Prescriptions for Fame in the History of Psychology

W. Scott Terry, Ph.D.
University of North Carolina at Charlotte


The present note describes a set of principles for becoming a famous psychologist. “Fame” in the present case does not simply mean literature citations, name recognition, or (these days) tenure. Rather, I am referring to a more enduring notoriety that will ensure one a place in future histories of psychology.

Most of us engage in various scholarly and professional endeavors, believing somehow these are traits of a good psychologist. As necessary as research and publication are to eventual success, these activities are not sufficient. After all, many are published but only a few are long remembered. This suggests some other qualities are also required The difficulty is in determining what those qualities are that do lead an individual to be long remembered by succeeding generations. Possibly developing major theories, or new conceptualizations of the human psyche, are the keys to fame. But these are all rather nebulous and vague prescriptions, and may not be useful in guiding our everyday behavior.

What is needed is a set of behavioral guidelines, explicitly stating the requirements for historical fame. One source for these potential qualities is to look at our historical past for some hints. The present approach, using correlational and case study methods, is to look for common features in the professional lives of the early psychologists described in typical History and Systems texts. The assumption made is that there are certain attributes they possessed in common which set these individuals apart from others of their time, and which assured their eventual inclusion in the various histories of psychology.

Below are listed the prescriptions that became apparent after reading several standard history of psychology sources (e.g., R.I. Watson’s Great Psychologists, the History of Psychology in Autobiography series, Hilgard’s American Psychology in Historical Perspective). The psychologists described in these books obviously had what it takes to become famous, and thus should represent a valid source of information. The consistencies observed in the past may serve as guidelines for the future. Thus, if the reader were to conform their life to the following rules, then eventual and lasting fame can virtually be assured. The dozen factors uncovered so far are as follows:

  1. Be a graduate student under Wundt. Many of Wundt’s students went on to become well-known figures, including Kulpe, Krapelin, Titchener, Spearman, and Cattell. At least five early APA presidents were Wundt Ph.D.’s, and a few others did postdoctoral work under him.
  2. Don’t be a Wundt student. All of the psychologists described in History and Systems texts can be divided into two categories: those that were Wundt students, and those that were not.
  3. Read William James’ Principles of Psychology. The autobiographies of many great psychologists attest to their having read James as determining their choice of psychology as a career. Some early readers include Watson, Angel, Thorndike, Skinner, Hull, and even James himself. However, it is not clear whether the Principles contain valuable bits of information, or instead demonstrate the traits of stamina and perseverance.
  4. Have something named after you. The “something” could be almost anything related to Psychology, but this rule will especially serve to keep your name on the tips-of-the-tongues of succeeding generations of students. Examples of the things to bear your namesake include: psychological effects (e.g., Zeigarnik and von Restorff); illusions (remember Müller-Lyer? Necker? Ponzo?); laws (such as the Weber-Fechner, Jost, and Yerkes-Dodson laws); a piece of laboratory apparatus (the famed Skinner box, Lashley III maze, or the Dodge pendulum photochronograph); a mental test (Rorschach, WISC); a statistical test (Spearman’s rho or Pearson’s r).

Finally, one might consider getting a building named after yourself (like William James Hall at Harvard). This may work even better than any of the others mentioned above. After all, isn’t it more likely that someone will stumble over your name on a building than on a book in the building?

  1. Be born during the years 1860-1880. A simple count of birth years listed in one History and Systems text reveals an inverted-U shaped function, peaking during the years 1860 – 1880. Very few were born before 1800 and fewer still after 1940. If I were to pick a single year, it would probably have to be 1886 (Tolman, Guthrie, Koffka).
  2. Have a nervous breakdown. Whether this should be properly labeled a mental breakdown (Galton), an existential crisis (James), or a behavioral disorder (Watson) probably depends on your theoretical leanings.
  3. Be the First. The first person to do something. Such as starting the first laboratory (Wundt or James); the first psychologist elected to the National Academy of Sciences (Pierce or Cattell); the first president of APA (G. Stanley Hall); the first president of a new University (Hall at Clark); the first American Ph.D. in psychology (Hall); found the first American journal of psychology (you guessed it, Hall).
  4. Don’t be female. While being male gives no assurance of success, few females have so far gotten their names into the textbooks. However, this handicap can be overcome by complying with some of the other prescriptions given here. For example, by having an effect named after oneself (Zeigarnik or von Restorff), or being the “first” at something (Mary Whiton Calkins was the first woman APA president, while Margaret Floy Washburn was Titchener’s first Ph.D. student).
  5. Get a degree from Harvard of Columbia (before 1930) or Yale (anytime). (The latter reflects a personal bias.) These three schools have contributed 35 APA presidents. Although Harvard may lead the list in the number of famous graduates (e.g., James, Calkins, Angel, Holt, Tolman, Thorndike, and Yerkes were undergrad or graduate students there), one would expect such a diploma mill to turn out a few good people just by chance.
  6. First consider theology as a profession. Several early     psychologists attended theological schools (Hall and Ladd), and others report having contemplated the ministry before choosing psychology (Hull and Watson).
  7. Be an experimental psychologists. If the past is any guide to the future, then the traditional areas of experimental psychology are the places to be. Apart from some discussion of psychoanalysis, most fields of clinical-personality-social psychology are underrepresented in the history texts. Granted, there are few jobs these days in experimental psychology. But this should only help reduce the competition for future success.
  8. Be the subject of a famous psychological study. If you can’t make it as a famous psychologist, why not try to be a famous subject? When a sample of graduating psych majors were asked to name three important historical figures, their answers were Freud, Skinner, and Little Albert. And who will ever forget the multiple personalities of Eve or Sybil? Footnotes in the texts now tell us that Freud’s “Anno O” was really Bertha Pappenheim.
  9. Write papers on How To Become Famous. I offer this as a tentative and undocumented prescription that (hopefully) will be something of a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Deriving these initial principles is only a first step. Further research is needed to demonstrate more fully their validity. One test of these principles would be to find some past psychologists who actually satisfied several of these guidelines, and yet were not ever famous. Alternatively, one could set up a control condition of contemporary psychologists who are not destined to be remembered, and see if they fit any of the prescriptions mentioned above. This approach may involve some ethical questions, and I suspect few would want to volunteer for such a study. However, since the prescriptions listed above are based on a critical group of distinguished psychologists, I would suggest the guidelines be accepted as working principles until more research is conducted.

© Copyright 1984 Wry-Bred Press, Inc./Glenn Ellenbogen. All rights reserved.

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