Woodworth, Robert S.

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Woodworth, Robert S.

Development of ideas

Contributions to psychology



Robert Sessions Woodworth (1869-1962) was for many years the dean of American psychologists. He was the most influential exponent of the functionalist viewpoint characteristic of the mainstream of psychology in the United States. His work consisted chiefly of the interpretation of experimental findings about behavior—perceiving, learning, and motivation—and he based his interpretations on the capacity of the objectively organized organism to register, evaluate, and come to grips with its environment.

Woodworth was born in Belchertown, Massachusetts, into a family with roots deep in colonial New England. His father, William Walter Woodworth, was a Congregationalist minister, much preoccupied with church duties; he died when Woodworth was 20 and a junior in college. For a time young Woodworth seriously considered following his father into the clergy, but he ultimately chose a teaching career. Woodworth’s mother, Lydia Ames (Sessions), was a college teacher and president; Wood-worth was the eldest of her three sons and followed closely in her footsteps with his interests in mathematics, philosophy, and botany, all subjects that she had taught.

Development of ideas

From a one-room schoolhouse in Berlin, Connecticut, Woodworth went to high school in Newton, Massachusetts, where the college preparatory curriculum consisted mainly of courses in classics, with some mathematics. Although students from Newton High generally went to Harvard, Woodworth decided on Amherst as more suitable for a “religiously inclined young man.” There, in his senior year, a “remarkable psychology course” caught his imagination—a course, actually, in philosophy, given by Charles Edward Garman, who communicated to his students the importance of science in finding the solutions to fundamental philosophical issues.

On graduation from Amherst in 1891 Wood-worth won a prize in mathematics that would have helped finance a year of graduate study at Harvard; but since he did not wish to burden his now widowed mother with financial responsibilities, he decided to interrupt his studies in order to earn some money. After teaching high school geometry, physics, and chemistry, he became chairman of the mathematics department of Washburn College, Topeka, Kansas. His teaching experience helped him to consolidate the mathematical skills that he later found so useful in his psychological work. In evaluating his own scientific contributions Wood-worth regarded some of his statistical insights as the most original.

While he was at Washburn College, Woodworth came under the influence of G. Stanley Hall, through the latter’s writings and lectures. Wood-worth was especially struck with Hall’s emphasis on investigation. Yet when he finally went to Harvard for graduate study in 1895, he was still wavering between his interest in mathematics and his interest in philosophy and psychology: it was the influence of William James that was decisive in his choice of psychology. Under James’s guidance Woodworth studied general and abnormal psychology. He was intrigued by problems of thinking and, while still a student, developed the notion, in opposition to the then current theory of Max Miiller, that thinking is not exclusively a function of verbal mechanisms. The development of this idea foreshadowed Woodworth’s part in the imageless-thought movement. Along with his strong interest in rational thinking went an equally strong curiosity about dreams. Here he anticipated Freud in considering the dream to be the result of perseverating wishes; however, his theory rested on a broader base than Freud’s, inasmuch as he believed that wishes underlying dreams might pertain to any area of interest.

While he was a student, Woodworth became concerned with the psychology of motivation, which is basic to the psychology of thinking and dreaming. He was dissatisfied with the fuzziness of theories of motivation and attempted a behavioral definition. His central thesis was that an activity, once aroused, is itself motivating; a mechanism, in his own words, may become a drive. His interest in motivation was shared by Edward L. Thorndike, a fellow student at Harvard, who became his collaborator in an important study of learning and his closest friend for the next half century.

During his first two years at Harvard Woodworth continued to study philosophy under Josiah Royce, as well as psychology; after this, he felt he had to acquire a knowledge of physiology in order to pursue psychological studies. He studied physiology with Henry P. Bowditch and became acquainted with Walter B. Cannon, a fellow student.

After receiving his m.a. from Harvard in 1897 Woodworth went to Columbia University for his doctorate under James McKeen Cattell, whom he came to regard as the most influential of all his teachers in shaping his psychological thinking. Cat-tell stressed quantitative experiments and the development of tests of individual differences, and when Woodworth succeeded him as chairman of the department at Columbia, the general orientation of the work there remained the same. Meanwhile Woodworth’s training was supplemented by work in anthropology and statistical methods under Franz Boas. His broad background stood him in good stead at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition, held in St. Louis in 1904, where he was in charge of a pioneer study of racial differences.

Woodworth’s interest in physiology took him to Edinburgh in 1900 for a summer’s study with E. A. Sharpey-Schafer. He went abroad again in 1902— this time to Liverpool as Sherrington’s assistant, an experience that definitively shaped his later theories. It was during this trip that he met Gabrielle Schjöth, the Norwegian girl whom he married.

A decade later, while on a semester’s leave from Columbia, he traveled to Germany, still the mecca of psychologists. At Bonn he received a warm welcome from Külpe, with whom he joined forces in the controversy about imageless thought. The climax of this trip was a visit to the historic psychology laboratory at Leipzig; since Cattell had provided him with a letter of introduction to Wundt, Wood-worth was invited to attend Wundt’s lectures.

Contributions to psychology

Woodworth’s contributions can best be presented by showing what answers he gave to five central questions.

