McGeoch, John A. (1897-1942)

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McGEOCH, JOHN A. (1897-1942)

John A. McGeoch (1897-1942) was the single most seminal figure in defining the research area known as verbal learning. Trained in the Chicago functionalist tradition by Harvey A. Carr, McGeoch received the Ph.D. in 1926 with a dissertation titled "A Study in the Psychology of Testimony." His professional career was notable for its meteoric advancement, its geographic mobility, and its massive research energy. After rising through the academic ranks at Washington University in St. Louis, he became professor at the University of Arkansas in 1928, at the age of 31. Two years later he went as chairman of the Psychology Department to the University of Missouri, a position he subsequently filled at Wesleyan University and at the University of Iowa (Pratt, 1943; Wolfle, 1943).

McGeoch's major work was The Psychology of Human Learning: An Introduction (1942). It was not intended as such: He had been at work, during the 1930s, with the collaboration of Carr, on a projected two-volume manual covering all published work on human learning. The first draft of the manual was about 80 percent complete in 1936, and had received chapter-by-chapter feedback from Carr (see Carr's introduction to McGeoch, 1942). After several years' delay, caused by ill health and frequent moves, McGeoch was persuaded by a publisher, on assuming the Iowa chairmanship, to write a digest of the manuscript, intended for use as a textbook. McGeoch's impact on the field has come through the comprehensiveness and authority of this book and its revision a decade later by his student Arthur L. Irion (McGeoch and Irion, 1952).

McGeoch's reputation rests additionally on a theoretical assertion and a related empirical corpus. The theoretical assertion is in a paper (McGeoch, 1932) that argues that the process of forgetting, which was by then his special commitment, could not in principle be explained by the mere passage of time, as was asserted by the decay theory of forgetting. Rather, he said, activities that occurred during that time must be responsible. It follows that to penetrate the mechanism of forgetting, one should study retroactive inhibition. McGeoch's most visible research activities respected that logical agenda.

His scientific style remained close to the data and was conservative with respect to theoretical leaps. McGeoch believed that the psychology of human learning and memory was in a basically pretheoretical phase, in which the field was responsible for determining, first of all, what the data were before proposing elaborate explanations of them. Postman (1972) has described this and other characteristics of the functionalist attitude McGeoch received from such predecessors as Carr and J. R. Angell and passed along to such students as A. W. Melton (an undergraduate at Washington University) and B. J. Underwood (a graduate student at Iowa). The austerity of his book, the programmatic drive of his experiments on retroactive inhibition, and his atheoretical bias established McGeoch as an archetype for the contrived laboratory approach to human learning and memory. In the more recent days of cognitive psychology, neither McGeoch's reputation nor the reputation of verbal learning has fared well. The latter tradition is held up as an example of the sterility into which orthodox science can pass.

In the context of McGeoch's total career, this reputation is largely erroneous: His dissertation was a series of field studies on memory as testimony in which McGeoch tested children (ages 9 to 14) in intact classrooms within the East St. Louis school system (McGeoch, 1928a, 1928b, 1928c). Among many other comparisons, he was interested in the relation between accuracy and intelligence, which he operationalized by contrasting normal and institutionalized children and by the administration to each group of the Army Alpha test (McGeoch, 1928b). An earlier publication (McGeoch, 1925a) had compared (1) the staged event (eyewitness reality) with (2) objects or (3) words as stimuli. Thus, McGeoch may be among a handful of pioneers in developing the study of eyewitness testimony in American psychology (all but one of the references he cited in this work were from German laboratories). Nor was this work on practical aspects of memory isolated: Others of his early publications concerned memory for poetry (Whitely and McGeoch, 1928), emotional measurement (McGeoch and Bunch, 1930), and the relation between suggestibility and juvenile delinquency (McGeoch, 1925b). The catholicism of his original research interests is solidly within the functionalist tradition. One speculation is that McGeoch later turned to the precision and control of experimental studies because of his commitment to finding answers for everyday problems in human life, not in order to escape from them.



McGeoch, J. A. (1925a). The fidelity of report of normal and sub-normal children. American Journal of Psychology 36, 434-445.

—— (1925b). The relationship between suggestibility and intelligence in delinquents. Psychological Clinic 6, 133-134.

—— (1928a). The influence of sex and age upon the ability to report. American Journal of Psychology 40, 458-466.

—— (1928b). Intelligence and the ability to report. American Journal of Psychology 40, 596-599.

—— (1928c). The relation between different measures of the ability to report. American Journal of Psychology 40, 592-596.

—— (1932). Forgetting and the law of disuse. Psychological Review 39, 352-370.

—— (1942). The psychology of human learning. New York: Longmans, Green.

McGeoch, J. A., and Bunch, M. E. (1930). Scores in the Pressey X-O tests of emotion are influenced by courses in psychology. Journal of Applied Psychology 14, 150-159.

McGeoch, J. A., and Irion, A. L. (1952). The psychology of human learning. New York: Longmans, Green.

Postman, L. (1972). The experimental analysis of verbal learning and memory: Evolution and innovation. In C. P. Duncan, L. Seechrest, and A. W. Melton, eds., Human memory: Festschrift for Benton J. Underwood, pp. 1-23. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts.

Pratt, C. C. (1943). John A. McGeoch: 1897-1942. American Journal of Psychology 56, 134-136.

Whitely, P. L., and McGeoch, J. (1928). The curve of retention for poetry. Journal of Educational Psychology 19, 471-479.

Wolfle, D. (1943). McGeoch's psychology of human learning: A special review. Psychological Bulletin 40, 350-353.

Robert G.Crowder

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McGeoch, John A. (1897-1942)

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