When Harry Met Psychology: A Profile of Harry Bahrick

Because he was born and spent his formative years in Vienna, you might assume that Harry Bahrick’s academic “family tree” reaches back to his hometown’s Sigmund Freud, or perhaps to neighboring Switzerland’s Carl Jung, or even to Wilhelm Wundt in Leipzig. You’d be wrong on all counts. His intellectual roots are planted firmly in U.S. soil.

A leading expert on human memory, Bahrick has been on the faculty of the psychology department at Ohio Wesleyan University since 1949 and has been a full professor since 1956.  He is also a beloved colleague and mentor, and is widely recognized for his accomplishments as a teacher.

Bahrick’s family fled Vienna in 1940, when he was 14. His father, a Masonic leader, had been jailed three times by the Nazis because he refused to turn over the membership files of the free-thinking and progressive, but secretive, Masons. There were other reasons for leaving Austria, Bahrick says, “but fear was the primary cause.”

It turned out to be a fortuitous move for young Harry. “I doubt I’d have gone to university if I had stayed in Austria,” he concedes. He was in a school with Austria’s top students and, by comparison, “I was at best mediocre. I was confident that I was not without talent, but I was not at all confident I had the discipline or the character to do the work that would be necessary to become a college professor or to get any kind of recognition as a scholar.”

That was then. Bahrick blossomed in Baltimore, where his family settled. He fell in love with high school and “became enamored of academia. I decided in the first days at college that I’d never leave if I could avoid it.” He never did, and at 82, the APS Fellow and Charter Member is still in academia, a research professor at Ohio Wesleyan University (OWU), where he has spent his entire career.

He managed to stay on campus even in the U.S. Army. He was drafted after two years at the University of Maryland and, after basic training, was chosen with two others from his regiment for civil engineering training at West Virginia University. The rest of his regiment shipped out directly into combat — and the Battle of the Bulge.

When the war ended, he returned to his “first love,” psychology. “I think I was trying to understand what made people do the god-awful things they did in the country that I’d left,” he says. “Once I took psychology courses, I saw that there was a scientific approach to answering these questions.”

By the time he received his doctorate from The Ohio State University (OSU), in 1950, he was teaching at OWU, but it was moonlighting at OSU’s internationally known Laboratory of Aviation Psychology that lifted his career to another level entirely. The lab’s director, the late Paul Fitts (1912-1965), who was investigating perceptual motor skills, became his mentor. Most of the lab’s staff were post-docs who left after a few years, but Bahrick stayed on, albeit part-time, for 10 years.

“Fitts was enormously talented in picking up relevant skills,” Bahrick recalls. “He was a pioneer at introducing the information processing approach to studying cognitive skills. That whole concept, dominant in psychological research for the past 30 years, derives directly from computer analysis,” and Fitts and his lab were “at the cutting edge.”

“He was also a superb editor,” says Bahrick “He taught me how to write. I wrote long, Germanic sentences, and he chopped them up, and chopped up my ego in the process. He taught me how to be disciplined” as a writer.

If Fitts taught him the skills, his decision to specialize in memory research was “sui generis,” Bahrick says. “I was dissatisfied even as a graduate student with the reductionist view of psychology. It stated that all of our knowledge consists of individual associations, millions of them, and if you understand the strengthening and weakening of the associations, everything else about memory would fall into line.

“I couldn’t believe that our knowledge of algebra, foreign languages, a map of downtown Baltimore were all nothing more than associations.” That, he says, was equivalent to studying cells only by studying their molecules. “I was dissatisfied with that from the get-go. As soon as I had the opportunity, I wanted to study complex memory and knowledge.”

That turned out to be possible with the advent of computers — and learning from Fitts how they could be harnessed to research. At first, Bahrick recalls, it was key-punching data on cards at OWU, then running to OSU “at midnight to get time on their computers.” Things, of course, have changed dramatically since then.

Among others whom he credits with contributing to his research success are APS Charter Member Lynda Hall, a post-doc in his lab for five years and now on the OWU faculty — “She does a better job at [teaching statistics] than I ever did” — and the late Thomas Nelson, (1942-2005), University of Maryland, best known for developing the conceptual framework for the study of metamemory, how people’s knowledge and control of their own memory functions are crucial to understanding memory performance.

“We met skiing together in Utah and became close friends,” Bahrick says of Nelson. “He influenced me in my interest in metamemory.”

One thing that sets Bahrick apart is that he devoted himself to teaching undergraduates. “If you show them how things really matter in their lives, they perk up,” he explains. “You open vistas for them, and that’s an exciting thing to do. When you get graduate students, they come already motivated because they know what they want to do.”

