Ulric Neisser, Social Cognitive Psychologist


I knew Dick Neisser mostly at a distance, through his writings, but we were connected in several ther ways. Martin Orne was my major advisor in graduate school, and Neisser wrote Cognitive Psychology while on sabbatical at Orne's laboratory, the Unit for Experimental Psychiatry. Dick and Martin had overlapped at Harvard, and Dick had also been advisor to Emily Carota Orne, Martin's wife, when she was a graduate student at Brandeis. Emily also worked at the Unit, and became a major influence on me (both thinking and writing), so now I can count Neisser as part of my own intellectual lineage. Still, we didn't actually meet until 1982, when I gave a colloquium at Cornell. Before that, he had given a nice review in Science to a book, Functional Disorders of Memory (1979), which I co-edited with F.J. Evans (another member of Martin's lab, and another major influence on me). But we did not meet until 1983, when I gave a colloquium at Cornell. Later, he invited me to participate in one of the conferences on the self he organized as part of the Emory Cognition Project. That, unfortunately, was the extent of my personal contact.


The Concept of "Schema"

I encountered Cognitive Psychology for the first time as a first-year graduate student at Penn in 1970, where there were not, as yet, any formal courses -- never mind a formal program -- in cognitive psychology. But cognitive psychology was in the air, with the work in Dick Solomon's lab on predictability and controllability in animal learning (Bob Rescorla, Marty Seligman, et al.), and some early cognitive neuropsychology by Paul Rozin, Burt Rosner, and others. As I embarked on my studies of hypnosis and memory, Martin insisted that I read it first thing. Dick's embrace of Bartlett's constructivist view of memory (and of perception, too) appealed to me.

And then there was that very first chapter, where he baldly stated the case for psychology as an independent science, not just "something to do until the biochemist comes", and a point to remember when biological reductionism comes knocking at the door -- as indeed it is doing today.

Finally, there was the very wide scope of the book, which went way beyond "human information processing". And that, of course, reflected his own interests, which verged into clinical, personality and social psychology, always with a cognitive touch, as reflected in his conferences at Emory, and subsequent anthologies, on The Perceived Self (1994), The Remembering Self (1994, note the verb, with its homage to Bartlett), and The Conceptual Self in Context (1997). He wasn't just a cognitive psychologist. He was a psychologist, period. We don't make too many like that anymore: today's students seem more and more narrowly specialized (my former colleqgue Ken Forster once quipped that he knew students in psycholinguistics who were so focused on word perception that they didn't know what a sentence was). That is our loss as well.

In Cognitive Psychology, Neisser devoted a lot of attention to the concept of "schema" -- especially in his last chapter on memory, citing Bartlett. The Unit was, technically, in the Psychiatry Department at Penn; Martin rarely missed a Psychiatry (or Psychology) colloquium, and he always took the senior people in the laboratory along with him, so it is likely that Neisser attended at least some of these, and got to know some of the other Psychiatry faculty. Among these other faculty was Aaron T. (Tim) Beck, whose book on Depression also was written at Penn, and was also published in 1967, and also made great use of the schema concept. A pretty interesting coincidence, I think, and one worthy of remarking on as an example of the cross-fertilization between psychiatry and psychology.

The only problem is that it's not clear that they ever discussed schemata with each other. I had the opportunity to query Beck about this matter once, and he said that he had no idea at the time that Neisser was thinking about schemata. Unfortunately, I never posed the same question to Neisser himself.

Now it's entirely possible thatBeck and Neisser simply drew on the schema concept independently of each other. Bartlett was certainly in the background of Neisser's work, if not Beck's, and there was also Piaget, whose work would have been known to both of them. What saves the cross-fertilization idea is that Neisser also cites Ernest Schachtel's essay "On Memory and Childhood Amnesia" (reprinted in his Metamorphosis), which is an absolutely beautiful piece of writing. Schachtel was a psychoanalyst (one of the more interesting ones, too) and Beck's original training was as a psychoanalyst (Depression actually marked his apostasy). Moreover, I.H. Paul (1959) had published an extensive series of "Bartlettian" studies in Psychological Issues, the house organ of psychoanalyic ego psychology, so it is entirely possible that both of them had read Schachtel, or Paul, and independently picked up on the schema concept.


Ecological Memory

Neisser's colleagial relationship with James and Eleanor Gibson led to his 1978 ecological critique of memory research. Just as Gibson wanted to connect perception to the real world of objects and events, Neisser wanted to study memory in the real world. Just as perception connects us to the real world of the present, so memory connects us to the real world of the past. But Neisser doubted that we were going to learn much about memory from laboratory studies of nonsense syllables and wordlists. Here, I think, he was mistaken, and said so in my 1996 paper on "Memory Research: The Convergence of Theory and Practice". Almost necessarily, studies of everyday memory lose control over some aspect of encoding, storage, or retrieval. And I still can't think of a principle of memory research that wasn't discovered, or clearly demonstrated, by laboratory research of the usual verbal-learning sort.

