Reflections on the Early History of Perception & Psychophysics

By Eriksen, Charles W. | Attention, Perception and Psychophysics, May 2010 | Go to article overview

Reflections on the Early History of Perception & Psychophysics


Eriksen, Charles W., Attention, Perception and Psychophysics


Perception & Psychophysics was founded in 1966 by Clifford T. Morgan. After World War II (WWII) Cliff had received a faculty appointment at the Johns Hopkins University to build a psychology department. He quickly put together an outstanding faculty, nearly all of whom were or soon became prominent in their fields. But Cliff was a complex person who was always searching for the life that would satisfy him. He resigned from Hopkins in 1954 and moved to some acreage on the Choptank River on the Maryland eastern shore. There he spent his time on the Introduction to Psychology that he had written in collaboration with some of the members of the Johns Hopkins psychology department. (He had already authored the highly successful textbook Physiological Psychology as well as several other books, and the royalties from these gave him independence from a university appointment.)

At the time that Cliff founded Perception & Psychophysics (P&P), the publication environment for experimental psychologists was quite bleak. There were Carl Murchisons nonrefereed journalsfor example, the Journal of Psychology and the Journal of General Psychology, where the main criterion for publication was whether the author could pay the per-page charge for publication. Then there was the Journal of Experimental Psychology and the American Journal of Psychology, both refereed journals. The American Journal was owned by Karl Dallenbach. On the cover, he was named as the editor, and a small group of experimental and measurement psychologists were also named as collaborators. These collaborators were all prominent pre-WWII psychologists. At this time, Dallenbach was quite advanced in age. If one submitted a manuscript to the journal, one might find that Dallenbach had accepted it but had largely rewritten it and missed the main points. If one felt that to be the case, one could send back the original version of the paper, and that would appear in the journal.

The Journal of Experimental Psychology was the premier journal for experimental psychologists, but here the definition of experimental psychology was rather narrow. Much of what is now cognitive psychology would not have met the criterion of experimental for the journal. Data had to be analyzed in terms of t tests or ANOVAs, so if an authors main data analysis was done in terms of correlation coefficients, the author would have to seek another avenue for publication. The American Psychological Association owned the Journal of Experimental Psychology and several other journals, and the number of pages per year was dictated by the APAs budget. Thus, when the number of pages for a given year was reached, accepted articles had to wait until the next budget year for publication. It was not unusual for nearly a year to pass from submission of a manuscript until it appeared in print.

Before WWII, the number of experimental psychologists was quite small. Most of them knew one another, and the research culture was quite different from todays. This is well reflected in some advice that E. R. Hilgard once gave me. Hilgard was chairman of the psychology department at Stanford when I did my graduate work there. I encountered him on a train in 1952, a couple of years after I had received my PhD. During our conversation, I remarked that I had three articles in press. He looked quite concerned and told me that I should be careful and not publish too much; otherwise, I would get the reputation for doing trivial and superficial research. It must be remembered, though, that Hilgard said this at a time when money for research had been quite scarce. It was not until the early 1950s that research grants in the behavioral and social sciences became available from NSF and NIMH.

Although Cliff Morgan himself was no longer active in research, he was acutely aware of the publication bottleneck for experimental psychologists. The number of psychologists had mushroomed after the war. With research grants from NSF and NIMH, laboratories had been established and data were flowing forth.

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