Bartlett, Frederic Charles
BARTLETT, FREDERIC CHARLES
(b. Stow-on-the-Wold, Gloucestershire, England, 22 October 1886; d. Cambridge, England, 30 September 1969)
anthropology, cognitive psychology, experimental psychology, social psychology.
Bartlett produced one of the most original and provocative psychological theories of remembering while also exercising an unprecedented influence over the shape of British academic psychology. Two intellectual contributions stand out: his early emphasis on psychological processes as constituted in and constitutive of social interaction, and his development of an account of remembering that emphasized its reconstructive nature. A number of his ideas have become repeated points of reference in psychology: effort after meaning, remembering as reconstruction, and the schema as a means of ensuring order in mental life. At an institutional level, Bartlett was made the founding Professor of Experimental Psychology at Cambridge University in 1931. Through his activities within the academic discipline and his involvement in agencies concerned with psychology as an applied discipline, Bartlett played a key role in the way in which British psychology developed in the mid-twentieth century. His contributions to psychology and to bodies such as the Royal Air Force and the National Institute for Industrial Psychology led to a host of honors, including Fellow of the Royal Society (1932), the Royal Medal of the Royal Society (1952), honorary degrees from many universities, and a knighthood (1948).
Entering Psychology. Frederic Charles Bartlett was born in Stow-on-the-Wold, Gloucestershire, England, in 1886. He was the second son of William Bartlett, a boot maker, and Temperance Howman. He suffered from pleurisy in his teenage years and consequently received much of his schooling at home. When Bartlett began his studies through the University of London in 1909, psychology as an independent academic discipline and as a profession was hardly extant in Britain. As a consequence, like many of his contemporaries in British psychology, Bartlett’s education was not in psychology. Instead, he first took an honors degree in philosophy, and then a master’s degree in sociology and ethics in 1911. Apparently still hungry for learning, he went to Cambridge to pursue a degree in moral sciences. On graduation in 1914 he replaced Cyril Burt as an assistant in Cambridge’s recently founded psychological laboratory. Thereafter, Bartlett never left Cambridge for any extended period, and he died there in 1969.
At Cambridge, Bartlett considered pursuing a career in philosophy, and his first publication was a book on logic. However, he became disenchanted with the idea of a career in philosophy after an encounter with Bertrand Russell and G. E. Moore and an attempt to defend Henri Bergson’s ideas at the Moral Sciences Club. Russell and Moore were arguably the two most eminent philosophers in Britain at the time, and Russell in particular had a reputation for intellectual pyrotechnics. After such a meeting, Bartlett’s decision not to pursue philosophy is hardly difficult to understand. Nevertheless, the influence of philosophy, especially the work of the Cambridge philosopher James Ward, was to be discernible in all of his most important psychological work prior to World War II.
Fortunately, Cambridge held intellectual attractions other than philosophy, most importantly anthropology and the presence of W. H. R. Rivers. Rivers was the university’s first lecturer in experimental psychology; however, as part anthropologist, part psychoanalyst, part psychologist, part physiologist, and part medical doctor, he defies easy classification. He had been important in developing the notion of diffusionism in British anthropology (broadly speaking, the claim that cultural developments occurred through one culture borrowing and adapting entities from another culture). The importance of diffusionism was apparent in Bartlett’s fellowship thesis for St. John’s College, which he completed in 1916: “Transformation Arising from Repeated Representation: A Contribution towards an Experimental Study of the Process of Conventionalisation.” In it, he used loosely controlled experiments to examine the idea that as items are repeatedly remembered, their form becomes more conventional. The thesis contained themes, methods, and data that were to feature in his later works: effort after meaning, the method of description, the method of repeated reproduction, and the notion of conventionalization.
