The following text is © 1997 Robert Wozniak. All hyperlinked text links to footnotes located at the bottom of the document.

John Frederick Dashiell and the Fundamentals of Objective Psychology

Robert H. Wozniak
Bryn Mawr College

Born in Southport, Indiana in 1888, John F. Dashiell (1888-1975) was the ninth child in a family of twelve. [1] His father was a Methodist minister, his mother an active contributor to the work of the Methodist foreign and home missionary societies. Although his parents were not "literalists," "both...were strong in their faith;" [2] and his childhood was a happy one, spent in reading, study, athletics, and the myriad activities that take place in large, closely knit families.

Upon graduation from the Indianapolis area public schools, he entered Moores Hill (later Evansville) College where he found sufficient inspiration in his respective coursework in biology and literary studies to work toward two bachelor's degrees, one in science (1908), the other in literature (1909). After receiving the second degree, Dashiell accepted a scholarship for graduate work and enrolled at Columbia University.

In 1909, Columbia was one of two major centers of American functionalist thought[3]. As Boring has pointed out, functionalism at Columbia was more permissive than prescriptive. The prevailing attitude held that psychology:

" with persons, complete organisms whose conduct is the most obvious thing about them...You can bring... consciousness in when it is relevant, but you can also leave it out when you think it is unimportant, when you do not know what it is like, and when you are convinced that no consciousness is functioning in what you have under scrutiny. Functionalism is a home for the unconscious. The functionalist often makes use of his freedom to ignore consciousness and to bring in movement as an immediate datum of psychology. Then association of ideas gives way to association among data, to association of ideas with movement, of stimulation with movement. Then, too, behaviorism becomes one kind of functional psychology." [4]

With its strong inclination toward objectivism, interest in tests and measurements, and concern with the application of psychological knowledge, the Psychology Department at Columbia mirrored the interests of its founder, James McKeen Cattell (1860-1944). As early as 1904, in a lecture presented to the St. Louis Congress of Arts and Science, Cattell had outlined his functionalist conception:

"I am not convinced that psychology should be limited to the study of consciousness as such...[T]he rather widespread notion that there is no psychology apart from introspection is refuted by the brute argument of accomplished fact...The time of mental processes, the accuracy of perception and movement, the range of consciousness, fatigue, and practice, the motor accompaniments of thought, memory, the association of ideas, the perception of space, color-vision, preferences, judgments, individual differences, the behavior of animals and of children, these and other topics I have investigated, without requiring the slightest introspection on the part of the subject or undertaking such on my own part during the course of the experiments. It is usually no more necessary for the subject to be a psychologist than for the vivisected frog to be a physiologist." [5]

Although by the time Dashiell arrived in New York, Cattell had become much more deeply engaged in editorial work and in academic politics than in empirical research, he was still pursuing the study of individual differences among scientists; and, as a graduate student, Dashiell had the opportunity to assist Cattell in editorial work that led eventually to the third edition of American Men of Science.[6]

At Columbia, Dashiell was also exposed to three others who rank among America's great functionalists: Robert Sessions Woodworth (1869-1962), Edward Lee Thorndike ((1874-1949), and John Dewey (1859-1952). Experimental and physiological psychology were under Woodworth's direction. At the time, Woodworth had just revised Ladd's Elements of Physiological Psychology[7] and was already at work on lectures that were to serve as a basis for his classic Experimental Psychology,[8] a text that would define the field for generations. Dashiell later recalled the value of his coursework with Woodworth in the following terms: "A full forty years later when I offered a lecture course in physiological psychology at the University of California at Los Angeles...I found my Columbia course was a surprisingly solid pier from which to throw a bridge to span that great time interval." [9]

During Dashiell's student days at Columbia, Woodworth was also developing a dynamic psychology of motivation. [10] The question was not only one of mechanism, "how we do a thing," but one of drive, "what induces us to do it." [11] The extent to which Dashiell profited from Woodworth's thinking in this regard is indicated by the emphasis, unusual for the 1920's, that he placed on motivation in his own later work. Indeed, as he recalled it:

