Ulric Neisser Biography (Cognitive Psychology)

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An empirical survey conducted by the scientific journal Review of General Psychology listed Ulric Neisser, also known as the "father of cognitive psychology,"  as the 32nd most eminent psychologist of the 20th century. 

Ulric Neisser

Who Is Ulric Neisser?

Ulric Neisser was a German-American psychologist who helped to ignite the “cognitive revolution” in psychology. He is called the “father of cognitive psychology” because he presented the first unified cognitive theory in 1967. Neisser’s research was centered on human perception, memory, learning, and intelligence.

Ulric's Early Life

Ulrich Gustav Neisser was born on December 8, 1928 in Kiel, Germany. He was the second child of Hans and Charlotte Neisser. His sister, Marianne, was four years older than him.

Neisser’s father, Hans, was from a distinguished Jewish family. He taught economics at the University of Kiel and was a leading researcher at the Kiel Institute for the World Economy. Neisser’s mother, Charlotte, was Catholic and held a degree in sociology. She was also actively involved with the German women’s movement.

In the 1930s, Neisser’s father predicted an increase in military focus as Nazism became more popular in Germany. These circumstances as well as an offer to serve as professor of monetary theory at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania motivated him to leave Germany while he still could. He arrived in England in 1933 and his family joined him a few months later. The entire Neisser family then left England on a passenger ship and disembarked in the United States on September 15, 1933.

After settling down in Swarthmore, Pennsylvania, Neisser became a big fan of baseball. He also decided to change his first name from “Ulrich” to “Ulric.” The main reasons for this were that his friends could not pronounce his name properly and he wanted his name to sound less German and more American. As a child he was called “little Dicky” and his friends soon gave him the nickname “Dick” which stuck with him for the rest of his life.

As a respected university professor, Hans Neisser had high hopes for his young son. His dream was that Ulric would become a distinguished scientist, so he gave him a chemistry set while he was still a boy. Neisser reported that he never used the chemistry set, despite the encouragement he received from his father. Even so, he left high school as a young man who was fascinated by the world of science.

Educational and Professional Background

Ulric Neisser entered Harvard University in 1946 with the goal of studying physics. However, he soon developed an interest in psychology, perhaps due to the influence of his academic advisor George Miller. Neisser was exposed to various branches of psychology, including parapsychology, behaviorism, psychoanalysis, and Gestalt psychology. He became particularly interested in Gestalt psychology and earned his bachelor’s degree in psychology in 1950.

After graduating from Harvard, Neisser applied for the master’s program at Swarthmore College. His intention was to study with Wolfgang Kohler—one of the founders of Gestalt psychology—who was on the faculty at Swarthmore at the time. However, Neisser was only able to work with Kohler’s assistant Hans Wallach. He earned his master’s degree from Swarthmore in 1952.

Neisser decided to move to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology after his former advisor George Miller relocated there. However, he soon moved back to Swarthmore after he was offered a teaching position for one year. Neisser then returned to Harvard to enroll in the university’s doctoral program. He received his doctoral degree in experimental psychology in 1956.

Neisser taught at Harvard for one year, before accepting a position in the Department of Psychology at Brandeis University. At that time, the chair of the psychology department was Abraham Maslow—one of the founders of humanistic psychology. It was at Brandeis University that Neisser is said to have “expanded his psychological horizon.”

Oliver Selfridge 

The next person who had a major influence on Neisser was a young computer scientist at MIT named Oliver Selfridge. Selfridge was an advocate of machine learning. After they became friends, Neisser served as a part-time consultant in Selfridge’s lab as they worked on a program together. In 1960, they published an article in the journal Scientific American and described the pandemonium model of pattern recognition that they had developed. Neisser’s work with Selfridge led to his receiving multiple grants and he conducted research in other areas that were related to human thinking. He soon moved to the University of Pennsylvania, where he published his landmark book Cognitive Psychology in 1967.

