Frederic Bartlett (20 October 1886 – 30 September 1969) was a British psychologist and the first professor of experimental psychology at the University of Cambridge. He was one of the forerunners of cognitive psychology. Bartlett considered most of his own work on cognitive psychology to be a study in social psychology, but he was also interested in anthropology, moral science, philosophy, and sociology. Bartlett proudly referred to himself as a ‘Cambridge Psychologist’ because while he was at the University of Cambridge, settling for one type of psychology was not an option.
The ‘War of the Ghosts’ experiment from Remembering(1932) was Bartlett’s most famous study and demonstrated the constructive nature of memory. A memory is constructive when a person gives their opinion about what had happened in the memory, along with additional influences such as their experiences, knowledge, and expectations.
In the experiment, Bartlett assigned his Edwardian English participants to read the Canadian Indian Folklore titled ‘War of the Ghosts’. Participants were told to remember the story at extended intervals numerous times. Bartlett found that at longer intervals between reading the story and remembering it, participants were less accurate and forgot much of the information from the story. Most importantly, where the elements of the story failed to fit into the schemata of the listener, these elements were omitted from the recollection, or transformed into more familiar forms. Each participant’s report of the story mirrored his or her own culture, Edwardian English culture in this case. An example of this can be demonstrated by some of these participants remembering ‘canoes’ from the story as ‘boats’.
In 1922, Bartlett was chosen as Director of Psychological Laboratory in Cambridge and awarded a Chair in Experimental Psychology in 1931. The same year he published Remembering (1932), Bartlett became a Fellow of the Royal Society. In 1944, Bartlett became the Director of the Unit for Research in Applied Psychology. Bartlett’s contributions during World War II granted him CBE in 1941 and awarded him medals from The Royal Society in 1943. He was appointed honoris causa by the University of Athens in 1937, Princeton in 1947, and the University of London and the University of Louvain in 1949. In 1948, Bartlett delivered the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures on The Mind at Work and Play. This also marked the year Bartlett was knighted for services to the Royal Air Force, on the basis of his wartime work in applied psychology. In 1950, Bartlett was awarded Presidency at the British Psychological Society.
After his retirement in 1951, Bartlett continued receiving honoris causa from various universities. In 1952, he was awarded the Royal Medal and the Longacre Award of the Aeromedical Association. Between 1952 and 1963, National Psychological Societies of Spain, Sweden, Italy, Turkey, and Switzerland elected him as an honorary member. He was recognised by the International Experimental Psychology Society in 1958 and was selected by The North American National Academy of Science and the North American Academy of Arts to be a foreign associate member in 1959. Today, the UK Ergonomics Society awards a Bartlett medal in his honour, and the Experimental Psychology Society holds an annual Bartlett Lecture.
Published: 02 May 2015
Last updated: 22 October 2016
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