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Kenneth Spence was known for his theoretical and experimental studies of conditioning and learning. His analyses and interpretations of the theories of other psychologists also were very influential. Spence was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1954 and was a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the American Psychological Association (APA).
The son of Mary E. Wartinbee and William James Spence, an electrical engineer, Spence was born in Chicago, Illinois, in 1907, but he grew up in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. Spence attended West Hill High School and McGill University in Montreal, earning his bachelor's degree in 1929 and his master's degree the following year. He won the Wales Gold Medal in Mental Sciences from McGill in 1929 and the university's Governor-General's Medal for Research in 1930. Moving to Yale University, Spence studied with the famous primate biologist Robert M. Yerkes and with the behavioral psychologist Clark L. Hull. Spence's early work was concerned with discrimination learning in animals. After receiving his Ph.D. in psychology in 1933, Spence was a National Research Council fellow and research assistant, working with chimpanzees at the Yale Laboratories of Primate Biology in Orange Park., Florida.
In 1937, Spence became an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Virginia and, a year later, he moved to the State University of Iowa (now the University of Iowa) in Iowa City, as an associate professor. Spence was particularly interested in learning and conditioning. He extended the research and theories of Hull, in an attempt to establish a precise, mathematical formulation to describe the acquisition of learned behavior. He tried to measure simple learned behaviors such as salivating in anticipation of eating. Much of his research focused on classically conditioned, easily measured, eye-blinking behavior in relation to anxiety and other factors. He measured anxiety using the Taylor Manifest Anxiety Scale developed by his graduate student, Janet Taylor, whom he eventually married. Spence believed in "latent learning," that reinforcement was not necessary for learning to occur. However, he thought that reinforcement was a strong motivator for performance. Collectively, this work eventually became known as the Hull-Spence theory of conditioning and learning.
Spence became a full professor and head of the psychology department at Iowa in 1942. Together with Kurt Lewin at the Child Welfare Research Station, and the science philosopher Gustav Bergmann, Spence made the University of Iowa into a major center of theoretical psychology, with the goal of transforming psychology into an advanced natural science. Spence collaborated with Bergmann on logical positivism, the framework for his theories of psychology. In 1956, Spence's Silliman Lectures at Yale University were published as Behavior Theory and Conditioning . In 1960, many of his papers were collected as Behavior Theory and Learning. Spence also served on the U. S. Air Force Committee on Human Resources and the Army Scientific Advisory Panel.
By the late 1940s, Spence and other neobehaviorists had succeeded in infusing all of American psychology with behaviorism. Spence pointed out that American psychologists no longer bothered to identify themselves as behaviorists; rather, it was taken for granted. With the rise of cognitive behavioral approaches, Spence's theories received less attention. However his experimental methods continued to be regarded highly.
Spence married his former graduate student, Janet Taylor Spence, in 1959. In 1964, he moved to the psychology department at the University of Texas in Austin. Over the course of his career, Spence was advisor to some 75 Ph.D. students. His many awards included the Howard Crosby Warren Medal of the Society of Experimental Psychologists in 1953 and the first Distinguished Scientific Contribution Award of the APA in 1956. Spence died of cancer in Austin, Texas, in 1967.
- Amsel, A. "Kenneth Wartenbee Spence." Biographical memoir. Vol. 66. Washington, DC: National Academy of Sciences, 1995.
- Amsel, K. W. S. "Spence, Kenneth Wartenbee." In Biographical dictionary of psychology, edited by Noel Sheehy, Antony J. Chapman, and Wendy A. Conroy. London: Routledge, 1997.
- Kendler, Howard H., and Janet T. Spence. Essays in neobehaviorism: a memorial volume to Kenneth W. Spence. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts,1971.