This biography is reproduced from the "American Psychologist" (April 1995) article that accompanies John Anderson's 1994 American Psychological Association (APA) Distinguished Scientific Contribution Award. The award will be presented at the APA Convention in New York City, August 1995.
Anderson went to Stanford to work with Gordon Bower. Working with Gordon and working in an environment that included Richard Atkinson, Herbert Clark, Edward Feigenbaum, and Edward Smith, he found what would become his lifelong dream--to develop a theory of human cognition sufficiently well specified that it could be simulated on a computer. With Gordon, he first developed the FRAN simulation of free recall and then the HAM theory of memory. Gordon provided John with the reference point for what it means to be a psychologist and still today John finds himself comparing his behavior with Gordon's. Together they wrote the book, Human Associative Memory, which described the HAM theory. At Stanford he also met Lynne Reder who was going to influence almost all aspects of John's life.
After graduating from Stanford in 1972, Anderson spent one year at Yale as an assistant professor, three years at the University of Michigan as a Junior Fellow, one year at Yale as an associate professor, and a final year as a full professor. Lynne and John married in 1973 and they remember it as an exciting time of growing together and growing intellectually. In 1976 Anderson wrote the book "Language, Memory, and Thought" which was the first description of the ACT theory. ACT was intended to be a complete theory of higher-level human cognition. It proposed that human cognition arose as an interaction between declarative and procedural knowledge structures. Anderson modeled declarative memory as the semantic network structure that had been introduced in HAM. For procedural memory he adapted the production rule ideas that Allen Newell had been developing.
In 1978 John and Lynne moved to Carnegie Mellon University where they have been ever since. For John it was the opportunity to be at the location where computer simulation had been developed by Allen Newell and Herbert Simon and where Newell was pursuing his production system ideas. In 1980 Anderson published his textbook "Cognitive Psychology and its Implications" which is now in its fourth edition. The culmination of this early period at CMU was the publication in 1983 of the research monograph "The Architecture of Cognition" which described a much more mature ACT theory. It addressed a wide range of phenomena in memory, learning, and problem-solving. One of the major accomplishments was to describe how a neurally plausible activation-based processing drove symbolic thought. The book quickly became and remains Anderson's most frequently cited work.
Lynne and John had two sons---Jay in 1980 and Abe in 1985. Probably more than anything else they changed John's personality. He became very interested in the development of their cognition. An early simulation of Jay's language acquisition appeared in the 1983 book. He also became heavily involved in tutoring them in mathematics which helped fuel his interest in the applications of cognitive psychology to mathematics education.
The publication of the 1983 book left Anderson in somewhat of a quandary. It seemed to him that it had taken the ACT theory about as far as it could go. It was called ACT* to denote his belief that the ACT theory had reached its ultimate form. As it was a bit early to retire, Anderson announced that his research plan "to eventually gather enough evidence to permanently break the theory and to develop a better one." However, he has proven unable to replace the theory although the next 10 years saw him engage in two major attempts to achieve just that.
One attempt was to build intelligent computer-based tutors around the ACT theory. The basic idea was to build into the computer a model of how ACT would solve a cognitive task like generating proofs in geometry. The tutor used ACT's theory of skill acquisition to get the student to emulate the model. As Anderson remembers the proposal in 1983, it seemed preposterous that ACT could be right about anything so complex. It seemed certain that the enterprise would come crashing down and from the ruins a better theory would arise. However, this effort to develop cognitive tutors has been remarkably successful. While the research program had some theoretically interesting difficulties, it is often cited as the most successful intelligent tutoring effort and is making a significant impact on mathematics achievement in a number of schools in the city of Pittsburgh. It is starting to develop a life of its own and is growing substantially independent of Anderson's involvement.
The second effort to "break the ACT theory" began a little later when it was clear that intelligent tutoring was not going to do the trick. It began with a sabbatical in 1987 to Flinders University in Australia when Anderson began to pursue the issue of how cognition might be adapted to the statistical structure of the environment. He developed what he called "rational analysis" which is described in a rather mathematically obtuse 1990 book called "The Adaptive Character of Thought". The fundamental idea was that to understand human cognition we did not need develop a theory of its mechanisms but only had to understand the statistical structure of the problems it faced. This effort has had its most notable successes in developing theories of human memory and categorization. In the memory domain, Lael Schooler and he collected statistics on the information-retrieval demands made on human memory and showed that behavioral functions mirrored these. In the case of categorization this lead to a program which accounted for a wide range of human data and which did well on a number of machine-learning data sets.