(1) Should introspective reports be excluded from the data of psychology? For Woodworth such reports, properly used, were an indispensable tool:

The concept of visual after-image, for example, cannot be validated unless the subject’s report is accepted as evidence of a visual event. Therefore the complete operation cannot be stated in objective terms. But the same thing seems to be true of any scientific operation. Always there is an observer reporting what he sees or hears. Always this private event is an essential part of the whole operation. ([1931] 1948, p. 119)

(2)What concepts are to be used to describe behavior? Woodworth held that an organism is primarily adjusting to a world of objects and not merely responding to stimuli:

We now have the background for combining the two formulas …[symbolizing] by W-O-W the active give-and-take relations between the individual and his environment, and by S-O-R the fact that activity consists in making muscular responses to stimuli received. … So we obtain the final formula:


The small w attached to O symbolizes the individual’s adjustment to the environment, his situation-and-goal set. The formula may be read as follows: While O is set for doing something in a certain situation he receives stimuli and makes responses, and because of his situation-and-goal set the stimuli and responses carry objective meaning, the stimuli telling him something about the situation, and the responses being aimed at objective results. (See Woodworth & Marquis 1921, p. 36 in the 1940 edition)

(3) What motivates behavior? Woodworth is known for his idea that mechanisms may function as drives. In 1918 he wrote that the principal aim of his Dynamic Psychology was to show “that any mechanism …once it is aroused, is capable of furnishing its own drive and also of lending drive to other connected mechanisms …” (p. 67).

In short, the power of acquiring new mechanisms possessed by the human mind is at the same time a power of acquiring new drives; for every mechanism …when it has reached a degree of effectiveness without having yet become entirely automatic, is itself a drive and capable of motivating activities that lie beyond its immediate scope. (Ibid., p. 104)

Years later Gordon Allport reasserted this principle in his concept of the functional autonomy of motives. And later still, Woodworth incorporated it in his behavior-primacy theory of motivation (1958).

(4) What do organisms learn? Woodworth’s cognitive theory of learning grew out of his functional approach to behavior. Significantly, he entitled his last discussion of the subject, “Learning the Environment.” The gist of his argument is contained in his treatment of an instance of Pavlovian conditioning:

The process of sequence learning in this clear example consisted of two steps: first a readiness for something to follow; second, a readiness for meat powder to follow …. These two steps were primarily brain activities of a receptive and perceptual sort. That is, what the dog learned was primarily an environmental sequence, a signal followed by food. (1958, p. 229)

(5) What are the conditions of reinforcement ? In a provocative paper entitled “Reinforcement of Perception” (1947), Woodworth proposed a way to bridge the gap between theorists who consider contiguity sufficient for learning and those who uphold the necessity of reward. Insofar as learning is perceptual, Woodworth believed, it satisfies a built-in motive.

The present thesis … is that perception is always driven by a direct, inherent motive which might be called the will to perceive …. To see, to hear—to see clearly, to hear distinctly—to make out what it is one is seeing or hearing—moment by moment, such concrete, immediate motives dominate the life of relation with the environment. (1947, p. 123)

This paper laid the foundation for the question-and-answer hypothesis of reinforcement developed in Woodworth’s last book (1958).

In retrospect it becomes clear that Woodworth, by refusing to join any of the “schools” he understood so well, developed an integrated and challenging viewpoint of his own.

Although always greatly interested in research, Woodworth also made a major scientific contribution by interpreting the state of the science of psychology. Early in his career, he collaborated with George Trumbull Ladd in the revision of the latter’s Elements of Psychology, (see Ladd & Wood-worth 1887). Woodworth’s own introductory textbook, Psychology (1921), the leader in its field, went through four revisions between 1921 and 1947; a fifth and last was prepared in collaboration with D. G. Marquis. Contemporary Schools of Psychology (1931) was the layman’s handiest guide to that subject. His Experimental Psychology (see Woodworth & Schlosberg 1938) was for many years the standard reference for graduate students and investigators. Under Woodworth’s editorship from 1906 to 1945, the Archives of Psychology published many of the doctoral dissertations written under his supervision.

His tireless labors were not unrewarded by his profession. On his seventieth birthday in 1939 his colleagues at Columbia University presented him with Psychological Issues, a selection of his papers. Nineteen years later, a group of former students and associates contributed to Current Psychological Issues (see Seward & Seward 1958), another Festschrift. In 1914, Woodworth was elected president of the American Psychological Association. But the crowning glory of his career was selection in 1956 to receive the first gold medal of the American Psychological Foundation for his “unequaled contributions in shaping the destiny of scientific psychology.” With characteristic modesty and a deep sense of social responsibility Woodworth accepted this distinction not for himself but as a representative of “a whole group of young psychologists—that is to say, the young psychologists of 1900.”

Georgene H. Seward and John P. Seward

[See alsoDrives; Learning; Motivation; and the biographies ofCattell; Hall; Thorndike.]


(1887) 1911 Ladd, George T.; and Woodworth, Robert S. Elements of Physiological Psychology: A Treatise of the Activities and Nature of the Mind, From the Physical and Experimental Points of View. Rev. ed. New York: Scribner.

1918 Dynamic Psychology. New York: Columbia Univ. Press.

(1921) 1947 Woodworth, Robert S.; and Marquis, Donald G. Psychology. 5th ed. New York: Holt. → Woodworth was the sole author of the first four editions.

(1931) 1948 Contemporary Schools of Psychology. Rev. ed. New York: Ronald Press.

(1938) 1960 Woodworth, Robert S.; and Schlosberg, HaroldExperimental Psychology. Rev. ed. New York: Holt. → Woodworth was the sole author of the 1938 edition.

1947 Reinforcement of Perception. American Journal of Psychology 60:119-124.

1958 Dynamics of Behavior. New York: Holt.

Psychological Issues: Selected Papers of Robert S. Wood-worth. New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1939. → Contains an autobiography through 1932 and a bibliography through 1938.


Seward, Georgene H.; and Seward, John P. (editors) 1958 Current Psychological Issues: Essays in Honor of Robert S. Woodworth. New York: Holt.