All the (Pseudo)Science That’s Fit to Print

“Behind the ears, and directly above the Mastoid Process, is located a brain organ by the name of Vitativeness.”

So begins the December 1905 issue of
Human Nature.

“Its Physiological function gives compactness of body,” the author continues. “That is to say, when the faculty is large, it is accompanied by hardness of bone and muscle, and the flesh is always Lean and tightly packed on the bones, indicating tenacity of life akin to the cat, tiger or lion and other members of the feline race.”

It’s something all good science writers know: If you can, lead with the mastoid process. And when you finish, finish with the feline race.

This issue joins over 2,500 popular psychology magazines, the earliest from 1875, housed at the Cummings Center for the History of Psychology at the University of Akron. Titles in the collection range from the straightforward (Human Behaviorto the narcissistic (YOU) and from the temporally relevant (Psychology Today) to the occult (Psychic Power).

The magazines showcase the best and worst about behavioral science communication over the past century-and-a-half. At their best, the magazines nourished people’s desire to understand more about what it means to be human. At their worst, they exploited that desire with self-help snake oil and pseudoscience.  

Below is a selection of the magazine covers and pages that made me laugh, cringe, and lean in.

They also offered the chance to reflect. As you view the magazines below and read lines like “Phrenologists Study the EXTERIOR Side of Man and Thereby Discover the Key to His Character” and “It is hard for a man to think or reason with a narrow and contracted upper forehead,” you can’t help but wonder what our predecessors were thinking. However, it’s not too hard to imagine that we might one day be the target of similar distain; in 125 years, our claims might look equally ridiculous. And while the field no longer hangs its hat on the contours of a skull, you can see that the problems people write and read about haven’t changed all that much. Loneliness is still lethal, psychology is still influencing elections, and love and sex are still very much on our minds.

There’s a lesson in these images: Be humble. As behavioral science takes a more prominent role in governments and organizations around the world, we’d all do well to ask ourselves and our colleagues, Where are my blindspots, lest we continue to sound the drum of Vitativeness.

Human Nature, December 1905

Human Nature, November 1904

One interesting note: It seems the illustration of the “observer and thinker,” to say nothing of “the thinker but not an observer,” doesn’t quite capture what the author imagined it would. “Our artist did not do justice to his ears, nor give sufficient width and fullness between the eyes. The Face does not correspond with the Head,” the author writes. “Otherwise the sketches illustrate our meaning.”

Phrenology, December 1875

In this issue, “Successfulness of Success” would definitely be the article to bookmark.

Psychology, November 1932

The Modern Psychologist, September 1937

(We won’t be doing the follow-up story on bestial psychopaths.)

Psychoanalysis (comic), March-April 1955

Psychoanalysis had a short life, lasting a mere four issues. They may not have done the best job selling readers on their idea. “An analysis, ordinarily, is a fairly long procedure . . . frequently taking two or more years. If an outsider was given the privilege of listening in on an actual analysis, the main effect upon him would be a boredom beyond all endurance,” reads their inaugural issue. Despite it’s short run, Psychoanalysis did build a reputation for challenging prevailing gender stereotypes, as shown by the cover below.

Your Psychology, May 1957

(Don’t show the Vice President Walter Robinson’s article, on page 9.)

Psychology Today, May 1967

In this issue of Psychology Today, Stanley Milgram published his famous study on social connections, titled “The Small-World Problem.” In the experiment, people in Omaha, Nebraska and Wichita, Kansas were instructed to mail a package to a specific person in Boston whom they did not know. To get the package to its destination, participants were told to send it to a person they knew who would have the best chance of knowing the target (or knowing someone who knew the target person). Milgram measured the number of people the package passed though before it reached its intended destination. He found that, on average, it took just under six steps to get there. This result gave birth to the idea of six degrees of separation (and eventually Kevin Bacon)—that any two people on earth are connected by six social links. (It’s likely closer to three or four.) Also noteworthy in this issue is the reprint of Aldous Huxley’s “Human Potentialities.”

Human Behavior, February 1978

Scientific American Mind, January-February 2010


Special thanks to Cathy Faye, assistant director of the Cummings Center for the History of Psychology and the president-elect of the Society for the History of Psychology (APA Division 26), who introduced me to the magazine collection, officially titled the Ludy T. Benjamin, Jr. Popular Psychology Magazine Collection.