Synopsis for Great Psychologists

Simonton, D. K. (2002).
Great Psychologists and Their Times: Scientific Insights into Psychology’s History.
Washington, DC: APA Books.

Although this book is considered by its author to be the best he has ever written, it is unfortunately out of print. APA Books at the very outset incorrectly advertised it as an edited volume dealing with the history of psychology rather than a single-authored text discussing the history of psychology from the perspective of the metasciences, and especially the psychology of science. Indeed, according to Google Scholar, the book did not even exist, and the author completely failed to convince Google’s technical staff otherwise! To remedy this rather unfortunate fate, the author has here posted virtually the complete text, tables, figures, and references, albeit the text in the form of notes. Nothing important is missing. For errata, go here.

SYNOPSIS (with detailed notes, tables, figures, and complete references)


The book begins with two chapters that define the terms of the discussion. What does it mean to attain eminence in psychology? How can the history of psychology be subjected to scientific analysis?

Chapter 1. Eminence in Psychology (notes)

In this introductory chapter I examine the various ways that individuals can contribute to the emergence of psychology as a science. In particular, it discusses the contributions of philosophers, scientists, and psychologists.

Chapter 2. History and Science (notes)

The second introductory chapter defines the different means by which psychology’s history might be understood. Special emphasis is placed on the following alternative perspectives: genius versus zeitgeist as causal agents; internal versus external influences; presentist versus historicist narratives; idiographic versus nomothetic analyses; quality versus quantity in phenomena; deterministic versus stochastic descriptions. The chapter concludes with a discussion of how the psychology of science, and especially the psychology of psychological science, can provide scientific insights into the figures who have contributed most to psychology’s development.


Chapter 1 only scratched the surface of a complex and difficult issue: What must a psychologist do to attain a high degree of recognition in the field? The three chapters of Part II subject this question to much greater empirical scrutiny.

Chapter 3. Individual Differences in Productivity and Eminence (notes)

Individuals vary greatly on most psychological attributes and behaviors, and psychologists are no exception. Here I review the two main ways that psychologists can differ with respect to their influence on the discipline. First, I review what has been learned about creative output, including the cross-sectional distribution, the relation between quantity and quality, the longitudinal stability of individual differences, contrasts in the type of contribution, and the basis for long-term influence. Second, I examine what we know about differences in eminence. In particular, I look at the degree of consensus, the cross-sectional distribution, the correlation between eminence and lifetime productivity, and the stability of eminence across time.

Chapter 4. Longitudinal Changes in Creativity (notes)

One of the oldest research topics in psychological science is the relation between age and achievement, so it is reasonable to ask about the nature of this relation for great psychologists. I specifically examine the typical career trajectory in output, discuss the relation between quantity and quality of output, and look at how the age curve varies according to the type of contribution. I then integrate these results with those of the previous chapter by presenting a cognitive model of individual differences in career development.

Chapter 5. The Creative Product in Psychology (notes)

This treatment of output and impact concludes by switching the unit of analysis from psychologists to the products on which their reputations rest. I begin by reviewing what we have learned about highly successful research programs, and then turn to the issue of why some publications have more impact than others.


Presumably, individual differences in output and impact are ultimately grounded in the psychological characteristics of the psychologists. In other words, great psychologists differ from their less-renowned colleagues on the basis of various personal attributes that contribute in some way to creative productivity.

Chapter 6. Cognition (notes)

One obvious possibility is that the attainment of distinction depends on the possession of exceptionally high degrees of intellectual ability. After investigating the psychometric and historiometric research on this question, I turn to another possibility, namely that it depends on specific mental strategies and processes. I conclude with a discussion of how the impact of three cognitive attributes – intelligence, imagery, and versatility – vary across scientific disciplines. Do great psychologists think like other great scientists?

Chapter 7. Disposition (notes)

It is often claimed that creativity entails personality disposition than just a cognitive capacity, a claim that is examined in the current chapter. Do great psychologists exhibit a characteristic set of personality traits, whether motivational or social? A complete response to this question leads to a treatment of the “mad-genius” issue, a classic controversy that assumes an ironic form when applied to psychology’s history. Did the principal figures in the emergence of psychology have an inclination toward psychological disorders?

