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Carl Iver Hovland: A model general psychologist

A Spotlight on Past-Presidents of APA Div. 1.

By Kathleen P. Hurley and John D. Hogan, PhD

Carl Iver HovlandCarl Iver Hovland (1912–1961) was among the most influential psychologists of the 20th century. Although he was not linked to any theoretical orientation or psychological approach, his contributions laid the foundation for many social, cognitive and experimental psychological models found in modern research. One of his most important contributions stemmed from his own doctoral dissertation on the law of generalization. Hovland spent his entire academic career on the faculty at Yale University, but he also served as a consultant for various government and philanthropic organizations. At age 39, he was the youngest president of APA Div. 1 (1953 - 1954). By the time of his death in 1961, Hovland had authored or co-authored seven books and more than seventy articles, and had received numerous awards for his scientific achievements.

Early life and Education

Carl Iver Hovland was born on June 12, 1912, in Chicago, Illinois. He was the second of three sons born to Ole C. Hovland and Augusta Anderson Hovland. His father had been raised on a Minnesota farm and eventually moved to Chicago to pursue a career as an electrical engineer and inventor. His mother immigrated to the United States alone from Sweden when she was only twelve years old. Unlike Hovland, both of his parents lived into their nineties. His brothers, Roger and C. Warren, were both well-educated and maintained professional careers.

Growing up in Chicago, Hovland completed high school at the Luther Institute. Much of what is known about Hovland's early education comes from his cousin, Mary Hovland Jenni. Although Jenni had never met Hovland, she was interested in learning more about him while pursuing her own doctoral studies in psychology in the 1970s. She contacted several of Hovland's family members, teachers and colleagues asking for memories and descriptions. She reported that Hovland was described as “a brilliant child, shy, quiet, introverted, unathletic and troubled by illnesses.” His first-grade teacher indicated that, “Carl lived in his own dream world and could not relate to the group” (Jenni, 1974).

The overall consensus appears to be, however, that Hovland found happiness in learning and high academic achievement.

Hovland studied mathematics, biology, physics and experimental psychology at Northwestern University where he received his bachelor of arts degree in 1932. He began his graduate studies at Yale University and within his first year, he published six articles. While at Yale, Hovland was exposed to the work of many prominent psychologists, including that of his advisor, Clark L. Hull. Hovland's review of literature, in conjunction with his own dissertation research, led to four published papers on conditioned generalization (Sears, 1961). The evidence proposed by Hovland's research was subsequently expanded upon by his student, Roger Shepard, in a series of research articles. Upon completion of his doctoral degree in 1936, Hovland was offered a position on the Yale faculty, where he taught for the remainder of his professional career.

Howland married Gertrude Raddatz, on June 4, 1938. They had two children, David Alan Hovland and Katharine Hovland Walvick. In his biographical memoir of Hovland, Shepard writes that both his son and daughter “manifest intellectual aptitudes reminiscent of their father's abilities” and went on to have successful careers. Carl and Gertrude Hovland were deeply interested in music throughout their life. They had even studied piano under the same teacher while growing up in Chicago. Sears (1961) reported that their home was always filled with music. Hovland himself was said to excel at playing the piano and was knowledgeable in musical composition.

Professional Accomplishments

Hovland's early training was greatly influenced by his mentor, learning theorist Clark L. Hull. He served as Hull's research assistant for several years, designing a series of studies assessing rote learning. In 1940, Hovland and Hull co-authored a book titled “Mathematico-Deductive Theory of Rote Learning.” Attempting to integrate the language of psychology with mathematical equations was a primary focus of this work. Hovland's later experimental approaches focused more on the human condition, including communication and interpersonal relationships.

2017-06-general-hovland-yaleBetween 1941 and 1945, Hovland was on leave from Yale University as a consultant for the U.S. War Department. He had been recruited to assist in the evaluation of military training programs and films being prepared for troops in World War II. A series of films titled “Why We Fight” was intended to help motivate the men in the American military. Hovland was responsible for overseeing the work of fifteen researchers. Ultimately, the research analyzed audience resistance to persuasive communication and highlighted methods for overcoming such resistance. The results were widely publicized and considered instrumental to understanding motivation and opinion change.

The war afforded Hovland the opportunity to have a laboratory-like environment to study various aspects of social psychology. He and his investigators conducted experiments with groups of soldiers at U.S. Army training facilities. One of the research teams tested the effects of a one-sided versus two-sided presentation of a controversial issue. The results contradicted the widely accepted notion that presentation of only one side of the argument was generally more successful. This overturned the “Nazi propaganda” belief that successful communication should highlight only one aspect of an argument (Janis, 2008).

