Our eyes play tricks on us. (And no, I’m not talking about when I squint real hard at the views per hour bars at my place and they look almost like the ones here.) I invite you to observe this chart and say the colors of each word out loud (not the words), as fast as you can.
The Stroop effect, a fixture in nearly every psychology textbook, has proved deceptively straightforward. When asked to name aloud the incompatible ink colors . . . people experience a mental sensation comparable to running in a swimming pool – you just can’t do it quickly.
Thus writes Bruce Bower. But the most surprising thing about the Stroop Test may be its creator.
J. Ridley Stroop achieved instant scientific prominence when his doctoral dissertation appeared in the December 1935 JOURNAL OF EXPERIMENTAL PSYCHOLOGY. Yet Stroop . . . abandoned the psychology laboratory for a life devoted to teaching, preaching and writing about the Bible. Stroop’s students and colleagues . . . referred to him as both “Doctor Stroop” and “Brother Stroop.”
Bower has some quirky anecdotes. One prominent psychologist, Arthur R. Jensen, spent months trying to track down Stroop.
Jensen traveled out to the small campus where Stroop’s office door declared: “J.R. Stroop, Professor of Bible.”
“He didn’t know anyone who even knew about his test,” Jensen recalls. “He seemed slightly embarrassed that he was no longer really interested in psychology.”
Another psychologist had tried to contact Stroop by mail but he never wrote back.
The letter, Jensen explains somewhat incredulously, came from psychologist Louis L. Thurstone, the preeminent investigator of mental tests in the 1940s and early 1950s.
Canadian psychologist Colin MacLeod takes up the story from J.R. Stroop’s early years, and leaves me with the haunting impression that a different breed of human once roamed the earth. Stroop married his wife Zelma Dunn Stroop and had three sons while still an undergraduate.
To support his growing family, Stroop continued to teach . . . during his university years. He also worked as a janitor and as a librarian and taught high school, in addition to building his own house during that time. . . .
He was an individualist who treated everyone as his equal. As a teacher, he was tough but fair, considered one of the very best at the college. He was especially noted for his dry sense of humour and fondness for puns. . . .
The greatest force in Stroop’s life was his religion. . . . [He] was a devout Christian for his entire life. From his college days on, he preached every Sunday, often taking a train out into the country and being paid with a chicken or a bag of potatoes, if at all . . . .
J.R. Stroop eventually wrote seven books on the bible, still widely used in bible schools and bible classes. And the Stroop Test is still considered the “gold standard of attentional measures.” His paper continues to be massively cited, and more than 700 other studies have replicated it.
Brother Stroop was quite the character.