Unable to serve in World War I because of health problems, Bartlett conducted research of potential relevance to the war effort. Prompted by the unlikely sounding Lancashire Anti-Submarine Committee, Bartlett, together with his future wife Emily Mary Smith, performed experiments on the detection of sounds of weak intensity. The aim of these experiments was to produce a means whereby the Navy could select those people best able to detect the sound of submarines. Their work represented the beginnings of an aspect of Bartlett’s career that was to endure until his retirement: a concern to introduce psychologists into applied research, including that relevant to military needs. During World War I, Bartlett also did some work with shell-shocked soldiers at the Eastern General Hospital near Cambridge. However, unlike several of the key figures in early British psychology, his encounters with these soldiers do not appear to have profoundly affected his work in psychology.
From the Psychology of Primitive Culture to Remembering. At the end of World War I, Bartlett stayed on in the laboratory in Cambridge. Rivers had impressed on him the importance of experimental work in psychology for progress in anthropology. In the 1920s this aspect was apparent in Bartlett’s experiments on the reproduction of folk stories, in his discussions of the psychology of contact between cultures, and in his reflections on group organization, leadership, and the social function of symbols. These publications reflected his interest in producing a psychology that acknowledged the importance of biological factors but which was grounded in social and cultural processes, an interest that was most fully articulated in his book Psychology and Primitive Culture (1923).
In Psychology and Primitive Culture, Bartlett addressed central issues in diffusionist anthropology: How were elements transferred from one culture to another? And what happened to them when they were? By “elements” Bartlett meant cultural forms such as artifacts, folk stories, and institutions. As in his fellowship thesis, he argued that psychological processes were integral to understanding transfer and change, but conversely, one could only truly understand psychological processes as embedded in these wider sociocultural conditions. Thus, what was psychological and what was cultural were interdependent, and neither could be reduced to the other. The key psychological concept in understanding this interdependence was that of tendencies. Tendencies were promptings to action (bodily movements, thoughts, or emotions) that were highly sensitive to all aspects of a situation, including cognitive, affective, and reactive factors. He argued that different tendencies underpinned fundamental forms of social relationship, such as tendencies toward conservation and constructiveness, individual tendencies, and group difference tendencies. Some tendencies were universal, while others differentiated individuals; some were innate, while others were derived, that is, socially acquired. Bartlett believed that interactions between different tendencies were important psychologically. For example, a conflict of tendencies led to affective reactions. The concept attempted to bridge the biological, the psychological, and the sociocultural in a manner that was reminiscent of Rivers’s work.
Bartlett’s account of tendencies was not widely taken up, and psychologists largely ignored Psychology and Primitive Culture; in obituaries of Bartlett, it often received only passing mention. However, reading Bartlett’s work in
the round and in its historical context, it is difficult to sustain the claim that the book was the least noteworthy of his major publications. As some scholars have pointed out, it was an early if unsuccessful attempt to produce an account of psychological processes as fundamentally grounded in sociocultural conditions. According to this view, his later work, which tended to treat the individual as less social, was a retreat from this earlier insight—the implication being that had he persisted with his earlier views, he would have helped to produce a radically social psychology.
In 1922, the year before Psychology and Primitive Culture was published, Rivers died unexpectedly in his rooms in St. John’s College. It was a severe blow, not only to Bartlett but, it would seem, to all those who had known Rivers, a man whose influence on people at a personal level appears to have been profound. Although Bartlett retained his interests in anthropological matters and published on them for many years after Rivers’s death, they were never again such a prominent part of his research.
Bartlett wrote on a wide range of issues in the 1920s, but his next important book was Remembering: A Study in Experimental and Social Psychology in 1932. While it was not as radically social in its orientation as his earlier book, Remembering was nevertheless regarded as an original and unconventional work. Two sets of experiments reported in the book have deservedly received particular attention. The first set was based on a method known as repeated reproduction, which he had used in his thesis studies. Here a person was presented with some kind of stimulus and was then asked to recall it on several subsequent occasions. The second set was based on a method known as serial reproduction—a method recommended to him by the mathematician and later cybernetician, Norbert Wiener—in which a person was presented with a stimulus and was then asked to recall what he or she could in writing before passing that recollection on to a second person, who was then asked to repeat the process. Bartlett used several types of stimuli, most famously stories based on indigenous folk stories. He regarded the practice, common in many memory experiments, of using meaningless materials (such as invented nonwords) as stimuli to be a mistake. For Bartlett, the essence of perceiving and remembering was the effort to make sense of the world, what he called “effort after meaning.” Consequently, he argued that stimuli in memory experiments should carry meaning because materials in real life did so (and even if stimuli were designed not to carry meaning, people would impose meaning upon them).