After the war, Hovland returned to Yale. Although his research branched into different areas, it focused generally on concept-acquisition theories and social communication. He also served as mentor to several doctoral students who would make important contributions to psychology including Herbert C. Kelman; William J. McGuire; Philip G. Zimbardo; David C. McClelland; and George Mandler. Within eleven years, Hovland rose through the academic ranks at Yale University, from instructor in 1936, to full professor, chairman of the psychology department and director of the laboratory of psychology in 1945.

With support from the Rockefeller Foundation, Hovland established the Yale Communication and Attitude Change Program. Having recruited several members from the War Department, he organized this collaborative project to enable students to assess communication problems and construct experiments that aligned with their own research interests.

According to his biographer, Hovland's work established how information, verbally presented, changes a recipient's opinion and beliefs as a function of a wide range of experimentally manipulated variables (Shepard, 1998, pp.17-18).

It was through this research that he began to branch out into other areas of interest including problem-solving, communication, social judgments and attitude change. Although Hovland remained a researcher throughout his career, his work is seen as instrumental in bridging the scientist/practitioner gap. Hovland's research ultimately led to a new understanding of behavior, cognition and thought. Following Hovland's death, Schramm (1963) characterized the attitude change program as “the largest single contribution to the field of social communication any man has made.”

2017-06-general-book-CP 2017-06-general-hovland-bookIn 1953, Hovland and colleagues published “Communication and Persuasion,” a volume of work highlighting major research findings and theoretical analyses on the processes of persuasion. Specifically, his experiments assessed the effects produced on opinion and attitude change by the manner and organization in which information is presented. At age thirty-nine, Hovland was elected the youngest president of Div. 1, serving from 1953-54. Shortly thereafter, he was awarded APA's Distinguished Scientific Contribution Award (1957) for his work outlining the analysis of differences between survey and experimental studies of attitude change.

Hovland also played a substantial role in the formation of the Bell Telephone Laboratories Behavioral Research Center. He and his colleagues conducted a series of experiments designed to add to the literature on human acquisition of complex concepts through experience. He ultimately collaborated on a computer program that would serve as a model of human performance, highlighting the advantages of integrating computer science and technology with the human sciences. In 1960, he published a paper highlighting the potential for psychology to study information processing.

Hovland was diagnosed with cancer in 1960 and underwent various treatments, including surgery, radiation and chemotherapy (Shepard, 1998). Concurrently, his wife, Gertrude, was diagnosed with severe rheumatoid arthritis and was involved in a fatal accident in their home. Although the loss greatly impacted the Hovland family, reports indicate the Hovland continued to work with his colleagues and doctoral students until his final days (Sears, 1961). His last publication, co-authored with Shepard and Jenkins, appeared in “Psychological Monographs: General and Applied Psychology,” shortly after his death.


Hovland served in various roles in his brief career—mentor, consultant and researcher. He is remembered fondly for his moral integrity, gentle manner and his great intellect. He was always able to formulate an integrated synthesis of research results. Hovland was repeatedly honored by his profession – as an APA representative to the Social Science Research Counsel, as a recipient of the Warren Medal from the Society of Experimental Psychologists, as a member of the APA Board of Directors, by election to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and as APA Div. 1 president (Sears, 1961). He was described as a “big man, soft in speech, and as incredibly quick and deft in physical movement as in intellect” (Sears, 1961). His students remember him fondly as a pioneer in the field of human learning and generalization, attitude change, social communication and human problem solving. He was forty-nine years old at the time of his death.


Hovland, C. I., Lumsdaine, A. A., & Sheffield, F. D. (1949). Experiments on mass communication, volume 3. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Hovland, C. I., Janis, I. L., & Kelley, H. H. (1953). Communication and persuasion: Psychological studies of opinion change. New Haven, NJ, Yale University Press.

Janis, I. L. (2008). Carl I. Hovland. In T. Gale (Ed.). International encyclopedia of the social sciences. (2008 ed.). Retrieved from:

Jenni, M. H. (1974). An inventory and evaluation of source materials on Carl Iver Hovland. Unpublished manuscript.

Sears, R. (1961). Carl Iver Hovland: 1912–1961. American Journal of Psychology, 74 (4), 638.

Schramm, W. (1963). Communication research in the United States. In W. Schramm (Ed.), The science of human communication (pp. 1–16). New York, NY: Basic Books.

Shepard, R. N., Hovland, C. I., & Jenkins, H. M. (1961). Learning and memorization of classifications. Psychological Monographs: General and Applied, 75 (13), 1 – 41.

Shepard, R. N. (1998). Carl Iver Hovland. In G. Kimble & M. Wertheimer (Eds.), Portraits of pioneers in psychology, volume 3 (pp. 3–31). New York, NY: Psychology Press.