Neal Miller

100 Year Anniversary

Phil Zimbardo Remembers Neal Miller

April 15, 1954 was the date. I think it was noontime, for sure; it was at the New Yorker Hotel, where I first encountered Neal Miller; he was the featured highlight of EPA that year. It was the occasion of his giving a brilliant lecture summarizing years of research on motivation and reward-in rats. It was so clear and precise that even a neophyte like me could understand its significance. But as kid on his way to Yale University, what impressed me most was that this great man took the time to give name credit to every student who had worked in his laboratory on a particular experiment. Wow!  I thought that maybe someday I might be one of those Millerites being so prominently mentioned to colleagues.


Little could I have imagined that in a few years I would be doing research under his mentorship that would result in a publication in the then prestigious JCPP-- with me as senior author and Neal Miller as junior (Zimbardo & Miller, 1958). That however, is getting way ahead of our story. I had switched out of my initial interest in majoring in psychology after receiving the only C grade in my life in Introductory Psychology. Instead, I majored in Sociology/Anthropology until senior year when a friend talked me into partnering with him in the required experimental psychology lab course. He (Jerry Platt) hated those kinds of experiments and switched into Sociology, while I discovered my passion was doing research and added Psychology as my new major. I had a lot to make up in a short time and worked hard at doing so.

My favorite teacher, Hal Proshansky, hated S-R theory, which he identified as being promoted at Yale by the anti-Gestalists, jokingly referring to them as, “Millard and Dullard!” So here was the alleged enemy in the form of a big, gentle, soft-spoken Teddy Bear as far as I was concerned. With a penetrating mind that ranged far and wide, always open to alternative perspectives, Miller was the ultimate scientist.


The reason that date stuck in my mind forever, and why an undergrad would be attending a psych convention was that it was the day I was interviewed a few hours earlier by a young Yale assistant professor, K.C. Montgomery, for a job as his RA, because his first choice, Gordon Bower had bolted the last minute to get an M.A. at U. Minnesota in Philosophy of Science. Montgomery was holding a big NSF grant to do pioneering research on exploratory behavior and now without an assistant. Yale had been my first choice, but I was ready to head off to Minnesota to work with Stanley Schachter when Montgomery called on April 14 asking me to hold off that decision until he interviewed me the next day in New York at the bar in the New Yorker Hotel. The reason that he selected me is because Yale never rejected me officially, nor of course accepted me. I was in the “not sure” category; the reason being, as I learned years later from Hal Kelly, who had taught there my first year before heading off for his distinguished career at UCLA-the psychology department had come to the belief that I was a Black candidate. I won’t go through here the circumstantial evidence amassed to support that mistaken attribution, but suffice it to say that at least some members of the department did not want me to be the first Black graduate student because I would likely not make it and it would be unfair to me and my race to have such a failure-rejection.

On Being a Rat Runner


Although I had applied as interested in social psychology, I found myself a rat runner for the next three year, not just running, but breeding them, nurturing them, cleaning their cages, building a huge number of small cages for sensory and behavioral deprivation as well as large ones, like rat play pens for studying the effects of enriched environmental rearing on exploratory behavior. At one point, I was in charge of the largest rat colony in the department!  Sadly, Montgomery committed suicide during my second year after trying to cope with clinical depression earlier. I applied to NSF to take over his grant, and with the help of Fred Sheffield as the official grantee, and Neal Miller as mentor-in- residence, I was awarded the remainder of the grant and completed all the research Montgomery had envisioned plus some on the side. I did research on sexual behavior with Frank Beach because as part of breeding rats to go into various rearing conditions as soon as they could be separated from their mothers, I had been a rat matchmaker and knew something about the sexual behavior of the adult white rat. The availability of my lab and my rats, and by then, my ability to build equipment, encouraged Neal to be willing to work with me on a project we developed as part of his Learning course-relating basic drives to exploratory behavior in a modified learned fear double alley apparatus. (For an appreciation of Montgomery’s contributions please sees Kaleuff & Zimbardo, 2006.)


Neal’s Required Learning Course

But, back to that first year of 1954-55 at Cedar Street Psychology Department. We were all required to take Neal’s learning course the first term and we experimentalists had to take the second term as well. Although this note is part of an ode to his greatness, I must admit that the wonderfully brilliant lecturer that entranced me at EPA the previous spring, was not to found leading that course. I imagine he had done it too long and had lost personal interest in it, so it was a tedious exercise for him and at least it was for me. The second term was more daunting because we each had to prepare and deliver an hour long formal lecture to our peers on some issue or controversy in learning, conditioning, or motivation.  Neal suffered through them as best he could, but sleep won out over any curiousity our talks were intended to generate. But we had to keep going despite any snoring or nodding off. And more often than not, the end of the talk silence proved to be his discriminative stimulus to awake with a poignant observation or penetrating question. The other unique feature of that course was the final exam composed of about 300 M.C.– questions- most available with the answer key in the medical school library reserve-that we memorized verbatim and would test each other until we could give the correct answer after hearing only the opening phrase. Neal would add about 25 new questions each year to keep the course up to date and us on our toes. I discovered later he did if for two reasons: as an intense-learning and review session, and also to show off to his colleagues how much his students were learning- mastering since the least able student got more than 275 correct answers on this massive test.