From his data, Bartlett concluded that people’s recollections typically differed from the original stimulus. For example, people’s recollections usually retained the basic form of the story but simplified it, unfamiliar features were frequently transformed into more familiar ones or omitted altogether, and recollections included material that was not in the original stimulus but that could have reasonably been inferred from it, a process Bartlett termed “rationalization.” Bartlett’s main conclusion was that remembering was fundamentally a reconstructive activity rather than a reproductive one. This was radical in two main ways. First, it departed somewhat from the two most dominant metaphors of memory: storage and inscription. For Bartlett, neither of these metaphors sufficiently captured the changing and adaptive characteristics of memory. Second, partly as a result of the storage metaphor, most psychological theories of memory until then had been concerned with how much people remember and had explained forgetting through processes such as decay. Bartlett was not so much concerned with memory as an amount of material as with the idea that when remembering, one reconstructs a memory, and thus what one remembers is rarely a literal reproduction of what was encountered. That is, he was interested in the qualitative nature of changes. For him, the reconstructive nature of remembering had adaptive and functional value because, he argued, situations in nature are rarely repeated exactly. Sometimes Bartlett has been interpreted as saying that literal recall cannot occur, but this is to go too far; he argued that perfect recall could occur but required particular and exceptional conditions to do so.
Bartlett’s choice of the gerundive form for his book’s title reflected his belief that remembering was an act. Its reconstructive nature arose from it being influenced by what had been encountered, the circumstances at recall, and an actively organized and changing mass of past experiences. Remembering was not a faculty for reflection or for straightforward reproduction of things previously encountered. Instead, it was a set of complex, active processes that enabled the person to engage with the world. One of the most novel elements of this account was the role assigned to the mental representation of the past as an organized yet constantly changing mass of experiences into which new experiences were integrated and transformed, and by which the memories of those experiences could be altered. Though he preferred the phrase “organized setting,” Bartlett settled on the term schema to describe this fluid yet structured mass. The term had been used by his friend, the neurologist Henry Head, to explain how previous and current body positions could have an effect on the maintenance of position and on movement to new positions (clearly, the term also owes something to Kant). Bartlett realized that the idea provided him with a theoretical framework for his data. He treated schemata as unconscious mental entities and, even more than Head, he stressed their dynamic nature. A schema operated as a mass rather than as a collection of individual elements, but this made it difficult to understand how individual episodes could ever be recalled or recalled with any degree of accuracy. Although he attempted to solve this problem through the notion of the schema turning back on itself, Bartlett never clarified what such a process might entail.
Bartlett’s view of mind as active in constructing an interpretation of the world owed much to one of his teachers, James Ward. Ward is relatively obscure in the early twenty-first century, but Bertrand Russell described him as his “chief teacher,” and William James held him in high esteem. Throughout his writings, Ward consistently emphasized the active constructive nature of mind. This treatment of mind as shaping people’s interpretation of stimuli is frequently depicted as one of the qualities that differentiated Bartlett’s work from that of the behaviorists, who were beginning to dominate American academic psychology at the time. However, in following Ward, what Bartlett was opposing was a strictly associationist and empiricist view of mind.
The more neglected part of Remembering was concerned with the social psychology of remembering. Drawing on experimental and anthropological data, most of which had been collected by others, Bartlett examined how social influences modified what people recall. He resisted notions such as collective unconscious and the idea that a social group could itself have a memory. However, he echoed his earlier claim that one could only understand individuals as individuals in a particular social milieu. In particular, he stressed remembering as something done in a social setting. Again, the importance of Bartlett’s text lay not in its particulars but in his emphasis on remembering as an activity that was something firmly embedded in social conditions. This aspect of Bartlett’s message was subsequently ignored in the vast majority of experimental studies of memory.
