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The Pediatric Psychologist Whose Job Was To Scare the Crap Out of People

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Ever had a chair pulled out from under you, just as you sat down? During the 1920s, Dr. William Blatz earned a Ph.D in Psychology by conducting series of experiments to measure the physiological response to fear as he strapped subjects into chairs and then flipped them onto their backs. And what he learned was pretty damn terrifying.

The physiology of fear
In the early 1920s, Dr. William Emet Blatz worked toward his Ph.D. in psychology as a graduate student at the University of Chicago. Blatz's later work revolved around child psychology, but his dissertation covered a very interesting subject — a regimented look at the physical ramifications of fear in a controlled environment. Blatz published the bulk of his dissertation findings as The Cardiac, Respiratory, and Electrical Phenomena Involved in the Emotion of Fear in the April 1925 issue of the Journal of Experimental Psychology.

In the experiments, Blatz strapped his subjects into a chair, immobilizing the individuals at their arms and legs while monitoring vital signs emanating from their heart and respiratory system as well as general electrical changes in the subject using a galvanometer.


Shattering the calm
Blatz conducted his experiments over several fifteen minute sessions, with the flip backwards not coming until the fourth session or later. Blatz wanted the subjects to relax over the time period, and even sleep if they felt comfortable enough.

After several sessions, Blatz destroyed the serene environment by using a mechanical apparatus to trip the chair backwards. Many of the subjects believed an accident had occurred, leading them to call out for help.


As the calm situation departed, Blatz measured the subject's vital signs. From the cardiac data, Blatz observed that the heart beat rapidly increased and became irregular after an event, with the subject also experiencing an increase in blood pressure. Their breathing rate decreased as well, with Blatz also noting an increase in the subject's electromotive force.

Blatz observed that physiological changes decreased in magnitude as he flipped the chair backwards on a patient multiple times, with those expecting a chair-based jolt experiencing less of a physiological response than those unaware of the coming collapse. With these variations, Blatz determined a rudimentary magnitude of the physical response to fear, observing the "gross skeletal response" played a larger role than the actual emotional response.


Blatz's "Security Theory"
Blatz' experimental design would no doubt consume forests worth of paperwork, to be approved by a modern Institutional Review Board. Former students of Blatz defended this period of his research after Blatz died in 1964.

Blatz went on to write a number of articles in the field of child psychology as well as the widely used textbooks Understanding the Young Child and Management of Young Children. Blatz also developed security theory, declaring that "[S]ecurity is the basic goal of all living beings." Blatz made the distinction between security and safety – if one is in search of safety, they are inherently insecure.


When applied to infants, Blatz' security theory claimed that in frequent changes in the individual caring for the child increased their feeling of security – with an individual watching the child to so that he or she could explore the world, but all the while knowing that a caregiver is watching over, protecting them from harm. This is certainly an interesting departure from his dissertation research, but one that maintains the themes of fear and comfort.

William Emet Blatz is remembered by his students as a humorous medical lecturer at the University of Toronto and as the first director of the St. George's School for Child Study, now a part of the Institute for Child Study at the University of Toronto. The institute serves as a "laboratory school" featuring small classes and experimental styles of elementary education.


Top image from Wetsun/Flickr. Sources linked within the article.