On a sabbatical trip to Vienna in 1933, Edward C. Tolman, chair of the University of California, Berkeley psychology department and a leading investigator of animal behavior, encountered what he later described as "the chance of a lifetime." At the Vienna Psychological Institute, Tolman met Egon Brunswik, a 30-year-old scholar who could, as the senior scientist wrote to a colleague, help him orchestrate "an experimental and theoretical movement of great importance and of some renown."
Bold words from a man who had already brashly challenged central tenets of behaviorism, then a dominant force in U.S. psychology.
Brunswik took an even more radical approach than his Berkeley admirer did. The younger scientist held that organisms act on evolved, biological tendencies, rather than, according to the prevailing psychological view, simply responding to immediate reinforcements. Much painstaking research on thought and perception seeks to control all but one or a few influences on animals or people in its experiments. Brunswik contended that such work can't be generalized to situations outside the laboratory. He argued that psychological experiments should, instead, reflect the broad range of information available in real-life settings,
This line of thinking intrigued Tolman. Brunswik accepted an invitation from him to visit Berkeley in 1935, and he joined its psychology faculty in 1937. The cordial European proceeded to publish studies in major journals, write about the philosophical underpinnings of experimental psychology, and inspire intense scientific debate about the nature of perception and thought.
Despite these achievements, Brunswik became a scientific maverick, not a mainstream mover and shaker. In 18 years …