Bartlett’s theory of remembering has received criticism as well as praise. The criticisms have taken three general forms. First, though influential, his notion of schema has been attacked as being inadequate as the sole means of mentally representing human knowledge. Bartlett’s solution to the problem of retrieving individual items from schemata has also been considered underspecified and obscure. Second, Bartlett’s experiments have been criticized for being too loosely controlled and analyzed. Third, in general his theories have been regarded as too vague to guide a program of experimental research. As academic psychology became increasingly dominated by experimentation, statistical analyses, and the rhetoric (if not the practice) of falsification, these flaws were regarded as serious. Nevertheless, Bartlett’s account of remembering remains one of the few truly original, radical theories of memory, and schema theory had a major impact on computational accounts of cognitive processes.
World War II. The final major shift in Bartlett’s thinking and writing came during World War II. Bartlett argued that the war changed psychologists’ thinking and practices because of two main factors: the increased military reliance on complex machines and the way in which psychologists were required to work on problems in collaboration with mathematicians, physicists, and engineers. For Bartlett, these circumstances required a psychology that concentrated on sequences of behavior and on behavior with machines. He was further influenced in this by a postgraduate student, Kenneth Craik, who arrived in Cambridge in 1936. Because of the war, Craik and Bartlett concentrated on practical problems; it was Craik’s general approach, however, that had a lasting effect on him. Craik speculated that aspects of human cognition, such as recognition, memory, and prediction, were characteristics shared by machines. He also argued that human thought operated by creating an internal model of the external world. It is difficult to ascertain what role Bartlett may have had in the development of these ideas, but he appears to have believed that they promised a new direction for psychological research. Tragically, Craik was killed in a road accident in 1945; like the death of Rivers more than twenty years earlier, his death was a heavy personal and professional blow to Bartlett.
Though Bartlett continued to publish occasional papers on anthropological or social psychological matters, his output after the war became more concerned with understanding the perceptual and cognitive processes of the individual. The most prominent concept in these later publications was that of skill. He developed the idea most thoroughly in his last book, Thinking: An Experimental and Social Study, published in 1958, some six years after he had retired. Drawing on analogies from performance in cricket and tennis, two of his favorite interests, he argued that thinking could be conceived of as a high-level skill. In the book, he also made much of the division between thinking in closed systems and adventurous thinking (by which he meant something akin to thinking that tested or refused constraints). The psychological theories proposed in Thinking were more individualistic in orientation than in his earlier books. Subsequently, Bartlett’s concern to understand topics such as the thinking of scientists, everyday reasoning, and the thinking of artists all became areas of interest in the field of cognitive psychology.
Bartlett’s three books, Psychology and Primitive Culture,Remembering, and Thinking, represent the major academic publications of his career. However, he also contributed to many university and government committees, and wrote numerous reports for government, industry, and the military. For example, for the Flying Personnel Research Committee alone he produced twenty-nine reports or commentaries during World War II, covering topics such as pilot selection, the kinds of skills required by pilots, the different types of fatigue experienced by air crews, and the design of instruments. The exact significance of these contributions remains to be fully assessed, but they are testament to a growing tendency of a variety of bodies to treat psychologists as able to provide expert advice. How that advice was received is another matter.
Bartlett died in Cambridge on 30 September 1969 after a short illness. He was survived by Lady Bartlett (née Emily Mary Smith) and their two sons, Hugh and Denis.
Bartlett and the Shape of British Psychology. When Bartlett started work at the laboratory in Cambridge in 1914, psychology was a tiny and barely independent discipline in the United Kingdom. By the time he retired in 1952, psychology was firmly established in British universities and in a variety of social practices. Of course, these developments are not attributable to Bartlett, as there were much larger forces at play, but Bartlett did play a unique and powerful role in shaping the direction of what he described as the “upstart discipline.”