"With such a machine-like framework [in the S-R formulation] the problem of what makes it operate so as to move and act like a living being became a real problem...I was insistent upon going all the way back and identifying tissue conditions within the organism [e.g., stomach contractions in hunger] which gave rise to intra-organic stimulations which excited the organism to overt activity...when the organism in its activity came upon a situation (as food) in which the tissue demand ceased, then the said activity ceased. All of this, to be sure, was in the making in the mid-1920's, but I am supported by others who agree that it had not been as completely and clearly formulated, not so well based upon demonstrated tissue-needs as in my Fundamentals of Objective Psychology." [12]

Thorndike, at Teachers College, and Dewey, in the Department of Philosophy, were also among Dashiell's more influential teachers at Columbia. Thorndike's emphasis on trial-and-error learning (increase in random movement upon confrontation with a problem situation, accidental success, and the gradual selection of successful movement), objectivism, insistence on quantification, [13] and commitment to educational and social application, and Dewey's nonsubjective, instrumentalist approach to value and meaning were not lost on the young Dashiell. Indeed, after completing a 1910 master's thesis in psychology that critiqued the conception of "social consciousness," Dashiell switched his doctoral major to philosophy and, in 1913, completed a dissertation on the philosophical status of values that attempted to present value theory in objective, instrumentalist terms.

It was in the spring of 1913, while Dashiell was completing his graduate work, that John B. Watson traveled from Hopkins to Columbia to deliver his famous "behaviorist manifesto." [14] The essence of Watson's argument was that introspection was to be abandoned in favor of the study of behavior. Behavior was to be evaluated in its own right, independent of its relationship to any consciousness that might exist. The concept of "consciousness" was to be rejected as an interpretive standard and eschewed as an explanatory device. As an objective, natural science, psychology was to make no sharp distinction between human and animal behavior; and its goal was to develop principles by which behavior could be predicted and controlled.

Already well prepared for just such a message by his own critique of the concept of "social consciousness," strong physiological and experimental training, and the prevailing objective, quantitative, and applied orientation of the Columbia department, Dashiell was ready to listen. As he himself later put it, "Watson's virile presentation of behaviorism had its prompt appeal to the younger men of American psychology; and I was swept along...It came to be an ambition of mine to bring out an introductory textbook in this behaviorist direction." [15] Work on this textbook had to be postponed, however, as Dashiell spent the next six years in a series of temporary appointments and then accepted the responsibility for developing the psychology department at the University of North Carolina (Chapel Hill).

Upon receipt of the doctorate in 1913, Dashiell took a position at Waynesburg College. Within a year, however, he had moved to Princeton to serve as Instructor in Philosophy. After a year at Princeton, he spent two years at Minnesota, first as Instructor in Philosophy, then in Psychology, and two years as an Assistant Professor of Psychology at Oberlin. Only in 1919, when he moved to North Carolina, [16] did he finally find a permanent home. [17]

Under Dashiell's leadership, North Carolina became in the 1920's one of the nation's first behavioristically oriented departments. Floyd Henry Allport (1890-1978), hired from Harvard in 1922, was extending the behaviorist conception into social psychology[18] and English Bagby (1891-1955), who had taken his Ph.D. at Johns Hopkins in 1918 and came to North Carolina from Yale in 1925, was writing his Psychology of Personality: An Analysis of Common Emotional Disorders.[19] After Gilbert Van Tassel Hamilton's (1877-1943) An Introduction to Objective Psychopathology,[20] Bagby's was the first systematic attempt to apply behaviorist thinking to problems of psychopathology.

Under the stimulus of discussion, first with Allport, and then with Bagby, Dashiell finally set to work to realize his long delayed ambition. His goal was to produce an introductory textbook extending the behaviorist approach to the full range of human psychological phenomena, covering the ground, as he himself later described it, from "the nonsubjective physiological material of psychology that was not properly 'behavior'...[to] intellectual processes." [21] In 1928, with the appearance of Fundamentals of Objective Psychology,[22] Dashiell saw his dream become a reality.

