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Eye on Psi Chi: Spring 2019


Eye on Psi Chi

Spring 2019 | Volume 23 | Issue 3

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Why You Should Care About the History of Psychology, With Cathy Faye, PhD

Cathy Faye, PhD,
Cumming Center for the History of Psychology

Joseph Dycus,
University of Tennessee at Chattanooga

https://doi.org/10.24839/2164-9812.Eye23.3.18

View this issue in Digital and PDF formats.

Psychology is a fascinating world to explore, with hundreds of subfields and thousands of topics to research. Have you ever wondered how psychology became the enormous discipline that it is today? Have you ever been curious about the famous studies of yesteryear, like the Milgram or Stanford experiments? Studying the history of psychology is a complicated endeavor, and anyone who wants to try would probably need some guidance.

Dr. Cathy Faye, at the University of Akron (OH), wants to offer some assistance. As the assistant director at the Cummings Center for the History of Psychology, she has dedicated her life to preserving psychology’s history. The Center recently opened the first-ever National Museum of Psychology in the United States, and features the world’s largest archival repository of psychology related historical documents, media, and artifacts. If you want to know why the history of psychology is an important subject, then Cathy Faye has the answers.

The Importance of the History of Psychology
Why is it important to know and understand the history of psychology?

There are so many reasons. Most importantly, understanding psychology’s history helps us see psychology in context. As researchers, students, clinicians, and teachers, it’s really easy to forget that our work is produced in very specific human and social contexts, and that our work has a very visible impact on society. History and hindsight make it a lot easier to see this, to see how our psychology might serve some audiences and not serve others. So when I explore the history of psychology, it encourages me to think about the psychology we do now and ask who it serves and who it leaves out. It also makes me think about how my own worldview impacts how I think about the psychology that I practice.

How has psychology changed over the years?

The biggest change in psychology in the last century has been specialization. Not only do we now work in subfields, but we work in subfields of subfields. For instance, we have social cognition, which is a hybrid of social psychology and cognitive psychology. I think that this is really wonderful in many ways, and I believe that this specialization helps us to work very intensely on important problems. But it also makes it more difficult to build bridges in between different areas. This is because each area has its own language, its own history, its own approaches. How will future historians view this era of psychology? Right now, we’re in an era of self-reflection. We’ve been forced to be reflective to some extent with certain things like the replication crisis, and controversy over ethical codes. There’s a lot of questions about data and research methods, and lately, a lot of discussion of the political ideology that guides psychology. There’s this idea that a dominance of liberal ideology changes the kinds of things that we study in psychology. Of course, we’ve actually gone through periods of self-reflection like this before. In the 1970s, there was a crisis in psychology, and there’s been other really interesting periods of history like this as well.

About Museum Exhibits
What is your role at the museum and how did you get involved?

I’m the assistant director of the museum. Everyone who works here does a little bit of everything, but my main job is to work with people who want to donate materials to our collection. As for how I became involved with the museum? I helped create it essentially. In 2013 we started planning sessions for the new museum. Our whole staff was involved in that, and we just sat down and thought a lot about what we wanted to do with the museum. I led the project from there, coordinating with the design team, the creative consultants, and our staff. I also wrote all of the exhibit text for the museum. So as a group, we chose the exhibits, and I wrote the text and storylines for the chosen exhibits. It was a fantastic time—can you think of a better job for a historian of psychology?

What is the creepiest thing that has been done because of, or in the name of, psychological science?

I don’t know if creepy is the right word, but the one that stays with me the most is probably the study of a chimpanzee called Gua in the 1930s. Two psychologists— Winthrop M. Kellogg and Luella Kellogg—decided to home-raise a chimpanzee. So they brought a chimpanzee named Gua into their home. The chimpanzee was seven and a half months old, and their son Donald was 10 months. The story is quite a sad one. They kept Gua for nine months, and then Gua was taken back to a primate colony, and Donald was raised on his own. This chimpanzee was sort of his best friend for a year and then he was gone. They did learn about some of the differences between chimpanzee and human learning and development. But this is one of those studies where I question whether the risk was worth the scientific reward, and that’s a question that I think about a lot in the psychological sciences. To what extent do the results justify any kind of harm experienced by participants?

What are some of the more popular exhibits that you can find in the museum?

I would say that it depends on the visitor. Psychologists and psychology students are most interested in the classic studies. They love to come in and see documents, objects, and photos from the Stanford Prison Experiment and also Milgram’s studies of obedience. The general public on the other hand, seems most interested in the section of the museum that covers the history of mental healthcare. That exhibit looks at the history of mental healthcare from the 1700s to the 1980s, and we talk about different approaches to treatment. These include early lunatic asylums, the beginning of electroshock therapy and lobotomy, and the beginning of talk therapy. But everyone, no matter their background, loves interactives. The interactives are fun, but also, everyone wants to know more about themselves. I think that’s why personality tests and IQ tests are so popular on Facebook and the Internet more generally. People want to know more about themselves. And I think that’s what we’re observing at the museum because our interactives give them a chance to test themselves and learn about themselves.

What is one of the more interesting artifacts that you’ve gotten at the museum?

I will tell you about my favorite object that I think goes unnoticed, something called a psycograph. The psycograph was invented in the 1930s and is based on an older pseudoscience called phrenology. Phrenology was the idea, popularized in the 19th century, that you could tell a person’s personality by feeling the bumps on the person’s skull. Well, in the 1930s, these two brothers, who were not psychologists but rather inventors and gadgeteers, decided to make some money off of this and created an electronic phrenology machine called the psycograph. And it actually works! Wires on the machine measure the bumps and indentations on your skull, and it provides an automatic read-out of your personality based on the machine’s reading of the skull. It’s a really interesting device, even if you don’t know what you’re looking at. And I think that it’s a fantastic teaching device. I use it all the time with my students, to explore ideas of science versus pseudoscience, and the popularization of science, and all of these other things.

