Academic journal article Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society

Neal E. Miller

Academic journal article Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society

Neal E. Miller

Article excerpt

3 AUGUST 1909 * 23 MARCH 2002

I HAD THE SUPREME GOOD FORTUNE to receive a graduate research assistantship with Neal Miller at Yale from 1955 through 1959. By that time Neal was at the peak of his extraordinary productivity. He was a masterful role model for all of us graduate students and postdocs - energetic, enthusiastic, full of ideas, deeply engaged in the many research projects spinning around him, and eager to teach his students the tactics and joys of exploration and definitive experimentation. By the 1950s he had been world famous for some fifteen years. He became my intellectual lodestone, my mentor, my guru. I continued to talk things over with him, and to be inspired and attached to him emotionally until his death in 2002.

Before coming to Yale, I was an undergraduate studying psychology at Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, where I had been steeped in Freudian psychoanalysis and the experimental psychology of learning - two early major interests of Miller's research. I learned at Miller's side the cannons of liberalized S-R reinforcement theory as illustrated in two famous books he co-authored with John Dollard, namely, Social Learning and Imitation (1941) and Personality and Psychotherapy (1950). The books are well worth a brief digression here.


Social imitation, of course, is a major mode of learning for humans, and some rudimentary forms of it appear even in young infants (e.g., Meltzoff and Moore 1977).

The behaviorist approach in those days was to understand the learning conditions underlying a given human behavior by seeing how to reproduce its essentials with non-human animals, typically rats. Thus, Social Learning and Imitation described many of Miller's simple experiments showing how an "observer" or "follower" rat in a T-maze could learn to use the cues from the responses (the turns) of another rat (the leading "expert model") to duplicate or guide its own behavior to get a reward. The book also contained some demonstrations of how to train an animal to generalize the imitative tactic so it would follow a new leader performing a novel response in a novel situation. Miller's training methods have been used and elaborated in many later projects for training other species to imitate in synchrony novel and creative performances of a "leader" (e.g., the dolphins of Louis Herman 2002). The methods also formed the basis for much of the later work on imitation learning by human subjects who observe the behavior of a model (e.g., Bandura 1969).


Dollard and Miller's second book, Personality and Psychotherapy, was an extremely important and influential text in the 1950s. (We students in Miller's learning seminar practically memorized it for the tests. I've kept my dog-eared copy as a memento.) The authors showed how a liberalized version of stimulus-response reinforcement theory could be used to interpret and explain many aspects of human personality. In particular, they aimed to understand personality, psychoneuroses, and psychotherapy by interpreting and translating into stimulus-response terminology the important concepts of Freudian psychoanalysis - unconscious contents and processes, motivational conflicts, symptom formation of "defenses" that reduce anxiety (e.g., repression, projection, sublimation), the therapeutic value of "uncovering" unconscious conflicts in order to teach patients more adaptive, discriminating ways to interpret or resolve their conflicts.

Much of the background for these extrapolations came from Miller's important experiments on (a) his approach-avoidance conflict theory; (b) his experimental demonstrations of behavioral analogs of "displacement" - how a behavior toward an unattainable goal-object could be "displaced" toward a similar, substitute goal-object; (c) his demonstrations of how people's covert responses (silently saying or thinking the word "shock" or "relax") could be trained to exert partial control over their emotions and overt behaviors; and (d) his analysis of how trained covert or implicit responses (like "danger" or "safe") could help a person generalize a behavior from one to another situation; or how trained covert responses (from different learning conditions) could help the person discriminate between two similar situations. …

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