Neisser accepted a position as a full professor at Cornell University shortly after his book was released. During his time at Cornell, Neisser conducted a number of clever experiments on human perception and deepened his investigation of human memory. However he left Cornell for Emory University in 1983. While at Emory, Neisser conducted his famous Challenger memory experiment and founded the Emory Cognition Project. He returned to Cornell in 1996 and remained there until his retirement.

Neisser’s Theory of Cognitive Psychology

Neisser was never a fan of behaviorism because he believed the basic assumptions of the approach were incorrect. For example, he disagreed with behaviorism’s strict focus on only external events and he rejected the idea that complex human behavior could be completely explained by the process of conditioning. According to Neisser, behaviorist methods limited what psychologists could study about human nature.

In his 1967 book Cognitive Psychology, Neisser outlined current research on attention, problem-solving, pattern recognition, perception, and memory. He also emphasized the concepts of information processing and constructive processing. Neisser coined the term “cognitive psychology” and presented this new approach as an alternative to behaviorism. As he brought together ideas from various researchers to form a unified theory, Neisser is often referred to as the “father of cognitive psychology.”

What is Cognitive Psychology?

Cognitive psychology uses scientific methods to study the human mind as an information processor. Researchers build cognitive models to explain mental processes such as perception, attention, memory, thinking, creativity, and language. Many psychologists were interested in mental processes before Neisser suggested a cognitive approach. However, it was the arrival of digital computers that gave researchers like Neisser the concepts, clues, and directions they needed to explore the human mind.

A computer is able to receive, code, store, use, and retrieve information. Cognitive psychologists try to explain how humans process information by comparing the human mind to how a computer works. While human cognitions can be extremely complex, the way a computer processes information is far easier to understand. The information processing model claims that humans process the information they receive from the environment internally. This is different from behaviorism which suggests that humans merely respond to external stimuli.

The information processing model has a number of assumptions. For example, it assumes that humans process information in a series of stages that are similar to a computer. This processing follows a clear sequence as is outlined below:

  1. Input - During this stage people need to receive and encode information from the environment and then process it before they can respond to the information in an appropriate way. A number of mental processes are involved such as perception, attention, and short-term memory. For example, an individual may receive information from his senses (perception), but only information that is focused on (attention) is moved into his working memory so that he can respond to his surroundings quickly.
  2. Storage - During this stage the information is transformed by the mind’s processing systems and stored in long-term memory. It is retrieved, processed and used by short-term memory as needed. For example, information from perception and memory may be used to reason and make decisions.
  3. Output - This stage focuses on producing an appropriate response to the information that was received. For example, once thinking has occurred, decisions need to be expressed via speaking, writing, or other forms of communication.

Cognitive Psychology and Human Behavior

Cognitive psychologists believe internal mental processes and their underlying brain structures must be examined if human behavior is to be properly understood. This is because the cognitive approach assumes that human cognition can influence behavior. Some staunch behaviorists deny the existence of the human mind because they claim it cannot be observed or measured objectively. However, cognitive psychologists believe that objective inferences can be made if they study the human mind using scientific methods in controlled settings.

While behaviorists believe simple stimulus-response associations can explain human behavior, cognitive psychologists emphasize the importance of mediational processes. These processes are known as “mediational” because they mediate or go between a stimulus from the environment and the response from the individual. Perception, attention, memory, and problem-solving are all mediational processes. They occur after a stimulus is received but before a response is given.

The Influence of Schemas

Cognitive psychology suggests that the way a person processes information may be influenced by his or her schemas. A schema is a mental framework that develops from an individual’s past experiences and helps him to organize categories of information and the relationship between them. There are many types of schemas, such as:

  • Self-schemas - what a person knows about himself and what he thinks about his future self
  • Object schemas - what a person knows about an object’s appearance, where it is from,  and what is it used for
  • Person schemas - what a person knows about someone else’s appearance, personality, behavior, and preferences
  • Social schemas - what a person knows he should say or do in a specific social situation

Schemas help people to process and understand information quickly without being overwhelmed by vast amounts of stimuli from the environment. However, schemas can affect what people pay attention to and how they interpret that information. Cognitive research shows that people pay more attention to information that fits nicely into the schemas they already have. If they receive new information that goes against what they expect, people are more likely to ignore, misinterpret, or distort that new information.

