Kenneth Spence

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Kenneth Wartinbee Spence (May 6, 1907 – January 12, 1967) was an American psychologist, known for his theoretical and experimental research on learning. Considered one of early neo-behaviorists, Spence was Clark L. Hull's most famous student and later collaborator. He was the coauthor of the Hull-Spence hypothesis. Under Spence's leadership, the University of Iowa became a major center of theoretical psychology in the United States.

His research was characterized by a concern with refining Hull's theory as well as applying those principles to varieties of behavioral processes, including an analysis of anxiety. His major contribution to the theoretical basis of Hullian behaviorism was his explanation of discrimination learning, in which he argued that gradients of excitatory and inhibitory potential were generated around "stimulus values" that are reinforced and not reinforced, respectively. He also espoused the opinion that performance depends not only on reinforcement but on motivational factors.

Spence was concerned that psychology be treated as a science, but that the essential differences between a physical science and the study of human nature be recognized. He recognized that human beings are more complex than other living creatures. Thus, he warned that the theory of learning derived from non-humans cannot be directly applied to humans, but must have additional components added, particularly cognitive factors.



Kenneth W. Spence was born on May 6, 1907 in Chicago, Illinois, the son of Mary E. Wartinbee and William James Spence, an electrical engineer. His family moved to Montreal, Canada when Spence was a child, and he grew up there. He attended the West Hill High School and later McGill University in Montreal. At the university he injured his back playing sports and as part of his therapy went to live with his grandmother in La Crosse, Wisconsin.

Spence graduated from La Crosse Teachers College, majoring in physical education. At the same time he married Isabel Temte, with whom he had two children.

Spence returned to Canada in the late 1920s to complete his degree at McGill University. He changed his major to psychology, receiving his B.A. in 1929 and a master's degree in 1930. After that, Spence went to Yale University to become a research assistant in the laboratory of Robert M. Yerkes. Spence received his Ph.D. in 1933 with a dissertation on visual acuity in the chimpanzee, supervised by Yerkes. During his time at Yale, Spence met Clark L. Hull with whom he would remain associated for the next two decades.

After receiving his degree, Spence went to Orange Park, Florida on a National Research Council fellowship to the Yale Laboratories of Primate Biology. He stayed there for four years, studying discrimination learning in the chimpanzee. This study eventually became his seminal work, providing him national fame.

In 1937, Spence became assistant professor at the University of Virginia, staying in that position for only a year. In 1938, he left for the State University of Iowa (now University of Iowa), where he stayed for the next 26 years. From 1942 he served as the head of the department of psychology, where he replaced late John A. McGeoch. Under his leadership and with help from Kurt Lewin, and the science philosopher Gustav Bergmann, the University of Iowa became a major center of theoretical psychology in the United States.

Kenneth Spence received many awards, among others the Prince of Wales Gold Medal in Mental Sciences and the Governor General's Medal for Research. He was a member of the Society of Experimental Psychologists, where he received its Howard Crosby Warren Medal for outstanding research in psychology. He also received the Distinguished Scientific Contribution Award from the American Psychological Association. He served on the U.S. Air Force Committee on Human Resources and the Army Scientific Advisory Panel.

In 1960, Spence married Janet Taylor, his long-time assistant and colleague.

In 1964, Spence moved from the University of Iowa to the University of Texas. On January 12, 1967, he died of cancer.


Kenneth Spence was one of the major contributors to the theory of learning. His name is often linked with Clark L. Hull, with whom he participated in numerous projects. During the 1940s and 1950s, the two scientists became the leading force behind the neo-behaviorist theory of conditioning, learning, and motivation. In the period between 1936 and 1966, Spence published 13 papers on the theory of learning in Psychological Review and numerous other articles and books.

Spence’s contribution to psychology can be divided into three areas: (1) theory of learning and motivation; (2) experimental psychology of learning and motivation; and (3) philosophy of science. He did a great amount of work in the area of discrimination learning, doing experiments first with chimpanzees and then rats. By the end of his career he turned to the study of human behavior.

Hull-Spence Hypothesis

Spence extended the research done by Clark L. Hull, formulating precise mathematical formulae to describe the acquisition of learning. He focused his research to the area of classical conditioning, where he used simple techniques to measure behavior. For example, he measured salivation in anticipation to eating, or eye-blinking behavior in relation to anxiety.

