Monitor on Psychology - February 2012 - (Page 20)

capsule tIme A-mazing research A look at the origins and continued use of the maze in psychological research. By DR. C. jAMES GooDWiN n his 1937 APA presidential address, the noted neobehavioist Edward Chace Tolman, PhD, made a startling claim: “Everything important in psychology … can be investigated in essence through the continued experimental and theoretical analysis of the determinants of rat behavior at a choice-point in a maze.” Even in its day, this was quite an assertion: psychology boils down to what makes a rat turn left or right in a maze. Tolman was known to overstate the case for effect, but the quote does say something about the importance of maze learning to psychological scientists in the 1930s. What are the origins of this iconic apparatus, and how did the maze come to be held in such esteem? Most historians agree that the animal maze was first developed at Clark University in the late 1890s, in the laboratory of Edmund Sanford, PhD, in a study by his graduate student, Willard Small. At about the same time, Edward Thorndike, of cats-in-puzzle-boxes fame, had been experimenting with baby chicks in maze-like devices (he called them “pens”) constructed by placing books on end in various configurations, but the Clark experiments were the first real maze studies. They launched a rats-in-mazes tradition that continues to this day. Home-finding The idea for the first maze study was sparked by a conversation between 20 I Sanford and another Clark graduate student, Linus Kline. Small and Kline were both interested in the then-new Darwin-inspired field of comparative psychology. They had been studying rats and were especially interested in what they called the rat’s “homefinding” ability. Kline told Sanford he had observed “runways … made by large feral rats to their nests under the porch of an old cabin on [his] father’s farm in Virginia.” When these runways were exposed during an excavation, their mazelike appearance immediately suggested to Sanford using the Hampton Court Maze design to study “home-finding.” At that time, the Hampton Court Maze in England was a popular tourist stop, arguably the world’s most famous hedge maze. It was part of the sprawling attraction of Hampton Court, just outside London, built as a home away from throne for the British royal family. Built in 1690, the maze consists of twists and turns and six-foot-tall hedges that continue to perplex visitors today. At the time of his conversation with Kline, Sanford had just returned from London; it is conceivable that he had visited the maze on that trip. Whatever the origins of Sanford’s suggestion, the Clark lab soon had its own mini-version of the Hampton Court Maze, redesigned slightly to make it rectangular instead of trapezoidal. The 6’ x 8’ maze had a wooden floor and wire mesh walls. Small became the lead researcher on the project when Kline had to step away for other research. In 1899, Small began his research, publishing his results two years later. This was a time when psychology was the science of mental life, so it is not surprising that Small described his maze study in “mentalistic” terms, rather than in the kind of language one might expect to read in a more modern “learning” study. So instead of reporting results in terms of error rates and time to completion, Small tried to infer what the rats were doing as they made their way through the maze. Although Small was criticized by Thorndike for being overly anthropomorphic, his results make for fascinating reading. For example, describing a rat almost making a wrong turn, he wrote that the rat “hesitated as if ‘scratching his head,’ then entered this [dead end path] slowly and doubtfully — only a few steps, however; then with a sudden turn and a triumphant flick of his tail he returned to the correct path” (Small, 1901). Despite the anthropomorphism, Small made important observations that were verified by subsequent studies. For instance, two of his rats were blind, yet they learned the maze just as easily as their sighted compatriots. Small’s conclusions that vision was not needed to learn the maze, and that learning resulted from “the gradual establishment of direct associations” between maze stimuli and motor responses (Small, 1901), were supported a few years later in a famous series of studies by behaviorism’s founder, John Watson. Maze learning turned out to be more complex than either Small or Watson thought, but Small’s work is M o n i t o r o n p s y c h o l o g y • F e b ru a ry 2 0 1 2

Table of Contents for the Digital Edition of Monitor on Psychology - February 2012

Monitor on Psychology - February 2012
President’s column
From the CEO
APA files two briefs in support of same-sex couples
New registry seeks to understand addiction recovery through ‘crowdsourcing’
APA launches a database of tests and measures
Watch for new member benefit: “APA Access”
Apply now for APA’s Advanced Training Institutes
PsycTHERAPY, APA’s new database, brings therapy demos to life
In Brief
APA scientists help guide tobacco regulation
A-mazing research
‘A machine for jumping to conclusions’
Judicial Notebook
Random Sample
Righting the imbalance
The beginnings of mental illness
Science Directions
Improving disorder classification, worldwide
Protesting proposed changes to the DSM
Interventions for at-risk students
Harnessing the wisdom of the ages
Anti-bullying efforts ramp up
Hostile hallways
R U friends 4 real?
Support for teachers
Speaking of Education
Record keeping for practitioners
Going green
At the intersection of law and psychology
Division Spotlight
Grants help solve society’s problems

Monitor on Psychology - February 2012