to applied psychology. He was director of the Applied Psychology Unit at Cambridge from 1944 to 1953; he was appointed to the order of Commanders of the British Empire in 1941; and he was knighted in 1948. His best-known work during this period concerned fatigue states following extended periods of skilled work. His book The Mind at Work and Play (1951) is unusual in that it was intended for a juvenile audience. In Thinking (1958) he discussed the development of the schema theory as an example of scientific thinking. He died on September 30, 1969.


Bartlett, F. C. (1923). Psychology and primitive culture. London: Cambridge University Press.

—— (1925). Feeling, imaging, and thinking. British Journal of Psychology 16, 16-28.

—— (1927). Psychology and the soldier. London: Cambridge University Press.

—— (1932; reprint 1964). Remembering: A study in experimental and social psychology. London: Cambridge University Press.

—— (1934). The problem of noise. London: Cambridge University Press.

—— (1936). Autobiography. In C. Murchison, ed., History of psychology in autobiography, Vol. 3. Worcester, MA: Clark University Press.

—— (1937). Cambridge, England: 1887-1937. American Journal of Psychology 50, 97-110.

—— (1951). The mind at work and play. London: Allen and Unwin.

—— (1958). Thinking: An experimental and social study. London: Allen and Unwin.

Broadbent, D. E. (1970). Obituary of Sir F. C. Bartlett. Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society 16, 1-16.

Crampton, C. (1978). The Cambridge school: The life, works, and influence of James Ward, W. H. R. Rivers, C. S. Myers, and Sir Frederic Bartlett. Ph.D. diss., University of Edinburgh, Scotland.

Harris, A. D., and Zangwill, O. L. (1973). The writings of Sir Frederic Bartlett, C.B.E., F.R.S.: An annotated handlist. British Journal of Psychology 64, 493-510.

Saito, A., ed. (1999). Bartlett: Culture and cognition. New York: Routledge.

Zangwill, O. L. (1972). Remembering revisited. Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology 24, 123-138.

David J.Murray

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Bartlett, Frederic (1886-1969)

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