To get a better idea of how schemas may influence information processing, consider a young child who has developed a schema for a dog based on his past experiences with his own pet dog at home. That schema may include facts such as (1) a dog is hairy, (2) a dog has a tail, and (3) a dog walks on four legs. If the child goes to a circus or zoo and sees a lion for the first time, the lion may fit the child’s schema of what a dog is. Therefore the child may incorrectly conclude that a lion is nothing more than a gigantic dog who would probably like to be petted.

Neisser’s Research on Perception

From 1975 to 1979, Neisser conducted a number of studies on perception. In one set of studies, he arranged for subjects to watch a group of people in black shirts and a group of people in white shirts pass a basketball continuously from one person to another. Each group was filmed separately and then the videos were combined.

The subjects were asked to count the number of passes between one of the two groups. At some point during the film, Neisser overlaid footage of a woman carrying an open umbrella, who walked from one side of the screen to the other. Despite the fact that the woman shared the same space as the basketball players and was clearly visible for an extended period of time, few observers noticed her.

Neisser described this phenomenon as “selective looking” (also called “inattentional blindness” by other researchers).  Neisser showed that unexpected events that receive little attention are unlikely to be seen by people even if they occur right in front of their eyes. 

Neisser’s Research on Memory

Neisser was one of the first researchers to provide evidence that human memory involves actively reconstructing the past rather than passively recalling accurate snapshots of past events.

In 1981, he published an analytical report that compared John Dean’s Watergate scandal testimony to tapes of recorded conversations between Dean and President Nixon. In essence, the report compared Dean’s memory of past events to the recorded conversations. Although Dean’s testimony was generally supported by the tapes, Neisser discovered that Dean’s memories contained a number of errors and that Dean sometimes combined separate events into a single memory.

Flashbulb Memories 

In 1986, Neisser conducted a memory experiment to test the theory of “flashbulb memories.” This concept suggested that impactful, highly emotional events may cause people to have very vivid and highly accurate memories of the event. One day after the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded on January 28, 1986, Neisser gave a number of college freshmen a questionnaire that asked them to write down their immediate experience after they heard about the disaster. The students recorded information such as how they first heard the news, where they were, what they were doing, who they were with, and how they felt. Three years later, Neisser asked the same students to recall the experience again.

Although the students were very confident that their accounts were the same as before, approximately 50% were different, 25% were very different, and less than 10% had all the correct details. This experiment challenged the idea that flashbulb memories are error-free.

Neisser’s study of flashbulb memories continued in 1989 shortly after the Loma Prieta earthquake that impacted parts of California. Neisser arranged for three groups of people—two in California, and one in Atlanta, Georgia—to recall their experiences soon after the earthquake began. More than eighteen months later, he arranged for the same people to recall their experiences again.

Neisser found that (1) people in California had more accurate memories of the event, and (2) Atlanta residents who had family in affected areas had better recall than those who did not. Neisser’s findings suggested that personal involvement plays a role in improving recall. However, as many Californias reported that they did not feel stressed during the earthquake, Neisser concluded that the improved recall may be due to repeated narrative rehearsals rather than emotional arousal.

In addition to his work on perception and memory, Neisser conducted research on human intelligence. Later in his career, he focused on “the science and politics of IQ testing.”

