BARTLETT, Frederick Charles

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Person

20th October 1886 to 30th September 1969

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Biographical Text

Bartlett was an experimental psychologist who spent most of his career at Cambridge. He was noted in later years for his work in social psychology and cognition. During the Second World War his work on stress was widely studied and used by the armed forces, especially the Royal Air Force. 

Bartlett was born in Stow-on-the-Wold, Gloucestershire, on 20 October 1886, the son of a bootmaker. He suffered from poor health as a child and was educated at home. He received a BA in philosophy from the University of London’s Correspondence College in 1909 and an MA in ethics and sociology in 1911. His health having improved to a degree, he studied anthropology at St John’s College, Cambridge and received a first in part one of the moral sciences tripos in 1914. At St John’s, Bartlett studied with two leading psychologists of the day, W.H.R. Rivers and C.S. Myers. When Rivers and Myers both left to do military service (both became famous during the war for their pioneering work with shell-shock victims), Bartlett took over as temporary director of the university’s experimental psychology laboratory. In 1922 that post was finally made permanent. In 1920, Bartlett married fellow psychologist Emily Smith. In 1931 he was appointed as Cambridge’s first professor of experimental psychology. 

During the Second World War Bartlett was a member of the Flying Personnel Research Committee at the Air Ministry, and also a member of the Medical Research Council. His laboratory at Cambridge researched problems such as human performance and behaviour under stress, and also the cognitive ability to operate complex machines such as radios and radar systems. Later, with the establishment of the Applied Psychology Unit in 1944, under the auspices of the Medical Research Council, the laboratory also began to work on problems of cybernetics and man-machine interfaces. Bartlett became deeply interested in the similarities between cognitive process and machine action. After the Second World War this research evolved into a series of experiments on the efficiency of people at work. From 1924-48 Bartlett was also editor of the British Journal of Psychology. 

Bartlett received many honours for his work. He received the CBE in 1941, and in 1948 was knighted for his war work. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1932, received the Society’s Baly and Huxley Medals in 1943 and its royal medal in 1952. In 1964 he received the gold medal of the International Academy of Aviation and Space Medicine. The universities of Oxford, London, Edinburgh, Princeton, Louvain, Athens and Padua all awarded him honorary degrees. Bartlett retired in 1952 but continued to act as a consultant to researchers at Cambridge for many years thereafter, and one of his major works, Thinking, was not published until some years after his official retirement. He died in Cambridge on 30 September 1969. 

Bartlett’s most important works are Remembering (1932) and Thinking (1958). In Remembering, Bartlett reports on a series of experiments with human memory. He concluded that memory is haphazard and inaccurate. The memory does not record many impressions which are received by the senses, while at the same time, many things which are recorded in the memory later prove to be inventions or fictions. In one experiment called ‘The War of the Ghosts’, Bartlett asked his subjects to listen to a Native American folktale. He found that their memories of what they had heard were patchy and erratic, and also that there was a strong element of cultural conditioning to memory; people tended to interpret the story and remember it according to their own English cultural values.  

In Thinking, Bartlett returns to some of these themes and also looked at cognitive process in more detail. Subjects were given an unfinished story and asked to complete it in a realistic manner. The results gave Bartlett considerable insights into how the mind constructs narratives and images. Other notable work includes his book on military stress, Psychology and the Soldier, and work on psychology in primitive societies and the role of propaganda. 

On the face of it, there is little in Bartlett’s career to suggest that his lecture, ‘Psychological qualities in leadership and management’, will contain any striking insights. It comes as something of a surprise then to find that Bartlett has anticipated some elements of modern leadership theory by many decades. At the beginning of the lecture he rejects the contemporary idea that leaders have an innate ability to lead and command. ‘A leader’s power over his followers varies from instance to instance’, said Bartlett, ‘and he must know wherein that power resides…if he is to maintain his command.’ Particularly striking, and in advance of its time, is Bartlett’s view that leadership resides in the space between the leader and the group. ‘All leadership is in the nature of an interplay between the man who leads and the group which is led. It is as true that the group makes the leader as that the leader makes the group.’ 

Bartlett goes on to classify leaders into three types: the institutional leader, the dominant leader and the persuasive leader. The institutional leader is ‘one who maintains his position by virtue of the office which he holds rather than of his personal character.’ The dominant leader ‘is of the ardent emotional type’, one who leads by inspiration, example and force of charisma. This type of leader can be very effective, says Bartlett, particularly if he has the power of empathy and can gather people around him; on the other hand, enthusiasm may sometimes lead dominant leaders to get carried away. The persuasive leader is more clinical and relies on the ability to intuit the feelings of others and then build consensus through persuasion and dialogue. This is all very well, says Bartlett, but this type of leader can also be rather cold, tending to use people to gain advantage rather than for their own benefit. 

Bartlett also discusses the difference between the leader and the ‘staff’, anticipating the 1980s separation of leadership and management. Good leaders care about people, maintains Bartlett, while good staff officers care about things. He discusses also whether it is possible for tests to identify leadership characteristics in people, and concludes that current tests cannot do so. He does come up with one intriguing suggestion: that companies should keep libraries, and observation should be made of what each person reads. One can tell a great deal about a person’s mental make-up, says Bartlett, by the books they read. 

Bartlett’s view of leadership as, in effect, a social interaction is coloured by his early work on battlefield stress and on primitive societies. The lecture offers a view of leadership that is as much anthropological as psychological. It would be interesting to see how he might have developed his views on leadership further, in light of the experiments described in Remembering and the understanding of how patchy and distorted cognitive processes can be. Certainly some of Bartlett’s ideas need to be picked up and re-assessed in the light of current knowledge. 

Major works  

Psychology and Primitive Culture, 1923. 
Psychology and the Soldier, 1927. 
Remembering: A Study in Experimental and Social Psychology, 1932. 
Political Propaganda, 1934. 
The Mind at Work and Play, 1951. 
Thinking: An Experimental and Social Study, 1958. 



Bibliography

Broadbent, D.E., ‘Frederick Bartlett, 1886-1969’, Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society 16, pp. 1-13, 1970. 

Broadbent, D.E., ‘Bartlett, Frederick Charles’, in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004. 

Roediger, H.L., ‘Sir Frederick Charles Bartlett: Experimental and Applied Psychologist’, in G.A. Kimble and M. Wertheimer (eds), Portraits of Pioneers in Psychology, vol. 4, Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum. 

Rosa, A., ‘Sir Frederick Bartlett (1886-1969): An Intellectual Biography’, Sir Frederick Bartlett Archive, University of Cambridge, http://www.bartlett.psychol.cam.ac.uk/Intellectual%20Biography.htm  

Welford, A., ‘The Life and Work of Frederick C. Bartlett’, in A. Saito (ed.), Bartlett, Culture and Cognition, London: Psychology Press. 

Citation

“BARTLETT, Frederick Charles,” The Rowntree Business Lectures and the Interwar British Management Movement, accessed March 30, 2020, http://rowntree.exeter.ac.uk/items/show/590.