Hunter, Walter S.

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Hunter, Walter S.



Walter Samuel Hunter (1889-1954), American psychologist, was born in Decatur, Illinois. He went to public schools in Texas and graduated in 1910 from the University of Texas. He received the ph.d. in psychology from the University of Chicago in 1912, and taught at the universities of Texas and Kansas before becoming the G. Stanley Hall professor of genetic psychology at Clark University in 1925. He accepted the chairmanship of the psychology department at Brown University in 1936, holding that position until 1954.

Hunter was a liberal member of the behaviorist group in psychology. His doctoral thesis was directed by Harvey Carr, whom he credited with instilling in him a love of careful experimentation. The thesis was published as a monograph entitled Delayed Reaction in Animals and Children (1913). Its importance lay partly in the fact that the delayed reaction was a new technique which Hunter diligently exploited for the comparative study of human and infrahuman behavior. Perhaps more significant, however, was the theoretical approach, later to be more fully developed by Hunter, that clearly had its origins in this early study. The essential feature of the delayed reaction technique is that the animal must respond on the basis of a stimulus that is no longer present at the time when the response is made. In the original experiments, rats and dogs were found to be capable of correct responses only if they oriented themselves toward the stimulus while it was present and maintained their bodily orientation during the entire interval of delay between stimulus and response. Raccoons and children, on the other hand, could respond correctly even when longer delays were imposed and when specific orienting responses were interrupted before the response could be made. Hunter, therefore, inferred the existence in higher mammals of a “symbolic process,” defined as a substitute for an overt stimulus situation leading to a selective response.

Later research by Hunter and many others revealed that behavior based on symbolic processes is, in fact, present even in lower mammals, but that it reaches successively higher levels of complexity in dogs, raccoons, monkeys, and children. In adult human behavior, symbolic processes presumably play a dominant role and underlie much of the activity that psychologists had traditionally subsumed under the topics of consciousness, language, insight, and intelligence.

In the 1920s Hunter addressed himself to the problems of consciousness, introspection, and instinct. In a series of theoretical papers he stressed the main theme of the behaviorists, namely, that the business of psychology is to observe the behavior of organisms. His approach was not as narrow or contentious as that of John B. Watson; Hunter freely admitted the central importance of the phenomena of conscious experience that traditional psychologists had claimed to study by the method of introspection. His concern was rather to point out that the term “introspection” had in fact been used to describe verbal responses under specified stimulus conditions; thus he gave introspection the same objective status as all other scientific observations. He attempted to introduce a new name, “anthroponomy,” for the objective observation of behavior; but long usage had too firmly established the word “psychology,” and it has survived in spite of its mentalist connotations. Although the word “psychology” resisted change during Hunter’s lifetime, he could note with satisfaction that its meaning was shifting away from a study of subjective experience and toward a science of objective behavior.

The breadth of Hunter’s experimental work can be seen from a listing of a few of his research topics: the aftereffect of visual motion; the reliability of the maze; the auditory sensitivity of the white rat; the behavior of the rat on inclined planes; voluntary activity from the standpoint of behaviorism; the span of visual discrimination as a function of duration and intensity of stimulation; and double alternation in young children.

Hunter served as editor of the Psychological Index, Psychological Abstracts, and Comparative Psychology Monographs. He was elected to membership in the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Philosophieal Society, and the National Academy of Sciences. He served as president of the American Psychological Association and of the Eastern Psychological Association and chairman of the applied psychology panel of the National Defense Research Committee. His success in the administration of that panel was recognized by President Truman, who awarded him the Medal for Merit in 1948. Hunter was active as a member of several other military advisory groups during and after World War II. Four years after his death a new building at Brown University was named the Walter S. Hunter Psychological Laboratory.

In summary, Hunter’s main theoretical contribution was to help establish psychology as a science of behavior rather than as a study of experience. He developed and exploited new techniques of experimentation on human and animal behavior. Above all, he played an important role in establishing the stature of American psychology as a science and as a profession.

Lorrin A. Riggs

[See alsoLearning, especially the article onreinforcement; and the biography ofWatson.]


1913 Delayed Reaction in Animals and Children. New York: Holt. → Also published as Volume 2, No. 1 of Behavior Monographs.

1915 Retinal Factors in Visual After-movement. Psychological Review 22:479-489.

(1919a) 1923 General Psychology. Rev. ed. Univ. of Chicago Press.

(1919b) 1928 Human Behavior. 3d ed., rev. Univ. of Chicago Press.

1924a The Problem of Consciousness. Psychological Review 31:1-31.

1924b The Symbolic Process. Psychological Review 31: 478-497.

1927 The Behavior of the White Rat on Inclined Planes. Pedagogical Seminary and Journal of Genetic Psychology 34:299-332. → Now called Journal of Genetic Psychology.

(1929) 1934 Experimental Studies of Learning. Pages 497-570 in Carl Murchison (editor), Handbook of General Experimental Psychology. Worcester, Mass.: Clark Univ. Press.

1930 Anthroponomy and Psychology. Pages 281-300 in Psychologies of 1930. Edited by Carl Murchison. Worcester, Mass.: Clark Univ. Press.

1940 Hunter, Walter S.; and Sigler, M. The Span of Visual Discrimination as a Function of Time and Intensity of Stimulation. Journal of Experimental Psychology 26:160-179.

1946 Psychology in the War. American Psychologist 1: 479-492.

1952a Autobiography. Volume 4, pages 163-187 in History of Psychology in Autobiography. Worcester, Mass.: Clark Univ. Press.

(1952b) 1959 Behaviourism. Volume 3, pages 327-329 in Encyclopaedia Britannica. Chicago: Benton.


Graham, Clarence H. 1958 Walter Samuel Hunter: March 22, 1889-August 3, 1954. Volume 31, pages 127-155 in National Academy of Sciences, Biographical Memoirs. Washington: The Academy. → Contains a bibliography.

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