Contributions to the Flynn Effect

Ulrich's work also contributed to a theory that he doesn't always get credit for. The Flynn Effect is named for James Flynn, but Ulrich's research also supported the idea that average IQ increases over time

Applications of Cognitive Psychology

Cognitive psychology is one of the most popular and dominant branches of psychology today. The cognitive approach has been applied to numerous fields, including:

  • Medicine - to help people to recover from brain injury
  • Counseling - to help individuals with mental or emotional issues through the use of talk therapies such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT)
  • Education - to develop strategies to assist students with learning disabilities
  • Criminal Justice - to evaluate the reliability of eyewitness testimony and recovered childhood memories
  • Moral Development - to help children to increase their level of moral reasoning

Criticisms of Cognitive Psychology

Like all other psychological schools of thought, cognitive psychology has received criticism for certain perceived limitations of the approach. Interestingly, one of the earliest and most vocal critics of the approach was the “father of cognitive psychology” himself, Ulric Neisser. In 1976, Neisser published the book Cognition and Reality, in which he questioned the ecological validity of the emerging field. According to Neisser, cognitive psychology was ignoring real world situations and everyday human behavior to focus on irrelevant measurements taken in a lab.

The information processing model has also been strongly criticized over the years. While there are certainly some similarities between the human mind and the operations of a computer, some people believe that cognitive psychology places too much emphasis on the comparison. They argue that human cognition is more than simply receiving inputs, processing information, storing data, and producing outputs. For example, the influence of human emotion, creativity, and motivation on how humans think is not adequately addressed by the information processing model.

 While cognitive psychologists claim that laboratory studies allow them to make objective conclusions about internal mental processes, behaviorists such as B.F. Skinner claim that none of these internal mechanisms are being observed or measured directly. As a result, behaviorists argue that the cognitive approach is subjective and unscientific.

Ulric Neisser's Books, Awards, and Accomplishments

Ulric Neisser authored several books over the course of his long and distinguished career. Some of his most impactful works include:

  • Cognitive psychology, 1967
  • Cognition and reality: Principles and implications of cognitive psychology, 1976
  • Memory observed: Remembering in natural contexts, 1982
  • Concepts and conceptual development: Ecological and intellectual factors in categorization, 1987
  • Phantom flashbulbs: False recollections of hearing the news about Challenger, 1992
  • The Perceived self: Ecological and interpersonal sources of self-knowledge, 1993
  • The conceptual self in context: Culture, experience, self-understanding, 1997
  • The rising curve: Long-term gains in IQ and related measures, 1998
  • Cognitive psychology. In, The history of psychology: Fundamental questions, 2003
  • Remembering reconsidered: Ecological and traditional approaches to the study of memory, 2006
  • The remembering self: Construction and accuracy in the self-narrative, 2008

Neisser was awarded honorary doctorates from prestigious institutions around the world such as Swarthmore College (United States), the New School for Social Research (United States), the Universita di Roma (Italy), the Universitatea Babeş-Bolyai, Cluj-Napoca (Romania), and Aarhus University (Denmark). Some of his other notable accomplishments include:

  • Guggenheim Fellow
  • Sloan Fellow
  • Member of the National Academy of Sciences
  • Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences
  • Member of the Society of Experimental Psychologists

Personal Life

Ulrich Neisser married Anna Gabrielle Peirce in 1953. The couple had four children—Mark, Phillip, Tobias, and Juliet. However, their marriage ended in divorce.

Neisser’s second marriage to Arden Seidler produced a fifth child who was called Joseph. He also had a stepdaughter named Jennifer Seidler. Neisser’s second marriage ended after Arden passed away in 1999. Neisser’s final life partner was Sandra Condry.

Neisser had a lifelong love for baseball. It was not uncommon for him to take his students on “research outings” to baseball games. Neisser also helped his students to repair their damaged vehicles, move to new residences, make smart career choices, and manage their relationship issues. He often invited students to his family home for swimming and epic games of Pictionary.

Is Ulrich Neisser Still Alive? 

Ulric Neisser passed away on February 12, 2012 in Ithaca, New York. His death was due to complications associated with Parkinson’s disease. He is survived by his five children, one stepchild, one grandson, and his sister Marianne.  


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Reference this article:

Practical Psychology. (2021, March). Ulric Neisser Biography (Cognitive Psychology). Retrieved from https://practicalpie.com/ulric-neisser/.

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