Robert S. Woodworth bigraphy, stories - American psychologist

Robert S. Woodworth : biography

17 October 1869 - 4 July 1962
This article is about the psychologist; for the politician see Robert Woodworth.

Robert Sessions Woodworth (1869-1962) was an influential American academic psychologist of the first half of the twentieth century. He studied under William James along with such prominent psychologists as Leta Stetter Hollingworth, James Rowland Angell, and Edward Thorndike. A graduate of Harvard and Columbia, his textbook Psychology: A study of mental life, which appeared first in 1921, went through many editions and was the first introduction to psychology for generations of undergraduate students. His 1938 textbook of Experimental Psychology was scarcely less influential, especially in the 1954 second edition, written with Harold H. Schlosberg. He is known for introducing the Stimulus-Organism-Response (S-O-R) formula of behavior.

Academic life

Early research

Thorndike, who was now at Columbia, worked with Woodworth on the concept of transfer of training. These studies related to a significant issue of the time within education, as academics like James supported a “disciplinary subject” education under the assumption that the brain can be exercised. Many subjects like Latin were taught for their disciplinary value and not necessarily the subject matter. Woodworth and Thorndike empirically studied the benefits of a disciplinary education along with transfer of training and found no effect. However, as their contemporaries pointed out, they did not use a control group and, therefore, their studies had minimal value.Hothersall, D. (2004). History of Psychology. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill. In 1902, Woodworth accepted a fellowship to work with Charles Sherrington at the University of Liverpool. Sherrington and Cattell both offered him a job afterwards, and Woodworth accepted Cattell’s offer to study at Columbia, where he remained for the rest of his life.


Woodworth followed in Cattell’s footsteps in psychological testing and measurement. He first was in charge of a project where he tested about 1,100 people at the 1904 St. Louis Exposition. According to Hothersall, he took a “remarkably sensible and fair-minded position on racial differences in test performance” (p. 376).Hothersall, D. (2004). History of Psychology. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill. Woodworth emphasized that that labeling is based on alleged differences both internal (mental function and size) and external (skin color), making it difficult to compare them empirically. The characteristics are not equally measurable, and individual differences are very important, according to Woodworth, so experiments that claim to demonstrate sharp differences in races ignore overlap within a population. Additionally, Woodworth disagreed with the norm of the time with labeling civilizations as “primitive” or “advanced” because he noted that differences on the evolutionary time scale are likely minute to produce a mental status change.

In 1906, the American Psychological Association appointed Woodworth as part of a committee to study psychometrics. With the onset of World War I, APA asked Woodworth to assist them in trying to prevent what was then known as “shell shock”. He generated the Woodworth Personal Data Sheet (WPDS), which has been called the first personality test. It was a test of emotional stability to measure a soldier’s susceptibility based on existing cases of the disorder. Although the test was designed too late for it to be used operationally, the test was highly influential in the development of later personality inventories with measures of neuroticism.

Woodworth published Psychology: A study of mental life, which appeared first in 1921, and Experimental Psychology in 1938, which he worked on for nearly twenty years, and they became the definitive texts for thousands of psychology students.

Additionally, Woodworth published Contemporary Schools of Psychology in 1932. He described the history of psychology according to a view that differing schools of psychology are complementary and not incompatible. This tolerant, open-minded view was likely a result of his unique perspective of psychology, being part of the subject for nearly the entire fifty years of its existence. He was renowned for this contribution, later being known as the dean of American Psychology.

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