March 12, 1998
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Faculty of Arts and Sciences -- Memorial Minute

On September 13, 1994 Richard J. Herrnstein, Edgar Pierce Professor of Psychology, died in his Belmont home at the age of 64. During his 36 years as a member of the Psychology Department, he was a widely admired teacher, adviser, and colleague. His research and writing transformed the study of behavior; his analyses of major social issues have been the focus of public interest and discussion for over a quarter of a century; and here at Harvard, he was a committed and valued citizen of the university.

Herrnstein grew up in a lower-middle-class, New York City neighborhood, populated largely by European immigrants. His parents were from Hungary, and although they had little formal education, they were deeply involved with politics and theater. On weekdays, his father was a house painter, but on the weekend, he ran New York's only Hungarian language theater. When a play called for a child, Dick filled in, playing both the boys and girls' roles. Herrnstein spoke fondly of his New York City roots: of Uncle Paul, who liked to gamble, of Uncle Max, an ex-rabbi; and of his after school job at the Record Hunter, a "high-brow" Sam Goody's, which competed with his studies for his attention.

Music, not science, was the arena of Dick's earliest accomplishments. He was an expert violinist, and won entrance to New York City's famous Music and Art High School. But in college, he was drawn to experimental psychology, and after graduating from the City College of New York, he came to Harvard, with the idea of becoming a comparative psychologist.

In 1952 the Psychology Department was located in the basement of Memorial Hall. At one end of the building was S.S. Stevens' Psycho-Acoustic Lab, and at the other end was B.F. Skinner's Pigeon Lab. Stevens was well-known for his research on the psychology of hearing and the quantification of sensory processes. Skinner had created a new technology for studying the behavior of individual organisms. These were exciting and productive labs, at the forefront of their respective fields. Herrnstein initially worked with Stevens, but by the start of his second year, he was spending most of his time studying behavior in Skinner's Lab.

Dick completed his Ph.D. requirements in three years, graduating in 1955. Two years later, after a stint in the army, he returned to Harvard as an assistant professor. Behavioral research was then dominated by Skinner Although his methods produced highly reliable results, the analyses were essentially qualitative. In contrast, Herrnstein sought an underlying mathematical structure to behavior. In a series of experiments with pigeons, he found a simple, quantitative rule for relating the frequency of behavior to the frequency of reinforcement. Subsequent research showed that this rule, now called the "matching law," has remarkable generality, applying to every species yet tested, including humans.

The matching law altered the study of reinforced behavior. Equations replaced Skinner's analog recordings. Theoretically oriented researchers discovered logical connections between the matching law, signal detection theory, and economic theory. Quantitative implications of the matching law stimulated new experiments. The chapter on reinforced behavior in the first edition of Stevens' Handbook of Experimental Psychology, published in 1951, contained no quantitative expressions. The parallel chapter in the second edition contains 54 equations, almost all of which relate to Herrnstein's matching law. Outside of the laboratory, there are now matching-law based accounts of psychopathology, crime, addiction, and economic transactions.

The most general implication of Herrnstein's work is that underlying the apparent hubbub of behavior are simple, quantitative laws. This was exciting stuff, and students came to Harvard to work with Herrnstein. The spirit of the laboratory was most evident in the weekly "Pigeon Meetings," an institution started by Skinner. The participants gathered around a large table, often armed with new data or a new equation. Everyone's ideas were open for criticism. An interpretation or equation that survived the Pigeon Meeting was on solid ground. Dick was at his best in these gatherings. In the relaxed atmosphere, his brilliance and quick wit held center stage. The meetings also served as a career launching pad for his students, many of whom are now leading figures in experimental psychology at universities across the country.

During the first stage of his career, Herrnstein was already branching out to topics beyond the lab. He wrote a series of papers on theoretical issues in psychology, and with Professor Gary Boring, who oversaw psychology's separation from philosophy at Harvard in 1934, he co-authored a much used source book on the history of psychology. In 1967, at age 37, he was awarded tenure.

Herrnstein was also a public figure. In 1971, he published an article in the Atlantic Monthly on intelligence and its correlates. At the heart of this paper is a syllogism linking intelligence, heritability, social status, and democratic institutions. The gist of the argument is that as opportunity increases and ascribed status decreases, genetic differences between people will play an increasingly larger role in determining social status. The article caused an uproar. Herrnstein was vilified by many outside and inside of Harvard, largely because of what were perceived to be the racial correlates of the syllogism. A perception that Dick refuted.

Despite the often bitter and widespread criticism - he was labeled a racist by some - he unflaggingly defended the results of his analysis. The article became a book (IQ in the Meritocracy), and his battle with angry protestors, academic critics, and an often hostile press is recorded in its preface (A true tale from the annals of orthodoxy). There is some irony here. In politics, Herrnstein had been on the left for much of his life and liked to brag that he knew more labor songs than his SDS attackers did.

The I.Q. controversy slowly ebbed. Meanwhile Herrnstein continued to contribute to psychology and social issues. In 1975, he was appointed editor of the prestigious Psychological Bulletin. With Professor Roger Brown, he wrote a sophisticated general psychology text, based on their popular introductory course, and with James Q. Wilson, then a colleague in the Government Department, he published an influential book on crime, based on their core course, "Crime and Human Nature." His laboratory research turned largely to relationships between the matching law and economic theory, and these studies led to a new course, which he taught in the Economics Department, and a posthumously published book, The Matching Law: Papers in Psychology and Economics.

However, these achievements have been overshadowed, perhaps temporarily, by his most famous work, The Bell Curve, co-authored with Charles Murray. The book updates and expands upon the syllogism of the earlier I.Q. article. It was at the printers when he learned that he had terminal lung cancer. It arrived at bookstores just a week after he died. It is unfortunate that Dick did not live to participate in the fierce debates about the work. He had a gift for bringing clarity to issues obscured by contentious accusations.

Herrnstein was deeply attached to Harvard. He served on many university committees, devoting much time to the Athletics Committee and the Undergraduate Admissions Committee. After the student takeover of University Hall in 1969, Dick became a leader among those faculty members struggling to reassert the university as a center of scholarship and teaching. His attachment to Harvard was also personal. His two sons, Max and Jimmy, did their undergraduate and graduate work here, and his wife, Susan, graduated from Radcliffe.

In day-to-day interactions with Dick, it was easy to forget his many achievements. He was open, funny, and a colorful conversationalist, always eager to discuss current events and trade anecdotes. Herrnstein gave much to Harvard, to scientific psychology, and to current thought on the role of individual differences in social affairs. For those who had the good fortune to work with him, his decency and integrity left a legacy as significant as his intellectual contributions. He always kept both his sense of humor and his principles. Early on in the writing of The Bell Curve, he commented to co-author Murray, "We have to write this book - we are the only two people in America whose reputations can't be ruined by it."

Dick Herrnstein is survived by a daughter, Julia, from a first marriage; by two grandchildren; and by his wife, Susan, and their two sons, Max and Jimmy.

Respectfully submitted,

Gene M. Heyman

Brendan A. Maher

Sheldon H. White (Chair)

James Q. Wilson


Copyright 1998 President and Fellows of Harvard College