The Fundamentals is quite possibly the quintessential text of early behaviorism. Influenced, among others, by Watson's peripheralism and use of the concept of "implicit response," [23] the behaviorist analysis of "perceiving" presented by Stevenson Smith (1883-1950) and E.R. Guthrie (1886-1959) [24] the implications for conceptualization of "symbolic processes" of the delayed reaction experiments of Walter Hunter (1889-1954), [25] George Herbert Mead's (1863-1931) account of the relationship between gesture, social acts, and reciprocal social stimulation, [26] A.P. Weiss's (1879-1931) analysis of the role of language in abstraction and generalization, [27] and Allport's work on social facilitation and personality traits, [28] Dashiell's text brings the many and varied threads of early behaviorism together, adds certain twists of its own, and weaves the whole into a single fabric, described in clear and forceful prose.

Broadly conforming to the general pattern established by Watson's Psychology from the Standpoint of a Behaviorist, Dashiell devotes the first half of his text to introductory chapters on the nature of psychology and the analysis of behavior, an extensive description (105 pages) of the anatomy and physiology of the effectors, receptors, and connecting nervous system, and a detailed discussion of hereditary mechanisms (reflexes, native reaction patterns including basic emotions, and drives defined as "original sources of energy that activate the human organism"[29]) and the principles by which such mechanisms are modified (reflex integration, habit formation, and stimulus substitution-including a detailed discussion of conditioning).

For Dashiell, as for Watson, psychology is a natural science, distinct from other biological sciences in its emphasis "on man (or animal) in his interaction with environmental conditions," [30] and concerned not merely with the understanding of behavior but with its prediction and control. Fundamental principles by which behavior must be analyzed include continuity between animal and man, the trial-and-error mechanism of adjustment, stimulation by internal (intra-organic) as well as external sources, responses that may be implicit as well as explicit, and response-produced stimuli. Unlike Watson, [31] Dashiell tends to view the anatomical and physiological basis of stimulus-response connections in a somewhat reductive fashion that blurs distinctions between levels of analysis[32] and integrates discussion of hereditary and acquired modes of response in a fashion that, even more than Watson, downplays the role of natively given reaction patterns in favor of the elaboration of complex habits.

The second half of Dashiell's text consists of an extended object lesson in non-subjective, behavioristic treatment of phenomena (perception, meaning, attention, social exchange, social signaling, thinking, speaking, discrimination, generalization, personality) traditionally thought to require mentalistic analysis. Perceiving is defined as "anticipatory set (largely implicit) that orients...[the organism] for a certain line of conduct with reference to...[the] situation." [33] Meaning is conceived to be a pattern of reaction tendencies to the perceived thing; [34] and attending is a viewed as a postural reaction "that will facilitate...response to some particular stimulus or stimuli." [35]

Social exchange is defined as a process of reciprocal stimulation and social signals are conceived to be abbreviations of total reactions used to influence others, some of which are direct but most of which are symbols of something else which need not even necessarily be present in the environment. Social signals, like all serial behavior, are held to play a private, self-stimulating as well as social function. [36] Thinking, which is a response to a problem situation, makes use of this function. As Dashiell puts is, "Thinking reactions...are true substitute reactions...more indirect and largely implicit. Learned first in social situations as a form of interstimulation, they come to be abbreviated to the point where they serve as self-stimulations within one and the same organism...Some character of ...[a problem] situation sets off a pattern of implicit reactions, especially symbolic ones, which in turn serve as cue-stimuli to further implicit reactions, and the self-stimulation processes continue pattern of reactions has undisputed right of way, and the organism overtly behaves accordingly." [37]

Speaking is by far the most important mode of reciprocal stimulation. [38] Like other forms of social stimulation, language can be reduced (abbreviated) to implicit activity and can be used to speak to one's self. [39] Discriminating is the ability to react to a highly specific aspect of a total situation sharpened by the speaking reaction and serving as the basis for carrying over a learned specific reaction from situation to situation. [40]

