Egon Brunswik (1903–1955) was one of several outstanding psychologists who came to the United States from Europe shortly before World War II. He was born in Budapest. In 1921 he graduated from the Theresianische Akademie after receiving training in mathematics, science, classics, and history. He then studied engineering and passed the state examinations but afterward enrolled as a student of psychology at the University of Vienna. Here he became an assistant in Karl Bühler’s Psychological Institute (among his student colleagues were Paul F. Lazarsfeld and Konrad Lorenz) and received a ph.d. in 1927. While a graduate student in psychology, he also passed the state examination for Gymnasium teachers in mathematics and physics.
Brunswik established the first psychological laboratory in Turkey while he was visiting lecturer in Ankara during 1931–1932. He became Privatdozent at the University of Vienna in 1934. In 1933, however, Edward C. Tolman, chairman of the department of psychology at the University of California (Berkeley), spent a year in Vienna. He and Brunswik found that although they had been working in different areas of psychological research, their theories of behavior were complementary, and in 1935/1936 Brunswik received a Rockefeller fellowship that enabled him to visit the University of California. He remained at Berkeley: he became an assistant professor of psychology in 1937 and a full professor in 1947.
In 1937 Brunswik married Else Frenkel (also a former assistant in Bühler’s institute), who became well known as a psychoanalytically oriented psychologist. Brunswik became an American citizen in 1943.
His work in Vienna had culminated in the publication of Wahrnehmung und Gegenstandswelt in 1934. All of his subsequent work was devoted to the extension and elaboration of the fundamental position set forth in this book, namely, that psychology should give as much attention to the properties of the organism’s environment as it does to the organism itself. He asserted that the environment with which the organism comes into contact is an uncertain, probabilistic one, however lawful it may be in terms of physical principles. Adaptation to a probabilistic world requires that the organism learn to employ probabilistic means to achieve goals and learn to utilize probabilistic, uncertain evidence about the world. His “probabilistic functionalism” was the first behavioral system founded on probabilism, an approach that is attracting increasing attention in the fields of learning (Estes 1959), thinking (Bruner et al. 1956), decision processes (Edwards 1961), perception (Postman 1963), communication (Miller 1953), and the study of curiosity (Berlyne 1960). Brunswik’s emphasis on the importance of the environment is reflected in the increasing development of “psychological ecology,” best illustrated by the work of Roger Barker (1960).
Brunswik wrote a great deal about the history of psychology. His historical analysis is remarkable for its development in structural terms rather than in the customary longitudinal recapitulation of names, dates, and places. It consists of a general identification of the kinds of variables that have traditionally been employed in psychological theory and research and a description of the changes in the emphasis of these variables over time. Brunswik’s theory stems as much from his analysis of the history of psychology as it does from his research. His historical as well as his theoretical analysis also led him to criticize orthodox methods of experimental design (particularly the “rule of one variable”) and to suggest methods for avoiding what he believed to be an unfortunate artificiality inherent in classical experimental procedures.
His main field of empirical research was perception, but he also brought his probabilistic approach to bear on problems of interpersonal perception, thinking, learning, and clinical psychology. His research findings were published in Perception and the Representative Design of Experiments (1947), which also includes Brunswik’s methodological innovations and related research by others.
Perhaps the most significant feature of Brunswik’s work is its coherence. Each theoretical, historical, and research paper is explicitly and tightly integrated with every other one. Brunswik’s cast of mind compelled him to fit together with precision his conceptual framework, his methodology, and his views of the history of psychology. In 1952 he presented an overview of the field of psychology in The Conceptual Framework of Psychology—acknowledged to be remarkable both for its deep analysis and for its broad scope. Such an integration of ideas has seldom, if ever, been attempted by a modern psychologist, and in Brunswik’s case it demonstrates a remarkable capacity for independent and creative thought.
Brunswik’s ideas received wide attention during his lifetime and continue to do so. The extent of his direct influence on psychology, however, remains doubtful. Although his ideas are powerful and his research complicated and ingenious, the scope, depth, and integration of his work make it formidable. His unorthodoxy tends to discourage the timid and to offend those who think it mistaken. However, his history, theory, and methodology struck at key problems in psychology which remain unsolved, and it is too soon to appraise with finality Brunswik’s contribution to their eventual solution.
Kenneth R. Hammond
[For the historical context of Brunswik’s work, see the biographies ofBÜhler; Frenkel-Brunswik; Tolman. For discussion of the subsequent development of Brunswik’s ideas, seeAttention; Decision making, article onpsychological aspects; Models, mathematical; Multivariate analysis.]
1934 Wahrnehmung und Gegenstandswelt: Grundlegung einer Psychologic vom Gegenstand her. Leipzig: Deuticke.
1937 Psychology as a Science of Objective Relations. Philosophy of Science 4:227–260.
1943 Organismic Achievement and Environmental Probability. Psychological Review 50:255–272.
(1947) 1956 Perception and the Representative Design of Psychological Experiments. 2d ed., rev. & enl. Berkeley: Univ. of Calif. Press.
1952 The Conceptual Framework of Psychology. Univ. of Chicago Press.
1955 Representative Design and Probabilistic Theory in a Functional Psychology. Psychological Review 62:193–217.
Barker, Roger G. 1960 Ecology and Motivation. Volume 8, pages 1-49 in Marshall Jones (editor), Nebraska Symposium on Motivation. Lincoln: Univ. of Nebraska Press.
Berlyne, D. E. 1960 Conflict, Arousal, and Curiosity. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Bruner, Jerome S.; Goodnow, J. J.; and Austin, G. A. 1956 A Study of Thinking. New York: Wiley.
Edwards, Ward 1961 Behavioral Decision Theory. Annual Review of Psychology 12:473–498.
Estes, William K. 1959 The Statistical Approach to Learning Theory. Volume 2, pages 380–491 in Sigmund Koch (editor), Psychology: A Study of a Science. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Hammond, Kenneth R. (editor) 1966 The Psychology of Egon Brunswik. New York: Holt.
Miller, George A. 1953 What Is Information Measurement? American Psychologist 8:3–11.
Postman, Leo 1963 Perception and Learning. Volume 5, pages 30–113 in Sigmund Koch (editor), Psychology: A Study of a Science. New York: McGraw-Hill.