Experimental psychology at Bristol began as part of the Department of Philosophy and Psychology before becoming its own School in 1991. The School, which counted among its members one of the most-cited academic psychologists in the UK, has forged a name for itself with pioneering work in social identity, prejudice, intergroup conflict, perception and working memory, among other fields, inspiring generations of psychologists, as well as developing innovative “hands-on” science centres.
In 1884, Conwy Lloyd Morgan arrived at University College Bristol, later to become Bristol University. Although he began by teaching geology, he would be one of the first experimental psychologists. In 1899, he became the first Fellow of the Royal Society in the field of psychology and in 1901 was appointed to the newly created Chair in Psychology and Ethics. His work on the interpretation of animal behaviour led to the principle widely known as Morgan's Canon. He later served as the University of Bristol's first Vice-Chancellor
Conwy Lloyd Morgan FRS(1852-1936)
In the early days of the University, psychology was taught as part of the Ordinary Degree of the Bachelor of Arts (BA) in the Faculty of Arts. In 1951, the Department of Philosophy and Psychology was divided into two departments, and the first occupant of the Chair of Psychology was G.C. Drew, Head of Department until 1958. The psychology being taught at this time had a broad base: the history of psychology, and “current problems” were seminal courses. Social and comparative psychology as well as statistics, experimental and psychometric methods, the study of cognition, and the physiology of the central nervous system were also covered. There was also an emphasis on applied fields.
Professor Drew was succeeded as Head of Department by Kenneth Ronald Lambert (Ronnie) Hall, whose research interests were varied. Hall was responsible for installing facilities and resources for comparative psychology research, but this work was discontinued after Hall’s tragic early death at the age of 47. It was at this time that psychology left the Faculty of Arts to become part of the newly formed Faculty of Social Sciences.
Ivor Pleydell-Pearce took over as Head of Department on a temporary basis, followed by Henri Tajfel, Professor of Social Psychology(1967-69). Bristol was only the third UK university to deem social psychology deserving of an appointment at chair level, and Tajfel was its first occupant. Polish by birth, his education in Paris was interrupted by the Nazi invasion of France, and he spent most of the war as a French prisoner-of-war. On his eventual discharge, he discovered that all his family in Poland had been murdered. It is not surprising that Tajfel’s major research contributions to social psychology were in the fields of prejudice, intergroup conflict, and social identity, but he was also a pioneer and evangelist in the expansion of social psychology in Britain and Europe. His Social Identity theory is still one of the major inspirations for social psychologists.
Richard Gregory was created Professor of Neuropsychology and Director of the Brain and Perception Laboratory in the Medical School in 1970. This group researched the cognitive neural processes of perception. In the 1980's, the Brain and Perception group became part of the Department of Psychology. The journal Perception, founded in 1972 by Gregory, who was the first Editor-in-Chief, is still edited from the School. In the early 1980's, Gregory was the inspiration behind the establishment of the Exploratory Interactive Science Centre, located in Bristol city centre, which became a model for ‘hands-on’ science centres in the UK and worldwide.
Richard Langton Gregory CBE FRS
Gregory is best known for his work on perception and visual illusions. One famous example is the café wall illusion. This was based on observing the effect created by tiles on the wall of a café near the University: the tiles did not appear as parallel as they actually were, seeming to converge in alternate-direction wedges. Building a series of models in the laboratory, Gregory and colleagues provide an explanation for this effect. Gregory retired in 1988, but he remains an active and inspirational member of the School.
The original of the Café Wall, St Michael’s Hill, Bristol
John Brown, Professor of Experimental Psychology, was Head of Department from 1969 to 1984. His PhD thesis in the 1950s was concerned with decay theory of immediate memory. (The term “short-term memory” did not exist at this time.) Brown is well known for his seminal work on rehearsal and forgetting, and as one of the originators of the famous Brown-Peterson Task, a fundamental aspect of this research.
Brown was succeeded by Howard Giles, Professor of Social Psychology, 1984-7, whose research interests were in the social psychology of language and communication. Giles began to revive the strong tradition of social psychology at Bristol introduced by Tajfel and maintained by John C. Turner. In 1991, the School changed its name to the Department of Experimental Psychology to better reflect its activities. It is now known as The School of Experimental Psychology.
Alan David Baddeley CBE FRS
Professor Alan Baddeley, one of the UK’s most highly cited academic psychologist, was a member of the School from 1995 to 2003,.working in the fields of human memory, neuropsychology and the practical application of cognitive psychology, although he is probably best known for his research on working memory.