When Charles Myers left Cambridge in 1922 to develop the National Institute of Industrial Psychology (NIIP), Bartlett became the new director of the laboratory and expended considerable effort on consolidating and expanding psychology within Cambridge. In 1931, the year before he published Remembering, he was appointed Cambridge’s first Professor of Experimental Psychology. He had the political skill and acumen to take advantage of the situation, and the Cambridge department grew considerably under his leadership. But his influence was wider; by 1957 ten of the sixteen chairs of psychology in the United Kingdom had a direct link of some kind to Bartlett. While his own approach to the means of knowledge production did not rely on strictly controlled experiments, during these years he fostered experimental psychology as the approach to the subject. For some, this was simply Bartlett’s recognition of the necessities of establishing psychology as a science, understanding the means of doing so, and exercising his abilities to achieve it. For others, however, his efforts encouraged an unnecessarily narrow discipline.
Bartlett did not confine himself to building up psychology as a purely academic discipline. At Myers’s invitation he joined the Council and Advisory Board of the NIIP in 1922. Though the NIIP was short-lived, for a time between the two world wars it was the most important psychological organization in Britain. It attracted industrialists and eminent academics, and it was sufficiently prominent to be addressed by the British prime minister, J. Ramsay MacDonald, in 1929. Bartlett was also involved with the Medical Research Council (the MRC was a major source of state funding of research); as another example of his efforts to create a discipline with an applied dimension, in 1943 Bartlett instigated moves to set up an MRC-funded Applied Psychology Research Unit, and the plans came to fruition the following year. Bartlett argued that the unit should not conduct research on vocational guidance, and although social psychology was mentioned in the early discussions, it never formed a large part of the unit’s research activities. Bartlett ensured that Craik got the directorship of the unit rather than Eric Farmer, a reader in industrial psychology at Cambridge who might reasonably have expected the appointment. The unit became dominated by experimental work and grew to be one of the most important research institutions in British psychology. Bartlett’s role in helping to found and shape it is another example of the powerful place he occupied in British psychology.
Bartlett’s Legacy. It is rarely disputed that Bartlett produced a challenging and original theory of remembering and that he profoundly shaped British psychology. Beyond that, however, there is considerable dispute. He has been fêted by cognitive psychologists as a founding father of their subdiscipline, and as someone who was ahead of his time in realizing that psychologists must renew their willingness to develop theories of mental processes. For others, his emphasis on cognition was admirable, but his cognitive theories were hopelessly underspecified, and his empirical work was so loosely controlled as to be nearly worthless. Some have praised the radical nature of his early concern to relate psychological processes to sociocultural conditions but have lamented his later retreat from this position to a more individualistic psychology. He has been regarded as a visionary who was right to promote an academic psychology based on experimentation. Others have seen him as someone who missed opportunities to create a broader-based and more diverse academic psychology, and some have claimed that he himself had grave doubts over the value of much experimental psychology. For many, he was brilliant and shrewd; yet one member of a government committee regarded his advice as a mix of the impractical and mere common sense. Perhaps what Bartlett’s career best highlights is how psychology became increasingly identifiable as a separate discipline, and how it promised a scientific expertise that would be relevant to domains as different as the maintenance of morale and the design of aircraft cockpits.
There is no archive of Bartlett’s personal papers. However, Cambridge University Library holds a small archive of papers relating to his scientific and professional work. The library also holds a copy of his fellowship thesis and a draft of an autobiography covering his life and career up to 1914.
WORKS BY BARTLETT
Exercises in Logic. London: University Tutorial Press, 1914.
“Transformation Arising from Repeated Representation: A Contribution towards an Experimental Study of the Process of Conventionalisation.” Fellowship thesis, St. John’s College, Cambridge, 1916.
With Emily Mary Smith. “On Listening to Sounds of Weak Intensity.” British Journal of Psychology10 (1919): 101–129.
“Some Experiments on the Reproduction of Folk-Stories.” FolkLore31 (1920): 30–47.
“Psychology in Relation to the Popular Story.” Folk-Lore31 (1920): 264–293.
Psychology and Primitive Culture. London: Cambridge University Press, 1923.