Spence believed that reinforcement was not necessary for learning to occur, and that organisms learn through “latent learning.” This idea was consistent with the fact that organisms do not always perform in accordance with what they have learned. Spence believed that reinforcement was a strong motivator for organisms to perform certain actions, but that it does not play a role in learning itself. In other words, reinforcement influences the enactment of a response but not the learning of a response. This idea later became famous as the Hull-Spence hypothesis of conditioning and learning. It generally states that organisms learn stimulus-response associations whenever a specific stimulus and response occur together. Reinforcement serves to motivate and increase the enactment of learned behavior.

Spence departed from Hull’s theory which was a "habit theory" of behavior. Spence believed that improved performance in learned behavior cannot be attributed to habituation, but rather to motivational factors behind it. He argued that both the strength of the drive (hunger, thirst, and so forth) that is satisfied by the response and the strength of the incentive (delay between the response and the reward, amount of reward, and so forth) to produce the response are significant factors in learning.

When by the end of his career he turned to the study of human behavior, he warned that his previous theories of learning were to be applied to non-human organisms, and that human behavior is greatly influenced by cognitive factors.

Philosophy of science

In the area of the philosophy of science, Spence tried to explain the difficulties psychologists face in doing psychological research and in formulating psychological theories. He believed that psychology as a scientific discipline was somewhat different from other sciences. Psychologists, unlike physical scientists, have to heavily rely on theory and speculation, as human behavior is often unpredictable and cannot be confined to a few laws. Variables that influence human behavior are part of an open system and psychologists cannot rely on simple scientific methods such as induction to create general laws of behavior. Spence wanted to close the gap between physical sciences and psychology, trying to confine psychological laws to mathematical formulae.

Spence also worked on the systematization of theories in psychology. He identified four different types of theory: (1) theories with "animistic conceptions"—the belief that the soul, libido, or some other "force" within the organism guides behavior; (2) "neurophysiological theories," such as the theories of Pavlov and Kohler; (3) "response-inferred theoretical constructs," such as the theories of Gestalt psychologists; and (4) "intervening variable" theories of Hull and Tolman.


Although influenced by both Pavlov and Watson, Spence was not a hardcore behaviorist. His doctrinal stance, like Hull's and Tolman's, is now characterized as a form of neo-behaviorism.

During his 26 years at the University of Iowa, Spence turned its department of psychology into one of the leading psychological institutions in the nation. As the head of the department he supervised more than seventy doctoral dissertations and influenced numerous generations of psychology students, a large number of whom have made significant achievements on their own.


  • Spence, Kenneth W. 1932. "The reliability of the maze and methods of its determination." Comparative psychology monographs, vol. 8, no. 40. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press.
  • Spence, Kenneth W. 1937. Weight, growth and age in chimpanzee. Philadelphia: Wistar Institute Press.
  • Spence, Kenneth W. 1939. The solution of multiple choice problems by chimpanzees. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press.
  • Spence, Kenneth W. 1945. "An experimental test of the continuity and non-continuity theories of learning." Journal of Experimental Psychology 35: 253–266.
  • Spence, Kenneth W. 1948. "The postulates and methods of behaviorism." Psychological Review 55: 67–69.
  • Spence, Kenneth W. 1952. "Mathematical formulations of learning phenomena." Psychological Review 59: 152–160.
  • Spence, Kenneth W. [1956] 1978. Behavior theory and conditioning. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press. ISBN 0837185793
  • Spence, Kenneth W. 1960. Behavior therapy and learning: Selected papers. Englewood Cliffs, N J: Prentice-Hall.
  • Spence, Kenneth W, Howard H. Kendler, and Janet T. Spence. 1971. Essays in neobehaviorism: A memorial volume to Kenneth W. Spence. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts. ISBN 0390503401
  • Spence, Kenneth W., and Janet T. Spence. 1967. The psychology of learning and motivation: Advances in research and theory. New York: Academic Press. ISBN 0125433018


  • Amsel, Abram. Kenneth Wartinbee Spence. National Academies Press. Retrieved October 6, 2007.
  • Hilgard, E. R. 1967. "Kenneth Wartinbee Spence." American Journal of Psychology 80: 315.
  • Kendler, H. H. 1967. "Kenneth W. Spence, 1907–1967." Psychological Review 74(5): 335–341.
  • Kimble, Gregory A., Michael Wertheimer, and Charlotte White. 1991. Portraits of pioneers in psychology. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association. ISBN 0805806202


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