Doing Research with Neal

My course talk was naturally on the challenges to traditional drive-reduction theory posed by this new research on curiousity and exploratory behavior. Neal was in transition then on the matter and would hold that drive-reduction as a causal mechanism in learning by behaviors that reduced strong drives was still tenable but might need modification.  He challenged me with a design to show some compatibility between the motivating effects of hunger and exploratory drive on an instrumental behavior of running down an alley to get to food or a novel compartment. My intense interaction with Neal in every aspect of this study from planning to execution to publishing has had an enduring impact on all my later research regardless of the domain. He insisted on considerable pre-testing of each feature of the study, anticipating confounds and artifacts to deal with up front and not simply to dismiss in the Discussion section of the publication. He said you should run enough subjects in pre-testing until you are sure of getting the predicted outcome, so that you can then run the minimal number in the actual experiment. (We did not know about statistical power tests in those days.) And he forced me to rewrite each section of the article many times until we got it just right.  Although I had assumed he would be senior author, he insisted on my taking the lead, an act of academic generosity all too rare in our profession.


Gordon Bower Becomes Neal’s Prize Student

Interestingly, the next year I met my benefactor, Gordon Bower, whose last minute decision to bolt out of his RA with Montgomery had opened the hallowed halls of Ivy to me. (As my uneducated mother would say, I was an Ivory leaguer now.) Gordon and I became friends right on despite the vast differences in our backgrounds. We roomed together on Howard Avenue, he quickly became a star in Miller Industries, we fed and watered each other’s rats during holidays when the other was away, we talked shop all the time we were not playing stickball in the medical school gym in the middle of the night.  Gordon modeled dedication to his profession, along with an endless curiosity about a wide range of issues, coupled with an unparalleled willingness to read everything in great detail about any topic that captured his interest. To this day, his opinion about any colleagues’ research is my standard because his opinions are always based on having read much or all that had been written. Since being honored as the best man in his wedding to Sharon Anthony, we have remained buddies all during our time at Stanford (I believe his approval probably was key to my getting to be Leon Festinger’s replacement in 1968, when the job probably should have gone to Elliott Aronson, as Leon’s star pupil.)


Neal, The Ultimate Scientist, Even at the Dinner Table

My last story about Neal occurred in 1969 following a demonstration I had done during a talk on hypnosis and cognitive control at the International Congress of Psychology. To prove the power of hypnotic suggestions to alter personal experience of pain, I invited an audience member, French social psychologist and anti-American, Serge Moscovici, to pierce the skin of my left hand with a long hat pin borrowed from a nearby woman’s hear (Susan Sarnoff)-while I continued to lecture. I had induced autohypnosis by earlier practice cued to words written in the margin of my prepared notes. It worked! No pain despite the apparent pain-inducing instrument sticking through my skin.

That evening, I was having dinner with Neal and others (I recall British social psychologist Hilda Himmelweit as a dominant figure) at a lovely restaurant when he confronted me about that demonstration. “How do we know that the effect was only because you have no pain receptors in that hand, that you are congenitally insensitive to pain? Why did you not then do it to the other hand?” He then asked to redo it right there by sticking my hand with his fork after determining that my hand sensed various stimulation while I had my eyes closed. The other guests got upset and did not want him to proceed with this mid dinner demo of pain control. “Ok, he countered, let me see you make that hand hotter than normal.” I did some mind control and imagined my hand next to a heater; Neal admitted it seemed some what warmer, but it might simply be from tensing my muscles. Finally, by desert he came up with the ultimate test of hypnotic-mental control over physiological processes:  “Make one hand hotter than normal, while at the same time, making the other colder than normal!”


Mental Control of Peripheral Skin Temperature

 Wow, that I knew would be hard and hardly a simple dinner demo. Neal then said, “Of course, we have to have precise quantitative measures of skin temperature of each hand simultaneously as well as control parts of your arm.” He then invited me to his laboratory at Rockefeller University to do some pre-testing on this matter. I went the next year and seemed to have satisfied this demanding test, but his skin temperature recording apparatus was not working as reliably as he wanted for a sure assessment. Meanwhile, back at Stanford, I made arrangements with the dermatology department to use their precise skin temperature equipment to record from multiple simultaneous skin sites. I then trained a small group of highly hypnotizable students to enter deep hypnosis and to experience the suggested changes in skin temperature while attached to these many skin electrodes, as well as myself with observers present.  The result? A few of us were indeed able to mentally direct the temperature in each hand to change in opposite directions simultaneously-for a short, though quantifiably measurable, period. I shared the results with Neal and he admitted being reluctantly impressed.  I also invited him to co-author the publication given it was his paradigm, but he wanted me to have full credit and share authorship with my graduate students (See Maslach, Marshall,  & Zimbardo, 1972).


I am indebted for the opportunity to know, learn from, and do research with this great scientist, and wonderful human being. My life and career have benefitted so much from being close to all the virtues he modeled so effectively and so modestly. 



 Kalueff, A. V., & Zimbardo, P. G. (2006). Behavioral neuroscience, exploration, and

K.C. Montgomery’s legacy. Brain Research Reviews. 328

 Maslach, C., Marshall, G., & Zimbardo, P. G. (1972).  Hypnotic control of peripheral skin temperature:  A case report.  Psychophysiology, 9, 600-605.

 Zimbardo, P. G., & Miller, N. E. (1958).  The facilitation of exploration by hunger in rats.  Journal of Comparative and Physiological Psychology, 51, 43-46.

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