“Feeling, Imaging and Thinking.” British Journal of Psychology 16 (1925): 16–28.
“The Social Psychology of Leadership.” Journal of the National Institute of Industrial Psychology3 (1926): 188–193. Psychology and the Soldier. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1927.
“An Experiment upon Repeated Reproduction.” Journal of General Psychology1 (1928): 54–63.
Remembering: A Study in Experimental and Social Psychology. London: Cambridge University Press, 1932.
The Problem of Noise. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1934.
History of Psychology in Autobiography, vol. 3, edited by Carl Murchison. Worcester, MA: Clark University Press, 1936.
Political Propaganda. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1940.
“Current Problems in Visual Function and Visual Perception.” Proceedings of the Physiological Society 55 (1943): 417–425.
“The Measurement of Human Skill.” Occupational Psychology22 (1948): 31–38.
With Norman H. Mackworth. “Planned Seeing: Some Psychological Experiments.” Air Ministry Air Publication, 1950, no. 3139B.
“The Bearing of Experimental Psychology upon Human Skilled Performance.” British Journal of Industrial Medicine 8 (1951): 209–217.
Thinking: An Experimental and Social Study. London: Allen & Unwin, 1958.
Brewer, William F., and Glenn V. Nakamura. “The Nature and Functions of Schemas.” In Handbook of Social Cognition, vol. 1, edited by Robert S. Wyer and Thomas. K. Srull. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1984. A scholarly review of schema theories in psychology that gives a central place to Bartlett’s work.
Broadbent, Donald E. “Frederic Charles Bartlett, 1886–1969.” Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society16 (1970): 1–13.
Collins, Alan F. “The Embodiment of Reconciliation: Order and Change in the Works of Frederic Bartlett.” History of Psychology 9 (2006): 290–312. Argues that the themes of order and change provide a unifying thread in Bartlett’s key academic writings.
Costall, Alan. “Why British Psychology Is Not Social: Frederic Bartlett’s Promotion of the New Academic Discipline.” Canadian Psychology33 (1992): 633–639. One of the main papers arguing that Bartlett promoted experimental psychology at the expense of a more social psychology.
Harris, A. D., and Oliver L. Zangwill. “The Writings of Sir Frederic Bartlett, CBE, FRS: An Annotated Handlist.” British Journal of Psychology64 (1973): 493–510.
Jenkins, J. G. “Review of F. C. Bartlett, Remembering.”American Journal of Psychology 47 (1935): 712–715.
Kashima, Yoshihisa. “Recovering Bartlett’s Social Psychology of Cultural Dynamics.” European Journal of Social Psychology30 (2000): 383–403. An argument for reinstating the project outlined in Bartlett’s early writings.
Neisser, Ulric. Cognitive Psychology. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1967. A seminal text in cognitive psychology that treats Bartlett as a key figure in founding the subdiscipline.
Northway, Mary L. “The Concept of the Schema: Part 1.” British Journal of Psychology30 (1940): 316–325.
Oldfield, R. C., and Oliver L. Zangwill. “Head’s Concept of the Schema and Its Application in Contemporary British Psychology: Part III. Bartlett’s Theory of Memory.” British Journal of Psychology33 (1943): 113–129.
Ost, James, and Alan Costal. “Misremembering Bartlett: A Study in Serial Reproduction.” British Journal of Psychology93 (2002): 243–255. An account of the different ways in which Bartlett’s theories have been described.
Saito, Akiko, ed. Bartlett, Culture and Cognition. Hove, UK: Psychology Press, 2000. The best single volume collection of expositions and assessments of Bartlett’s work.
Shotter, John. “The Social Construction of Remembering and Forgetting.” In Collective Remembering, edited by David Middleton and Derek Edwards. London: Sage, 1990. An attempt to highlight the neglected social aspects of Bartlett’s theories of remembering.
Zangwill, Oliver L. “Remembering Revisited.” Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology24 (1972): 123–138. A not entirely positive review of Bartlett’s seminal work by one of his postgraduates and his successor as Professor of Experimental Psychology at Cambridge.
Alan F. Collins