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Biography

Professor of Psychology, Emeritus, University of Tennessee, Knoxville
William S. Verplanck photo
“Happy Jack”

Raised in a suburb of New York City, Verplanck completed his B.S. (1937) and M.S. (1938) at the University of Virginia, studying with Geldard and Spence. He took his Ph.D. (1941) at Brown, with Graham, going directly to the Naval Medical Research Laboratory at the Sub Base in New London, Connecticut. There, he worked on visual problems in the Submarine Service. At war’s end, he joined the Department at Indiana University, acting part-time as Assistant Department Head to both B.F. Skinner and J.R. Kantor. In the summer of 1950, he was a member of the group at Dartmouth that produced the book Modern Learning Theory. He then began a five-year appointment at Harvard, where he was profoundly influenced by S.S. Stevens, and not at all by E.G. Boring. He spent his sabbatical with Tinbergen, then at Oxford, and visited other ethologists, including Lorenz, Baerends, and Hinde. After a year at Stanford University and one of travel that included further work with Tinbergen and his group, Verplanck stayed at Hunter College for two years, then went to the University of Maryland for four, and finally to the University of Tennessee, for a term as Head. He stayed until his retirement in 1981. Summer Schools found him in still other Departments, e.g., the Universities of Washington and of Wisconsin.

Ceci n'est pas une pipeDuring World War II, night vision and lookout training/evaluation gave Verplanck experience in field research. Work on psychophysical judgment followed; he showed that successive psychological judgments are not independent of one another, as theory dictated. Evaluation of Skinner’s work led to pioneering research on operant conditioning of humans and on the “thinking” behaviors that lead observation into action. Verplanck also worked to introduce ethological method and thinking to American psychologists. His “Glossary of Terms” (1957) facilitated communication between ethologists and behavior theorists. This in turn led to analysis of experimental research in terms of the decisions made in its design and in its execution. Since retiring he has been preparing a Glossary/Thesaurus of Psychological Terms aimed at clarifying the language of psychological theory and research and embodying the current scientific status of psychology. Listed in Who’s Who; founder, Psychonomic Society.

Membership on so varied a set of faculties exposed Verplanck to an unusually broad range of people, problems, and ideas. He profited by contact with many of the greatest contributors of mid-century psychologists, including the greatest: Jacob Robert Kantor. His research interests have hence been correspondingly diverse. The most important influences on his career may have been Kantor, Skinner, Tinbergen, and Stevens, in that order.

“The history of psychology is largely constituted of a succession of fads overlying the continuity given by a few technological methods which have been progressively misapplied with little critical concern for their social, political, or scientific consequences. Can any person, working over a period of fifty years, make a difference?”

W.S.V. Who’s Who in America, 43rd-51st Ed., incl.

To learn more:

William S. Verplanck” a short biography by Gordon M. Burghardt and published in EJOBA

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