Robert Sessions Woodworth (October 17, 1869 – July 4, 1962) was an American psychologist. He wrote numerous textbooks and handbooks; his Psychology: A Study of Mental Life (1921) and Experimental Psychology (1938) went through many editions and were used for generations of undergraduate students. He is famous for developing a system of “dynamic psychology,” which incorporated different schools of psychological thought in an attempt to unite them into one coherent theoretical system. He expanded the Stimulus-Response model of behavior of the Behaviorist school, adding the organism (Stimulus-Organism-Response) as having a defining role in determining its own behavior. Woodworth also developed the interactionist model of "nature vs. nurture to allow both innate, hereditary factors and experience in the world to play roles in psychological development.
While Woodworth's name may not be as famous as other psychologists, this work laid the foundation for the greatest advances in understanding human behavior.
Robert Sessions Woodworth was born on October 17, 1869, in Belchertown, Massachusetts. He received a Bachelor's degree in philosophy from Amherst College in 1891, after which he taught undergraduate level courses in science and mathematics. In 1895, he enrolled at Harvard University, receiving a Master’s degree in philosophy in 1897. Following the advice of his mentor William James, Woodworth turned to psychology, completing his doctoral degree at Columbia University under James McKeen Cattell. Woodworth earned his Ph.D. in 1899, with a dissertation on The Accuracy of Voluntary Movement.
From 1901 to 1902, Woodworth lectured on physiology at Columbia University. With his colleague Edward L. Thorndike, Woodworth wrote a series of articles on the transfer of training. He completed a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Liverpool in 1902. While in England, he married Gabrielle Schjoth. In 1903, he returned to the United States and started to teach at Columbia University.
James McKeen Cattell, who at the time was the head of the Psychological Department at Columbia, delegated to Woodworth various administrative responsibilities, as well as supervisory duties. In 1909, he was given a full professorship. He published, in co-authorship with George Ladd, Elements of Physiological Psychology, in 1911.
In 1914, Woodworth was elected president of the American Psychological Association. In that function, he tried to resolve the dispute between Oswald Külpe from the Würzburg School and Edward B. Titchener from Cornell University regarding the existence of image-less thoughts. In 1918, he published his Dynamic Psychology, in which he advocated use of a combination of behavioral, physiological, and introspective methods in psychological inquiry.
During World War I, Woodworth worked on designing the psychological test used for the evaluation of recruits. His Woodworth's Personal Data Sheet (WPDS) was the outcome of this effort. In 1921, he published the textbook Psychology: A study of Mental Life, which went through numerous editions.
From 1918 to 1927, Woodworth served as the head of the Psychological Department at Columbia University. He published several important books in 1930s, including his Experimental Psychology (1938), which became a standard handbook in laboratory work.
Woodworth retired from teaching in 1942. He died in New York City, on July 4, 1962.
In his 1910 work, Racial Differences in Mental Traits, Woodworth analyzed anthropometric and psychometric data collected at the St. Louis Fair several years earlier. He concluded that culture plays an important role in human behavior and warned scientists against putting too much stress on hereditary variables.
In 1911, Woodworth rewrote and updated several sections of George Ladd’s Elements of Physiological Psychology, which put his name next to Ladd’s as the co-author of the book.
During World War I, Woodworth created the Woodworth's Personal Data Sheet (WPDS), which has been called the first personality test. The WPDS was designed to identify new recruits who were likely to suffer "shell shock" while fighting overseas. Although the test was completed too late for it to be used operationally, the test was highly influential in the development of later personality inventories.
In 1918, Woodworth published his Dynamic Psychology, in which he tried to make a unified system of psychological thought. He opposed the strict methodological determinism of the major schools that dominated psychology at the time, claiming that a more eclectic approach was needed to better understand human behavior. He objected to William McDougall for putting to much stress on hereditary influences, John B. Watson for overemphasizing the environment, and Edward B. Titchener for solely pinpointing consciousness. He advocated a “middle of the road psychology,” which would suit everybody:
We conclude, then: Psychology is a part of the scientific study of life, being the science of mental life. Life consisting in process or action, psychology is the scientific study of mental processes or activities. A mental activity is typically … conscious and we can roughly designate as mental those activities … that are either conscious themselves or closely akin to those that are conscious. Further, any mental activity can also be regarded as a physiological activity, in which case it is analyzed into the action of bodily organs, whereas as "mental" it simply comes from the organism or individual as a whole. Psychology, in a word, is the science of the conscious and near-conscious activities of living individuals (Woodworth, 1921, p. 17).
In the same book, he criticized the then-current state of psychology: "First psychology lost its soul, then it lost its mind, then it lost consciousness; it still has behavior, of a kind" (p. 2).
His 1921, Psychology: A Study of Mental Life, became a standard textbook in Introductory Psychology for many generations of undergraduate students. In its 1929 edition, Woodworth introduced the multiplicative "rectangular" interactionist metaphor (with heredity on the X-axis and environment on the Y-axis), in opposition to the older, additive "container of liquid" metaphor. Woodworth held that both heredity and environment influence human behavior. His scheme became standard in nature vs. nurture models.
In the same book, Woodworth introduced the expression Stimulus-Organism-Response (S-O-R) to describe his functionalist approach to psychology and to stress its difference from the strictly Stimulus-Response (S-R) approach of the behaviorists. Woodworth’s model proposed that the stimulus influences the organism to perform a certain action, but that the stimulus does not automatically elicit the response, “In order to predict the response, we must know not only the stimulus, but also the organism stimulated” (p. 226). He claimed that human motivations, as well as conscious decisions, play an important part in human behavior.
Woodworth published his Experimental Psychology in 1938, which replaced Titchener's outdated laboratory manuals. His book, sometimes known as the "Columbia Bible," became a standard manual in laboratory work for generations of experimental psychologists.
Woodworth belongs among the myriads of psychologists who left their mark on the field of psychology, but who never gained enough popularity to be remembered as great figures in the history of this science. His two constructs, however—the "dynamic" interactionist metaphor of nature vs. nurture, and the Stimulus-Organism-Response model—ensure that his name is never forgotten.
The books he wrote, including Psychology: A Study of Mental Life in 1921, and Experimental Psychology in 1938, became standard textbooks, used by generations of students in psychology.
Woodworth trained hundreds of undergraduate and graduate students. He mostly taught courses in physiological and experimental psychology but also lectured on various other subjects, including abnormal, social, introductory, and history of psychology. Two of his more prominent students include Albert T. Poffenberger and Edna Heidbreder.
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