A case in point is Bartlett's concept of schema. While it's true that, before about 1978, memory researchers hadn't been very Bartlettian, once the "Bartlett revival" got going (beginning, I think it's fair to say, with Gordon Bower's studies of story memory) there were lots of studies that used conventional verbal-learning paradigms to reveal Bartlettian processes at work. I'm thinking, for example, Hastie and Kumar (1979), who used very conventional verbal-learning methods to solve the puzzle of schema-dependency. Even earlier, there was Bransford and Franks's (1971) work on the semantic integration effect; Bower's own work on point of view effects; and Loftus's studies of the post-event misinformation effect. Later, there was Roediger and McDermott's (1995) work on the associative memory illusion. These were the studies that led to establishment of the Reconstruction Principle in memory. It was Bartlett's idea, long dormant in cognitive psychology, but his own research was unconvincing. The really convincing work came straight out of the verbal-learning paradigms that both Bartlett and Neisser distrusted.

But it would be too much to say that "everyday memory" was "bankrupt", as Banaji and Crowder (1989)did in their rather ungenerously titled paper. Neisser was onto something, which is that memory connects us to the world, and especially to the world of other people -- that there was a social psychology of memory as well as a cognitive psychology that ignored the social.


Cognitive and Social Psychology

Frankly, I wasn't too thrilled with Neisser's 1976 book, Cognition and Reality when it came out, because I read him as backing away from constructivism. But I did like his depiction of the perceptual cycle, and still teach it to my students in my Introductory Psychology class, and its title did give us a nice aphorism: "Perception is where cognition and reality meet".

Still, Neisser's turn toward Gibson's ecological view of perception shows another aspect of his cross-fertilization. Although Cognitive Psychology was focused on internal information-processing, Neisser always understood that minds were part of people, and people were part of the world -- and especially the world of other people. And by "world", he meant the social world of self and others, and institutions and cultures, as well as the physical world of objects and events.

He went too far, in my view, in so totally embracing Gibson, because Gibson argued that all the information for perception is to be found in the stimulus -- and I think that's death for psychology, especially cognitive psychology. (In fact, after a couple of drinks, I've been known to argue that Gibson, Skinner, and the classical psychophysicists were all part of a secret karass (apologies to Kurt Vonnegut), linked by the view that you really could have a stimulus-response theory of behavior after all. But I digress). For my money, Neisser would have done better just by embracing social psychology, which -- again, in my view -- is expressly concerned with the relations between internal mental structures and processes and the structures and processes in the external social world. And, in fact, he did do that, to some extent, and was doing it early on.

For example, in his 1962 essay on "Cultural and Cognitive Discontinuity" (a real gem, published in an undeservedly obscure book), he broke with Schachtel, who had focused on the internal mental changes associated with the "five-to-seven shift" (from preoperational thought to concrete operations, if you're Piaget; from the phallic stage to the latency period, if you're Freud -- which is what Schachtel had in mind), and pointed out the dramatic contextual changes that children undergo at this same time. For example, this is when children begin school, and enter a world which is, for the first time, spatially and temporally structured (Monday-Friday are different from Saturday and Sunday, there's school and home, vacations, etc.), that provide the child, for the first time, with temporal and spatial markers on which the hang memories). So, to put it bluntly, you can't understand childhood amnesia just by looking at the child's information-processing capacities, and the "encoding specificity"-like incompatibility between the childhood schemata in which memories were encoded, and the adult schemata by which their retrieval was attempted (Schachtel's brilliant idea). You've got to look at the world outside the mind. The discontinuity that creates childhood amnesia isn't cognitive -- it's cultural.But you don't have to be a Gibsonian to understand this. All you have to be is a social psychologist.

Another example was Neisser's work on flashbulb memories, as exemplified by his "Flashbulbs or Benchmarks?" paper of 1982. Almost everybody else studying flashbulb memories focused on internal mental processes -- like the "flashbulb" mechanism itself, or depth of processing, or the effects of emotion on encoding, or even just the effects of rehearsal gained by telling a story over and over again. But Neisser thought about the role of such memories in personal life and social exchange -- "where were you when the Challenger exploded or the World Trade Center came down?). Even more important, Neisser thought that flashbulb memories had their qualities because they served as benchmarks by which people divided up their autobiographies, and connected their personal stories to public history. Either way, the important thing about flashbulb memories was the role they played in the individual's personal and social life -- what I call The Human Ecology of Memory.

And then, of course, there was his involvement in the dispute over "false memory syndrome" and recovered memories of childhood abuse. Here Neiser was a true Bartlettian (and not very much of a Gibsonian), emphasizing the role of knowledge, beliefs, and expectations in remembering -- beliefs and expectations that, in part, are created through the social interaction between the individual and a therapist, and between the individual and his or her surrounding culture.

Some have said that Neisser was the father of cognitive psychology -- though he himself, in his contribution to The History of Psychology in Autobiography (2007), claimed only to be its "godfather". Whatever the case, it is true that he literally wrote the book. But by expressly linking cognition to the world, especially to the world of people, he was not "just" a cognitive psychologist. Many social psycholoists who embrace the cognitive point of view identify themselves as cognitive social psychologists. Dick Neisser was the other thing: a social cognitive psychologist.