A Maverick Reclaimed: Some Psychologists Say It's Time That Egon Brunswik Got His Due

By Bower, Bruce | Science News, March 9, 2002 | Go to article overview
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A Maverick Reclaimed: Some Psychologists Say It's Time That Egon Brunswik Got His Due


Bower, Bruce, Science News


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 at Berkeley, he supervised only four graduate students--a reflection of the general lack of interest in his ideas. Prominent U.S. psychologists of the era dismissed Brunswik as brilliant yet misguided. What's more, the spread of Nazism followed by World War II destroyed the careers if not the lives of his Viennese colleagues and left him unable to consult with them or return to his homeland.

On July 7, 1955, his health deteriorating from dangerously high blood pressure and his morale flagging, Brunswik killed himself.

However, what began as Brunswik's lonely effort has gained momentum decades later. Pressure to show the "real-world" value of psychological research has rekindled interest in designing experiments that reflect pertinent elements of volunteers' daily environments, says psychologist Kenneth R. Hammond, an emeritus professor at the University of Colorado in Boulder and psychology's most vocal advocate for Brunswik's approach.

This new interest has boosted the ranks of the Brunswik Society. Formed in 1985, the group holds annual scientific meetings and now has 250 researchers on its mailing list. A 2001 book, The Essential Brunswik (K.R. Hammond and T.R. Stewart, eds., Oxford Univ. Press), reprints many of Brunswik's papers and includes chapters from more than 30 psychologists who cite him as a major influence on their research.

They hope to push Brunswik to the forefront of a field that has often overlooked his contributions. "Many researchers have a motivated indifference to Brunswik's ideas," Hammond contends. "After all, if he's right, he cuts the ground out from under a lot of experimental psychology."

ROAD TO EXILE An undercurrent of separation--first from family, later from country and scientific colleagues--ran through Brunswik's life. The son of an affluent Austrian ministry official based in Hungary, he was sent to board at a prestigious secondary school in Vienna and "was on his own at a relatively early age," according to Mitchell G. Ash of the University of Vienna.

He then attended Vienna's technical college and studied philosophy, psychology, mathematics, and physics. Brunswik's graduate psychology work began in 1923.

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