One of the least studied psychology books is actually one of the most popular titles ever printed: the 1943 book "Psychology for the Fighting Man."
The idea for a wartime textbook was the brainchild of a committee of psychologists within the National Research Council. Many people saw psychology as crucial to the war effort, even more than it had been during World War I. As Harvard professor E.G. Boring wrote in the Psychological Bulletin, "In this most mechanized of all wars, no machine exists in such great numbers, nor requires such expert servicing, as the human machine. None is so precious. And for no other is functioning at peak efficiency so vital for the winning of the war."
At first, the book was planned as a textbook for officer candidates to educate them about "the great human war machine." Boring was a logical choice for editor because he had done psychological work in World War I and was first author of a popular, collaborative introductory text. But plans for such a textbook were scrapped in favor of a paperback geared toward the high-school reading level, thanks to Col. Joseph Greene, editor of the popular Infantry Journal, which had a sideline of book publishing. Its 25¢ Fighting Forces Penguin Specials were cheap paperbacks modeled after a British series that Penguin Books created to make money and circumvent wartime paper rationing.
Greene convinced Boring to aim the book at general readers with no college education. As the inside cover explained, "the corporal in the next bunk can get as much out of the book as his colonel can."
The book's appeal began with its striking cover, which promised it would tell readers "what you should know about yourself and others." Using a technique that ad men had perfected in the 1930s, the editors aroused the soldier's fears and then promised to show the path to safety. The book promised "practical ideas that will improve his personal adjustment, and give him a better chance to stay off the casualty lists than he already has."
It spoke to the soldier as an individual, not just a cog in the war machine. Striking a populist note, it addressed any "man in uniform who wants to know his own physical and mental limitations even better than some of the ‘military experts' claim to know the psychology of our enemies."
Instead of teaching abstract theories of each subfield of psychology, each chapter covered a topic related to warfare. It taught the basics of vision in chapters titled "Sight as a Weapon," "Seeing in the Dark" and "Color and Camouflage." Other senses were covered in "Smell — a Sentry" and "Hearing as a Tool in Warfare." Readers learned about social and clinical psychology in "Morale," "Food and Sex as Military Problems" and "Mobs and Panic." The book also included charts and diagrams from psychology texts, supplemented by dozens of photos of soldiers, military equipment and battle scenes.
The book's success was due to this compelling content and the use of drugstores and newsstands as sales points — an innovation in the 1940s. Also key to this project was Marjorie Van de Water, a journalist who had spent decades covering psychology for Science Service, a wire service. As Boring's co-editor, she rewrote the chapters submitted by a panel of experts. Initially, Boring asked her to appear under a male pseudonym out of deference to the Army. She vetoed this plan as effectively as she corrected the psychologists' academic prose. (Although Van de Water was responsible for every word in the final manuscript, she was on loan from her regular job and did not receive a cent of the book's royalties.)
"Psychology for the Fighting Man" was hugely successful, selling almost 400,000 copies and reaching an estimated circulation of 1 million. But even these circulation figures underestimate the book's impact since chapters were widely reprinted in Life and military magazines, as well as in a pamphlet on leadership that Chrysler Corp. gave to its white-collar workers and foremen.
After "Psychology for the Fighting Man," Boring and his committee produced another paperback, "Psychology for the Returning Serviceman," with sales that were half of its predecessor's. Boring also edited a college-level textbook, "Psychology for the Armed Services," drier in style but used by the military and university instructors.
Before working on the books, Boring had been something of a purist, preferring experimental psychology to its upstart siblings that dealt with social and clinical problems. But by the end of his work on the books in 1945, Boring had become a strong advocate of psychological popularization. He spent the rest of his career showing his colleagues how to deliver "psychology for the common man" (by which he meant man and woman).
"Psychology," Boring wrote in a lecture he never delivered, is "diffusing into the culture of America more rapidly than ever before. Should this process of diffusion be left to chance or should … psychologists attempt to control it and perhaps accelerate it?" His answer was that if scientists didn't become popularizers, they would cede the field to unscrupulous peddlers of superstition and misinformation. Furthermore, psychology could help build a better society:
"Psychology is expanding [and we should try] to accelerate that process, try to get sound psychological principles into the American culture. Success in this endeavor will increase personal maturity, help social tolerance and progress, and enlarge the democratic communal base of thinking."
In Boring's vision of the future, all possible media would be used to teach a psychological worldview — not just piles of facts. This should be the goal of the introductory course in college, high school courses, a popular magazine that APA could publish, and programs on radio and television.
Boring hoped that this media barrage would make psychology part of the cultural knowledge of all educated people. When confronted by social problems, citizens would expect that they could be corrected by social engineering — rather than just endured. Ideas like "ignorance is mutable" would become part of everyone's common sense.
Although it took decades, what Boring advocated as psychological outreach eventually appeared: high school psychology courses, the APA's purchase of Psychology Today in 1983 (though it was sold in 1988) and introductory psychology taught on public television. Boring pioneered the last of these himself, hosting a TV lecture series in Boston in 1956. As historian Ellen Herman has shown, Boring anticipated the many post-World War II programs for social change that used psychological expertise as their guiding ideology.
If Boring's goal of a public that could think scientifically has proven elusive, the psychologically aware masses that he anticipated are here to stay.
Ben Harris, PhD, is a professor of psychology and affiliate professor of history at the University of New Hampshire. Katharine S. Milar, PhD, of Earlham College is historical editor for "Time Capsule."
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