Chapter 8. Worldview (notes)

Part III concludes with a look at the belief systems that underlie the life and work of any creative person. I begin by examining whether great psychologists exhibit any distinctive religious leanings. From there I treat the relation between a psychologist’s long-term impact on the field and his or her philosophy of psychological science. Which theoretical or methodological orientations are most conducive to a psychologist’s posthumous reputation?


The preceding two parts focused on individual differences. Where do these individual differences originate? Can we identify developmental factors that set certain individuals on the path toward distinction in the discipline?

Chapter 9. Family Background (notes)

The quest for developmental correlates begins in the home environment, including such aspects as socioeconomic class, religion, ethnicity, and geographical origins. Special attention is given to the possible influence of two distinct factors: birth order and traumatic experiences.

Chapter 10. Career Training (notes)

Despite the impressive inventory of family-background variables, some other developmental factors must participate as well, and certainly career training is among them. Most of the chapter concentrates on various aspects of formal education, including the highest degree obtained, the level of scholastic performance, the rate of educational progress, the prestige of the instructional institutions, and, most critical, the distinction of the mentors. The chapter ends with a look at the consequences of self-education and professional marginality – two means of obtaining an expertise that departs from mainstream training in the field.

Chapter 11. Maturity and Aging (notes)

Once a psychologist’s career begins, how does it develop? How does the career of a great psychologist differ from those of less illustrious colleagues? What place does marriage and family have in a highly accomplished career? Does one’s personal life have to be sacrificed for professional attainment? And what happens at the end? Are great psychologists blessed with lives not just productive, but long besides?

Chapter 12. Nature versus Nurture (notes)

The most difficult developmental question was saved for last: the nature-nurture issue. I first examine this question in a more general way, by discussing the genetic basis of creative genius. Modern behavior genetics is shown to provide a reasonable solution to the genes-versus-environment debate. I then scrutinize a more specific case of the nature-nurture issue: the relation between gender and genius. In particular, I evaluate whether the relative dearth of women in the annals of psychology has a biological or cultural foundation.


In the last part of Chapter 12 I argued that the low representation of women among great psychologists says more about the sociocultural system than about women per se. The impact of the internal and external milieu now becomes the subject of the three chapters that make up Part V.

Chapter 13. Internal Milieu (notes)

To a certain extent the emergence of notable psychologists may depend on intellectual movements or trends within psychology itself. This possibility is examined in terms of the sociocultural phenomena and processes suggested by Kroeber, Comte, Kuhn, Hegel, and Merton. Part of this discussion includes an examination of what this research implies about psychology’s status as a scientific enterprise.

Chapter 14. External Milieu (notes)

Although Chapter 13 made it manifest that psychology’s history is shaped by internal forces, that conclusion does not rule out the effects of external forces as well. In this chapter I review what we have learned about how the political, social, cultural, and economic Zeitgeist can impinge on psychological science. Some of these effects are quantitative in that they determine the number of great psychologists that are likely to appear at a given time and place. Other effects are qualitative, that is, they leave an impression on the very content of psychological thought.

Chapter 15. Genius versus Zeitgeist (notes)

The preceding chapters may leave the impression that Genius is totally at the mercy of the Zeitgeist. This conclusion is unjustified on both theoretical and empirical grounds. On the theoretical side, there are several reasons why the notable contributors to psychology cannot be completely explained in terms of a sociocultural reductionism. Instead, individual and situational factors operate in a complex interactive system. Something of this complexity is illustrated in two empirical studies of the operation of the Ortgeist and Zeitgeist in the careers of great psychologists, scientists, and philosophers.


After having reviewed all the empirical literature on great psychologists and their times, it becomes necessary to discuss the consequences of this body of work for the discipline of psychology.

Chapter 16. Research and Teaching (notes)

Discussion of these implications begins with an overview of the many important issues that still deserve more empirical investigation. Moreover, I discuss the problem of trying to provide comprehensive theoretical interpretations of all of these diverse results. The answers to these empirical and theoretical questions may also have consequences for the teaching of psychology at both undergraduate and graduate levels. Especially provocative is the possibility that this research can be used not only to make each psychologist a better scientist, but also to make psychology a better science.


P.S.: I recently discovered a copy with all except the references located here. I have no idea how it got there or whether it can be considered a violation of copyright.

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