UCL History of the Psychological Disciplines Lecture

Monday 1st December

Marcia Holmes (Birkbeck)

Performing Proficiency: Psychological Experiments on Man-Machine Systems in the United States, 1950-1965

Historians have traced American psychology’s ‘Cognitive Revolution’—and its defining metaphor of the mind as information processor—to World War II, when the American and British militaries employed experimental psychologists to improve servicemen’s proficiency in operating the war’s complex electronics for communication, command and control. Yet the problem of matching men’s abilities to the design of machines not only encouraged the theorisation of cognition and information processing; it also motivated a new field of applied experimental psychological research, now known as human factors engineering. During the early years of the Cold War, this field of psychological engineering pioneered an elaborate form of behavioral experiment called ‘man-machine systems simulation.’ In this talk I will argue that interpreting these man-machine systems simulations through a cognitive or cybernetic lens, as some historians have done, misses their more direct, contemporary significance. For the psychologists conducting the experiments, these simulations performed the possibility of maintaining liberal-democratic sociability within the Cold War’s regimented networks of military command and control. Recognizing the performative aspects of man-machine systems simulations, I argue, sheds new light on the political and epistemological stakes of the Cognitive Revolution in psychology.

Date: Monday 1st December

Time: 6-7.30pm

Location:  Arts and Humanities Common Room (G24), Foster Court, Malet Place, University College London.

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