Black Box : LUSENET : History & Theory of Psychology : One Thread

Can anyone tell me who the first one was to use the term "black box"? Often the theories of Skinner and Watson are mentioned in the same breath as this expression, but I'd like to know where it came from and who actually made the comparison between the Behaviorists' theory and the "black box".

-- Adina Mornell (, May 01, 2003


This won’t answer your question (I don’t know the answer), but it may provide some useful leads. The term “black box” appears to have arisen in engineering contexts. Consider this quotation.

“Any component in a system may itself be a complex system whose internal operations can be ignored if the summarizing input-output function is known. In this case the engineer calls it a “black box,” an exact synonym of the psychologist’s “empty organism.” (pp. 642-643)

[Douglas G. Ellinson, 1959, Linear frequency theory as a behavior theory. In S. Koch, Ed., Psychology: A study of a science, General systematic formulations, Learning and special processes, pp. 637-662, New York: McGraw-Hill)

“Empty organism” psychology was, of course, closely associated with the S-R (stimulus-response) psychology of Watson and Skinner, but exactly who first applied “black box” to “empty organism” in psychology may be difficult to pin down.

I can point you to a reference late in B. F. Skinner’s career when he discussed the “black box.” See his book, Upon further reflection, 1987, Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, pages 105-108. Skinner cited a reference that I do not have handy that might get you closer to the answer to your original question. Meanwhile, I will keep looking and hoping you or someone posts it!

-- Roger K. Thomas (, May 05, 2003.

[Posted for FW by cdg.]

I think the term originally came from engineering and referred to mechanisms whose principles of operation were unknown but whose mode of action could be predicted by developing equations connecting inputs to the mechanism with its outputs. I suspect it dates to the 1950s or perhaps the late 1940s. As to when it entered the psychology vocabulary, my bet would be that it emerged during the development of the hybrid psychology-engineering field known as human factors after World War II (originally known as aviation psychology). The key figure in that development was Paul Fitts, who began the Aviation Psychology Laboratory at Ohio State, in conjunction with an Air Force Research Unit at Wright Patterson Air Force Base. Fitts later moved to the University of Michigan. I wonder if David Bakan knows something of this, since he worked at the Ohio State Labs in the 1950s.

-- Fred Weizmann (, May 05, 2003.

[Posted for SB by cdg.]

Since this is a box which is eponymously named after me, I also thought I'd have a try at answering the question. The Oxford English Dictionary says the term is "Royal Air Force slang for navigational instrument in aeroplane, later extended to denote any automatic apparatus performing intricate function". It gives a usage quote dated 1674, which seems a tad early for the Royal Air Force, but on inspection turns out to be for the "black Box" as coffin, not the same thing at all.

The Random House Dictionary (2nd, 1987) defines it as "any comparatively small, usually black, box containing a secret, mysterious, or complex mechanical or electronic device" and dates it to 1940-45.

The on-line Merriam-Webster says:

Date: circa 1945 1 : a usually complicated electronic device that functions and is packaged as a unit and whose internal mechanism is usually hidden from or mysterious to the user; broadly : anything that has mysterious or unknown internal functions or mechanisms which, except for the electronics, is pretty much the way it's used in psychology. So it appears to be generally in use around Skinner's day, and it wouldn't have been much of a stretch to use it in a psychological context. However, finding the first person to do it is much tougher. I checked Skinner's (1953) _Science and Human Behavior_, and it's not in the index. But neither is "black girl", although Skinner does use this term in quoting from Shaw. So perhaps it's in there somewhere.

PsycINFO back to 1872 gives 224 references to "black box" although a good number of these are literal. The earliest entry in PsycINFO to the kind of metaphorical black box we're looking for is Winthrop (1963). He says "The possible advantages of a centrist approach are compared with those of a "black box" approach. [Placing it within quotes seems to be common in these early references].

That's about as far back as I can trace it in in psychology. Of course books were only added to the database in 1987. Pity.

Stephen Black

Winthrop, H. (1963). Some considerations concerning the status of phenomenology. Journal of General Psychology, 68, 127-140. ______________________________________________________

-- Stephen Black (sblack@UBISHOPS.CA), May 05, 2003.

[Posted for RE by cdg.]

The earliest place I know of the term being used for an unknown nervous process is by von Neumann in a paper delivered at the Hixon Symposium in 1947 or 1948. It was published by Lloyd A. Jeffress, though I forget the exact title. The Hixon Symposium is part of the full title.

-- Rand Evans (EVANSR@MAIL.ECU.EDU), May 05, 2003.

In my earlier answer, I meant to include the reference that Skinner cited. He cited it in the following abbreviated form.

H. Shevrin and S. Dickman, American Psychologist, 35 (1980), 421.

Skinner cited them as writing, "behaviorism...must accommodate itself to accepting the importance of what goes on inside the 'black box,' especially since we now have methods for investigating its contents." Skinner's point was to proceed from there and question those methods. I have not gotten to the library to see whether it will be fruitful, and it is a long shot, but Shevrin and Dickson may have mentioned the early or first uses in psychology of "black box."

However, I think Rand Evans may have located the source of the "black box" in psychology. I have the Hixon Symposium (held in 1948 but published in 1951), and von Neumann's chapter, "The general and logical theory of automata." includes five specific references to "black box." It would require quoting too much, etc. here to show von Neumann's use, but as I read it and given the other symposium paper presenters(Halstead, Kluver, Kohler, Lashley, and McCulloch) and additional discussants and participants, this would have been fertile ground in which to establish the "black box" as a metaphor in psychology. The citation for the Hixon Symposium is:

Jeffress, L. A. (Ed.).(1951). Cerebral mechanisms in behavior: The Hixon Symposium. New York: John Wiley & Sons.

-- Roger K. Thomas (, May 06, 2003.

[Posted for RAL by cdg.]

My earliest association of Black Box is with Don Broadbent's paper in the early 1950's. I haven't checked it out, however. He was engineer trained and input-output analysis was (and is ) a characteristic methodology of engineering though a good deal more sophisticted and going under various names these days. In any case, it is possible that Don borrowed the expression from his engineeering colleagues. As a final note, there was an architect with the name Broadbent in the 1970s who used the expression in his analysis of the nature of architecture; whether he was related to "our" Donald Broadbent I do not know.

-- Richard A. Littman (, May 07, 2003.

[Posted TF for by cdg.]

The following appears in English & English (1958) Dictionary of Psychological and Psychoanalytical Terms:
Blackbox: A formal model used in fomulating hypothetical constructs: given a certain input, what musyt be hypothesized as taking place in the blackbox to account for the output. In psychology, the organism (or just the nervous system) may be conceived as a blackbox, nothing being known about what is inside. The correlations between input and output on many occasions enable certain inferences to be made, not about what the mechanism inside is but how it works. Such conceptualization is familiar in psychology -- only the analogy to a blackbox is new.

The final statement suggests that 1950s, perhaps Broadbent would be a useful time period for its origin. The term does not appear in Warren's 1934 dictionary.

-- Tom Fagan (tom-fagan@MAIL.PSYC.MEMPHIS.EDU), May 07, 2003.

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