Generalization is "'a type of sensori-motor mechanism in which many different receptor patterns, representative of many different sensory situations and relations, are connected to the same language response and through this common path the individual may react in a specific manner to all the objects, situations, and relations thus connected, even though there is very little sensory similarity between them.'"[41] Finally, personality is defined as an individual's "system of reactions and reaction-possibilities in toto as viewed by fellow-members of society. It is the sum total of behavior trends manifested in his social adjustments." [42]

Here we have the well-defined behavioristic vision of the later 1920's. All psychological functions can be analyzed in terms of complex mechanisms of stimulus and response, external and internal, explicit and implicit, individual and social. Development over the life course involves the progressive acquisition of complex systems of reaction and reaction-possibilities from a set of native reaction patterns given in infancy, and all such acquisition can be accounted for in terms of mechanisms of trial-and-error habit formation and integration and conditioning. Through progress in the scientific understanding of the effect of stimulus situations and in the technological use of such mechanisms, behavior will eventually be susceptible to prediction and control.

This is a powerful and seductive vision. It is objective, scientific, comprehensive, and remarkably well integrated. It offers the possibility of laboratory research but is grounded in the natural phenomena of everyday life. It makes selective use of past advances and offers the promise of future progress, not only in science but in technology. It is also an optimistic, uplifting vision. It is easy to imagine just how impressed the introductory psychology student must have been as he or she closed Dashiell's text after reading its concluding paragraph:

"As the nineteenth century was notable for the unprecedented advance in man's control of his non-personal environment through the technological application of the physical and biological sciences, it may be fairly anticipated that the twentieth century will become remarkable for the development of psycho-technology. The 'pure' science of psychology, though still in its swaddling clothes, is to-day being rapidly expanded in many directions, and-what is more important-is being built upon more solid and certain foundations. And as the fundamental principles and formulae of this science become determined with increasing degrees of accuracy, technological applications are sure to follow. Already trends of practical usefulness are becoming evident, as a steadily growing host of investigators are engaged in working out the applications of the laws of human behavior to the fields of medicine, education, industry, commerce, and law. That 'man may become master of his fate' is a phrase invested now with new and fruitful meaning." [43]

Students exposed to such a vision must have found it hard, indeed, not to succumb-not to imagine themselves as members of the "growing host of investigators" pushing back the boundaries of our ignorance. In this context, it does not seem surprising that, as new generations of students entered the field, behaviorism came eventually to dominate the discipline.


1. Biographical details are drawn primarily from: Dashiell, J.F. (1967). John F. Dashiell. In E.G. Boring & G. Lindzey (Eds). A History of Psychology in Autobiography. Volume 5. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, pp. 95-124. [Back to text]

2. Dashiell (1967), p. 97. [Back to text]

3. The other was the University of Chicago. See Wozniak, R.H. (1993). John B. Watson, behaviourism, and Behavior: An Introduction to Comparative Psychology. In Watson, J.B. Behavior: An Introduction to Comparative Psychology. London: Routledge/Thoemmes Press, pp. vii-xx. [Back to text]

4. Boring, E.G. (1950). A History of Experimental Psychology. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, p. 560. [Back to text]

5. Cattell, J. McK. (1906). Conceptions and methods of psychology. In Rogers, H.J. Congress of Arts and Science, Universal Exposition, St. Louis, 1904. Volume V. Biology, Anthropology, Psychology, Sociology. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin Co., p. 597. [Back to text]

6. Cattell, J. McK. & Brimhall, D.R. (Eds). (1921). American Men of Science. A Biographical Directory. Garrison, NY: The Science Press. [Back to text]

7. Ladd, G.T. & Woodworth, R.S. (1911). Elements of Physiological Psychology. NY: Charles Scribner's Sons. [Back to text]

8. Woodworth, R.S. (1938). Experimental Psychology. New York: Henry Holt & Co. [Back to text]

9. Dashiell (1967), p. 102. [Back to text]

10. Woodworth, R.S. (1918). Dynamic Psychology. New York: Columbia University Press. [Back to text]

11. Ibid., p. 36[Back to text]

12. Dashiell (1967), p. 118[Back to text]

13. Thorndike, E.L. (1904). An Introduction to the Theory of Mental and Social Measurements. New York: The Science Press. This work is generally credited with introducing statistical analysis into American psychological research. [Back to text]