He estimates that “over 100 people” were motivated enough in his classrooms to go on to earn psychology doctorates, so “I guess I’m associated with their careers. I’ve been very lucky. Undergraduate teachers don’t often get credit for specific research careers.”

They’re Just Wild About Harry
Scientists whose careers he’s influenced include APS Fellows Rob Kail, Purdue University, the new editor of APS’s flagship journal, Psychological Science;  Elizabeth Phelps, former APS Board Member, whose New York University lab explores the cognitive neuroscience of memory and emotion; John Dunlosky, Kent State, who also specializes in aging and cognition; and Ruth Maki, who studies metacomprehension at Texas Tech.

Kail said he’s a psychologist today “because of Harry: As a sophomore, I was enrolled in his statistics and experimental psychology courses. The clarity of his teaching and his utter passion for psychological science convinced me that this was a discipline worth knowing and a career worth pursuing.”

For Phelps, too, Bahrick “got me started studying memory and I liked it, and I’m still doing it.” More than that, he pushed the envelope of memory research, much of which was devoted to short-term memory — 30 seconds — measurable in a single sitting. A week was considered long-term.

“Out in the real world, remembering something for a week is not really that long,” she says. “Harry was more interested in how we actually use memory in the world, in our lives. It defines who we are, dating back to our earliest memories from childhood. Harry was looking outside the science, an approach I’ve tried to take with me all through my career.”

Bahrick personally channeled Dunlosky’s career more than once. When finances forced Dunlosky to transfer away from OWU after his freshman year, Bahrick “organized a group of professors… (and) got OWU to give me a full ride,” Dunlosky reported. And when he told his mentor that he was thinking of going into computer science, Bahrick told him, “John, there is no future in computer science, but you’ll be a fine research psychologist.” (Bahrick, he conceded, remembers saying there was “no future for you in computer science.”)

It was also Bahrick who “got me into Tom Nelson’s lab,” then at the University of Washington. “That totally put my career on the right track,” said Dunlosky. Bahrick stressed that “the biggest breakthroughs in science often occur when someone introduces a new methodology to answer an important question that wasn’t approachable using previous methods. I’ve taken this to heart,” Dunlosky noted.

Maki also called Bahrick “the most influential individual” in her choice of cognitive psychology, so much so that she endowed a scholarship in his honor.

Still others among Bahrick’s academic progeny:

James Sanford, George Mason University: “I remember talking with him about possible research topics, and he gave me a sheet of paper he had already prepared that included about a dozen or 15 possible topics. I remember keeping the sheet for a number of years and looking at it some time later, seeing how current many of the topics still were.”

Richard Weist, State University of New York, Fredonia: “By a lucky course decision, I ended up in one of Bahrick’s classes. Most importantly for me, I was introduced to the fact that psychology is an interesting science as it combines mathematical precision with the investigation of the human species. Harry not only launched my career in psychology, he also motivated a lasting interest in memory processes.”

Bahrick retired from teaching in 1990, but at 82 his research is still going strong, now in the final year of a five-year grant from the National Institute on Aging, investigating cognitive aging and access to knowledge.

“When you get to be my age,” he explains, “your available knowledge declines somewhat, but the accessible knowledge declines a whole lot more. You can’t recall things that you know you know. It can be pretty frustrating.”

He and his team of six have been testing 1,000 subjects, divided among college students, 45- to 60-year-olds, and his own cohort of 70- to 85-year-olds. They analyze data on a large number of variables that might predict the gap between what you can and can’t recall from what you know. “To know these quantitative relationships will help to decide theory questions about how this gap comes about and also, possibly, what you can do about it.”

Among other things, it could lead to earlier diagnosis of Alzheimer’s — “but that remains to be seen” — as well as interventions to help in specific domains, such as helping someone remember a foreign language they used to speak.

Darryl Bruce, professor emeritus at St. Mary’s University, Halifax, Nova Scotia, and a career-long colleague, said that “Despite the difficulty of carving out a substantial research reputation for oneself at an undergraduate university, Harry… has a string of theoretical and empirical contributions that is second to none and that can only be described as remarkable. In my judgment, no one has produced a corpus of data in memory and learning of such practical significance” as his “landmark empirical studies on truly long-term retention,” such as how well we remember our high school grades or the faces of school friends.

