Brass-Instrument Site at the University of Toronto


The period of "Brass-Instrument Psychology" occupied the last decades of the 19th and the first of 20th century. Many devices were developed during that time to measure reaction times, psychophysical thresholds, visual and auditory perception, and other aspects of behavior. These devices usually operated without electrical power and were often constructed of brass. When B.F. Skinner speaks of using a "kymograph" in his early work, you can see here examples of what he was talking about.

John B. Watson's analysis of the claims about animal savants


In his 1914 textbook, Behavior: An Introduction to Comparative Psychology, behaviorist John B. Watson gave considerable coverage to some early celebrated cases of "animal savants," including "Clever Hans" and the "Horses of Elberfeld."


Watson's analysis was characteristically careful and empirical. Watson noted that the extravagant claims that horses and dogs had human-like intelligence did not stand up to empirical analysis. When the experiments were done carefully enough, the subtle cues were revealed that enabled the animals to give apparently correct answers to complex questions.


In the case of "Clever Hans," Oskar Pfungst's analysis indicated that the horse started and stopped tapping its hoof when the questioner changed posture in response to the horse's "answer." The analysis of the behavior of the Elberfeld Horses and some of the "talking dogs" was less satisfactory.


However, it was clear from the information available to Watson that the animals were not "intelligent," and their skills were significantly exaggerated as well. Watson's detailed analysis is quite helpful for understanding the degree of exaggeration because he reproduced the critical data. The Horses of Elberfeld, for instance, produced correct answers only about 10% of the time. This led Watson to conclude that the seemingly correct answers were not actually correct, but were lucky guesses or due to cuing. Like modern investigators of psychic phenomenon, such as James Randi, Watson was less than optimistic about the ability of most scientists to tease out the relevant variables.

B.F. Skinner's Pigeon-Guided Missile

Here is a somewhat fanciful, but not totally unreasonable, description of B.F. Skinner's work developing a pigeon-guided bomb during World War II. The person pictured is not actually Skinner, but an actor, and some of the details are wrong. (There were three pigeons in each missile, rather than one, and Skinner was at Indiana, not Harvard, during the project.)

More information and photographs can be found here and here.

Weird History: Unabomber unhappy because ABA is scientific

In a letter to the New York Times newspaper, the "Unabomber," Theodore Kaczynski, explained why he targeted "behavior modification/"

We have nothing against universities or scholars as such. All the university people whom we have attacked have been specialists in technical fields. (We consider certain areas of applied psychology, such as behavior modification, to be technical fields.) We would not want anyone to think that we have any desire to hurt professors who study archaeology, history, literature or harmless stuff like that. The people we are out to get are the scientists and engineers, especially in critical fields like computers and genetics...(New York Times, 4-26-1995, p. 1; boldface added)

The late James McConnell, a professor of psychology at the University of Michigan, was one of Kaczynski's targets. McConnell, the author of the highly successful introductory psychology textbook, Understanding Human Behavior, was sometimes labeled a "behaviorist" by the media. It is likely that Kaczynski, a University of Michigan student, had heard of McConnell and his promotion of "behavior modification." The bomb delivered to McConnell on June 15th, 1985 was opened by a student who was seriously injured but later recovered.

(Court TV Coverage)

Behavior Analysis Association of Michigan, Department of Psychology, Eastern Michigan University, Ypsilanti, MI 48197