14. Watson, J.B. (1913). Psychology as the behaviorist views it. Psychological Review, 20, pp. 158-177. See also Wozniak (1993). [Back to text]

15. Dashiell (1967), pp. 117-118. [Back to text]

16. First as an Associate Professor and then, in 1920, as full Professor. [Back to text]

17. In the ensuing years at North Carolina, Dashiell went on to a celebrated career. Among other accomplishments, he served from 1931 to 1950 as editor of the McGraw-Hill Publications in Psychology, a series of monographs that included classic contributions by Kurt Lewin, N.R.F. Maier and T.C. Schneirla, J.P. Guilford, and Carl E. Seashore. From 1935 to 1947, he edited the Psychological Monographs, and in 1938, he served as President of the American Psychological Association. [Back to text]

18. Allport, F.H. (1924). Social Psychology. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co. (reprinted as Volume 3 in this series). Although Allport moved to the University of Syracuse in 1924, his classic analysis of social phenomena was finished and published while he was still at North Carolina. In the preface, Allport credits Dashiell with "reading the manuscript and offering effective suggestions concerning the theories advanced" (p. viii). [Back to text]

19. Bagby, E. (1928). The Psychology of Personality. An Analysis of Common Emotional Disorders. New York: Henry Holt & Co. [Back to text]

20. Hamilton, G.V. (1925). An Introduction to Objective Psychopathology. St. Louis: The C.V. Mosby Co. (reprinted as Volume 4 in this series). [Back to text]

21. Dashiell (1967), p. 118. [Back to text]

22. Dashiell, J.F. (1928). Fundamentals of Objective Psychology. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co. [Back to text]

23. See Watson, J.B. (1919). Psychology from the Standpoint of a Behaviorist. Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott Co. (reprinted as Volume 2 in this series). [Back to text]

24. Smith, S. & Guthrie, E.R. (1921). General Psychology in Terms of Behavior. New York: D. Appleton & Co. [Back to text]

25. Hunter, W.S. (1913). Delayed reaction in animals and children. Boston: Holt. [Behavior Monographs, Number 6]. [Back to text]

26. Mead, G.H. (1909). Social psychology as counterpart to physiological psychology. Psychological Bulletin, 6, pp. 401-408. Also Mead, G.H. (1910). Social consciousness and the consciousness of meaning. Psychological Bulletin, 7, pp. 397-405. [Back to text]

27. Weiss, A.P. (1925). A Theoretical Basis of Human Behavior. Columbus, OH: R.G. Adams & Co. (reprinted as Volume 5 in this series). [Back to text]

28. Allport (1924). [Back to text]

29. Dashiell (1928), pp. 230-231. [Back to text]

30. Ibid., p. 13[Back to text]

31. and possibly more in the spirit of Floyd Allport[Back to text]

32. Thus, for example, in his discussion of thinking, Dashiell (1928) writes that: "This description of the physical side of the process of thinking in terms of the interplay of entire sensori-motor circuits instead of merely the central segments thereof, possesses the advantage of fitting in with the characterization of thinking as a type of behavior that is set up by a difficult situation and that takes the economical form of trial-and-error reactions made indirectly and implicitly" (p. 533). [Back to text]

33. Ibid., p. 522[Back to text]

34. See Ibid., p. 391[Back to text]

35. Ibid., p.285. [Back to text]

36. See Ibid., pp. 449-455. [Back to text]

37. Ibid., p. 547[Back to text]

38. See Ibid., p. 456. [Back to text]

39. See Ibid., pp. 480-481. [Back to text]

40. See Ibid., p. 492. [Back to text]

41. Ibid., pp. 502-503, quoted from Weiss (1925). [Back to text]

42. Dashiell (1928), p. 551. [Back to text]

43. Ibid., pp. 570-571. [Back to text]