How would you define pseudoscience in psychology?

I don’t really like the idea of calling something pseudoscience and something else real science. I think that science comes in all shades of black, white, and grey, you know? But when I’m with my students, I say that when you’re doing science, you have to be able to put forward hypotheses that can be disconfirmed. For example, if you think about phrenology, it was really hard to disprove. But that’s what these traveling phrenology readers kind of banked on. They’d travel around the country and say, “This is what your phrenology reading says,” and people would see things in that phrenology reading that they felt were true about themselves. So it was a science that was much more amenable to confirming than disconfirming, and to me that’s one of the things that leans toward pseudoscience rather than science. But I’d like for students to think of it as a very important precursor to things that we know now. Brain localization is a good example. One of the things that we have in the Museum is Roger Sperry’s Nobel Prize, which he won for research on the brain. Phrenology made many questionable assumptions, and I think that it became a bit bastardized as it became a traveling, money-making scheme, but it really was quite relevant to early research on brain localization, and later research, like Sperry’s. We know that language lies in this area of the brain, and creativity in that area, and I think that phrenology was sort of inching us toward that sort of understanding of the brain. Everything serves a purpose in history. Sometimes good, sometimes bad, but it’s all part of the web.

How do you choose what to feature in the museum?

I think that anytime you decide to tell the story of anything, you have to do it purposefully. You have to understand that you’re going to take a point of view, and that you’re going to include some things and leave out other things. There’s too many stories to tell for there to be one story of psychology, and who would want to be the one to purport to tell it? So instead, we sat down and thought, “What do we want to accomplish with this museum?” One of the things that we wanted to accomplish was to encourage people to see the breadth of psychology. Anyone in psychology knows that when you tell somebody who isn’t familiar with the field that you’re studying psychology, they automatically assume that you can read their mind, or that you’re going to become a clinical psychologist or therapist. So one thing that we wanted to do was show people that psychology is a whole bunch of different things. The other thing that we wanted to do was to encourage people to think of psychology as part of their everyday lives. So we have exhibits on Wonder Woman and her connection to the history of psychology. We have exhibits on how psychology has been used in advertising, in employee selection, and even how it was used at Ellis Island to determine whether immigrants were going to be able to get into the country. And I don’t want to underestimate the fact that we also decided to “give the people what they want.” So like I said before, many psychology students come in here to see classic psychology studies, so we definitely wanted to include the Stanford experiment, the Milgram experiment, the so called “best hits” of psychology. So we included those too. They’re such an important part of psychology’s story.

How can students who don’t go to Akron access the materials at the museum?

If people are interested in certain documents or images, we do have an offsite reference service. You can look at guides to our collections online and decide if you’re interested in certain things, and our archivist will work with people remotely and scan materials for you to see. And we are starting to work on online exhibits. But we really do hope that people can make their way here because it’s hard to “get it” until you see it. We know that it’s difficult sometimes for people to visit, but we hope that they do. We work with on-site classes; they can tour the museum and then we do an activity with them in the archives. We also go to the APA convention every year, and we bring materials from our collections to the convention.

Dr. Faye’s Early Career
How did you get started as a psychologist?

When I started in history of psychology, I was initially interested in how the subfield of American social psychology was established. Kind of basic questions: who were the first social psychologists, and what did they study? One of the things I was very interested in was how North American social psychology came to be the way it is, because it’s very different from the European or South American subfield of social psychology. So that’s where my research began. In the course of doing that research, I found myself in a lot of different archives around the United States, and much of my research after that came from unexpected archival discoveries. One of my colleagues aptly calls this “going down the rabbit hole.”

What mentors helped you along the way?

I think that mentors are extremely important, and I’ve been lucky to have mentors at every stage of my career. When I was in undergrad, my thesis advisor was Donald Sharpe. He is a generalist and he taught me to be a generalist. I’ve always enjoyed being a learner, but he taught me how to be my own kind of learner, to explore the things that interested me, and to believe in myself as someone who could go to graduate school to get a PhD. During graduate school, my advisor was Christopher Green, a very well-known historian of the history of psychology. He’s the one who taught me that being a historian is hard but rewarding work, and he introduced me to the joys of archival research. That kind of determined a lot of what I did during and then after graduate school. I’m currently working with the director of the Museum, David Baker. What I’m learning from him is leadership skills, which is something that I’ve never really had to develop until I started this job. I think that people need to and can find a great mentor at every stage of their career.

Final Remarks and Advice
Do you have any advice for aspiring psychologists or students who may be interested in the field?

I think that you really need to find the area of psychology that makes you want to stay up all night reading, researching, and exploring. I think that’s the most important thing. And I think students need to seek out a good mentor. It’s important to find someone who you believe in and who believes in you. Learn everything you can from them, because academia can be a difficult space to navigate, and I think that it’s much easier to navigate when you have a really good mentor.


Cathy Faye, PhD, is the assistant director at the Cummings Center for the History of Psychology at the University of Akron in Akron, Ohio. She received a PhD in psychology from York University in Toronto, Canada, where she specialized in the history of psychology. She has presented and published on a variety of topics, including the study of rumor during World War II, the disciplinary history of American social psychology, and the history of morale and attitude research during wartime. In 2018, she led the design and installation of the exhibits at the Center’s newly opened National Museum of Psychology. She is the recipient of the Early Career Award from the American Psychological Association’s Society for the History of Psychology and will serve as President of the Society in 2019. In her free time, Cathy enjoys running, biking, swimming, and a good cup of coffee.

Copyright 2019 (Vol. 23, Iss. 3) Psi Chi, the International Honor Society in Psychology

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