Anderson remembers the time around 1990 as involving a lot of seemingly disconnected research directions. He would move from one meeting on ACT, to a meeting on tutoring, to a meeting on rational analysis with no apparent common threads. While pursuing tutoring and rational analysis, Kevin Singley and he wrote a book which provided a detailed application of the ACT theory to the issue of transfer. He also was writing his third edition of his textbook which seemed to have no connection with any of these developments.
Finally, Anderson was rewarded for enduring this intellectual ambiguity. The 1990s saw the development of the ACT-R theory which was described in "Rules of the Mind" published in 1993. It incorporated the lessons of his tutoring work in a new theory of procedural learning. The rational analysis work played a major role in defining a better version of the subsymbolic activation processes. Anderson realized that while these subsymbolic processes were tuned to the statistical structure of the environment, one needed an overall computational structure like ACT to understand how they interacted. Reflecting the growing computational sophistication in the 10 years since 1983, the book comes with the ACT-R simulation on a disk which researchers can use on their own personal computers.
Anderson finds himself spending his time applying the ACT-R theory to a wide range of phenomena in cognitive psychology and in helping others use the system. He has also just completed a second textbook, Learning and Memory, which brings together the various intellectual threads of his career as well as covering the undergraduate material.
1. Anderson, J. R., & Bower, G. H. (1972). Recognition and retrieval processes in free recall. Psychological Review, 79, 97-123.
2. Anderson, J. R., Bower, G. H. (1973). Human associative memory. Washington: Winston and Sons, 1973.
3. Anderson, J. R. (1976). Language, memory, and thought. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.
4. Anderson, J. R. (1978). Arguments concerning representations for mental imagery. Psychological Review, 85, 249-277.
5. Anderson, J. R., & Reder, L. M. (1979). An elaborative processing explanation of depth of processing. In L.S. Cermak & F.I.M. Craik (Eds.), Levels of processing in human memory. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.
6. Anderson, J. R. (1980). Cognitive psychology and its implications. San Francisco: Freeman.
7. Anderson, J. R. (1982). Acquisition of cognitive skill. Psychological Review, 89, 369-403.
8. Anderson, J. R. (1983). The Architecture of Cognition. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
9. Anderson, J. R., Boyle, C. F., Farrell, R., & Reiser, B. J. (1987). Cognitive principles in the design of computer tutors. In P. Morris (Ed.), Modeling Cognition, Wiley.
10. Anderson, J. R. (1987). Skill acquisition: Compilation of weak-method problem solutions. Psychological Review, 94, 192-210.
11. Singley, M. K. & Anderson, J. R. (1989). Transfer of Cognitive Skill. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
12. Anderson, J. R., Conrad, F. G., & Corbett, A. T. (1989). Skill acquisition and the LISP Tutor. Cognitive Science, 13, 467-506.
13. Anderson, J. R., Boyle, C. F., Corbett, A., Lewis, M. W. (1990) Cognitive modelling and intelligent tutoring. Artificial Intelligence, 42, 7-49.
14. Anderson, J. R. (1990). The Adaptive Character of Thought. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.
15. Anderson, J. R. (1991). The adaptive nature of human categorization. Psychological Review, 98, 409-429.
16. Anderson, J. R. & Schooler, L. J. (1991). Reflections of the environment in memory. Psychological Science, 2, 396-408.
17. Anderson, J. R. & Matessa, M. (1992). Explorations of an incremental, Bayesian algorithm for categorization. Machine Learning, 9, 275-308.
18. Anderson, J. R. (1993). Rules of the Mind. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.
19. Anderson, J. R. (1995). Learning and Memory. New York: Wiley.
20. Anderson, J. R., Corbett, A. T., Koedinger, K., & Pelletier, R. (in press). Cognitive tutors: Lessons learned. The Journal of Learning Sciences.
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