The ultimate accolade, however, Bruce reserved for Bahrick’s “appealing personal traits and his overall general intelligence. He is self-effacing, almost to a fault, has a wonderful sense of humor, often with himself as the butt of it, and possesses a charm that befits his European background. He is well-read, is well-informed, has a writing style that I very much envy, and has a broad appreciation of history and culture.”

He’s also indefatigable. In addition to his work at OWU, he’s an adjunct professor at OSU, goes to the University of South Florida in Tampa from January to March each year to do “reading, writing, and a very little teaching,” and has a satellite laboratory at the University of Florida in Gainesville that recently completed gathering data for his research.

And he still hits the slopes.

“My dad has made few concessions to aging,” said daughter Audrey Bahrick, senior staff psychologist at the University of Iowa. “He still skis regularly and remains the best skier in the family.”

Kail added, “As I came to know Harry, I realized that his zeal wasn’t limited to his work. Harry is every bit as eager to spend time exercising (he’s a gifted tennis player, but a dreadful swimmer); traveling the world; or spending time with his wife, children, and their families. With apologies for the cliché, Harry has always lived life to its fullest and had a great time doing it!”

Psychology, you might say, is the Bahrick family business. A son, Thomas, an attorney in California, is “the only one who escaped,” says Bahrick. Audrey took some of his classes; his other daughter, Lorraine, worked summers in his lab and now has her own lab at Florida International University (see sidebar, below); and his wife, Phyllis, is a retired clinician who once worked as his research associate.

As a father, he was a stickler about languages, Audrey related. “Dad wanted his kids to learn German and developed a system of instruction he called the ‘drop out method.'” He’d read German children’s books to them, “slowly and with a lot of inflection,” then repeat the stories in English, dropping out more English at each reading. Then, “He paid us to read these same books to him (in German). The going rate was five cents a page…. I would go to him to read a few pages whenever I wanted to earn a quarter to buy a candy bar.

“Of course, he knew that this…was contrary to theories of motivation that suggest this is a poor way to instill genuine interest. However, we have all sustained some level of interest in German language.”

“Dad’s being an immigrant was an identity he felt and feels strongly,” his daughter said. “His immigration experience, a sense of how much was gained and also what was left behind, colored our family dynamics in a lot of spoken and some unspoken ways. I think we all inherited a bit of distrust of institutions, and a strong valuing of loyalty to individual relationships.”

It certainly colored some of his choices. In 2001, he returned to Austria as a visiting professor at the University of Graz — this after having held earlier visiting professorships at the German universities of Marburg (1963) and Hamburg (1971).

His early years in Austria also frame his perspective on the world and his role in it. “I start my introductory classes by quoting H.G. Wells: ‘All of history is a race between education and catastrophe.’ Education, science, it’s all we have to help us find out what makes us what we are and … [to give us] a chance of surviving in the long run. The gap between our control of our weapons and our control of ourselves is a very dangerous thing to live with.”

Which brings him back to the students. “When I started this career,” he says, “I was interested primarily in myself, my intellectual development. But it becomes more and more exciting to see students become excited by what you’re doing, and that becomes a part of you. It gives you pleasure when people tell you you’ve been important in their lives. You eventually find it isn’t a bad way to go.”

Dad Was My Career Role Model

By Lorraine Bahrick, director of the Infant Development Research Center at Florida International University, talks about her father.

Dad is absolutely remarkable in terms of his vitality and engagement with life:  He has maintained his high energy level, intense interest in his field, regular exercise of tennis and swimming, and foreign travel and ski trips well into his 9th decade.  He loves to keep fit and enjoys the out-of-doors through sailing and skiing, but only recently has been convinced to go on the occasional canoe ride or nature walk, and then treats it like an exercise workout, bolting ahead of the group.
Dad was my career role model, but I carved out a completely different niche from his, cognitive and perceptual development in infancy and childhood rather than adulthood.  From watching my dad when I was young, I thought it was easy to balance everything — teaching, research, appointments, meetings with students, reading, keeping up with the news, finances, and personal priorities. Wrong!
I remember visiting my dad’s office at Ohio Wesleyan when I was young, seeing his desk piled high with papers that appeared to be strewn haphazardly about, with only a tiny space cleared for work (after he had spent great effort organizing his office).  He bragged that he could find anything, like in an archaeological dig, by estimating how far down the pile it would be.  I thought that important people had very messy desks, piled with papers.  Even though I later discovered the messy approach was very inefficient for me — and to this day struggle to keep the piles off of my desk — I certainly had the important part right.


I think his finding that first encounter with foreign words in second language learning matters significantly is a very insightful and utterly empirical contribution to effective pedagogy.

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