Neal E. Miller: Biography Of This Psychologist

A summary of the life of this American psychologist known for researching personality.

Neal E. Miller

Neal E. Miller was an American psychologist, especially known for having contributed significantly to the experimental field of behavioral science.

He was a multifaceted person, dedicating himself not only to the study of psychology, but also having extensive knowledge of biology and physics, which contributed to the formation of several of his theories and findings.

This researcher, who became the eighth most cited psychologist of the last century, has worked in several universities and has shown quite controversial opinions regarding the applied field of psychology. Here we will see a summary of his life through a biography of Neal E. Miller.

Biography of Neal E. Miller

Next we will see the interesting life of this American experimental psychologist.

Early years and training

Neal Elgar Miller was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, United States, on August 13, 1909. He was fortunate to have been born into a family that was already knowledgeable about behavioral science, since his father, Irving Miller, worked for Western Washington University, in charge of the department of education and psychology.

Miller always had a marked interest in science, and that is why he decided to study biology and physics at the University of Washington in 1931. Later, he decided to delve into psychology, especially in the behavioral current. Later she would study at Stanford University on personality psychology.

Later, along with one of his professors, Walter Miles, Miller would work as an assistant researcher at the Institute for Human Relations at Yale University. In 1935 he obtained a doctorate in psychology at the same university. That same year he would travel to Vienna, Austria, to collaborate with the Institute of Psychoanalysis, to return to Yale the following year.

He would spend the next thirty years at Yale University, to go on to teach at Rockefeller University in 1966 and, well into his 70s, he would teach at Cornell University Medical College. He would return to Yale in 1985 as a research associate.

Neal E. Miller passed away on March 23, 2002 in Connecticut, United States, at the age of 92.


Early in his career as a psychologist, Neal E. Miller focused on experimenting with behavior in real situations, but still having a Freudian view.

The most recurring theme of his research was fear, and he believed that this emotion could be acquired through conditioning.

After that, he decided to address other emotions and automatic sensations, such as hunger, using the same techniques with which he had managed to condition a terrifying response in the subjects.

Although today this may seem like something unquestionable, at that time it was not so clear, and that is why the new techniques and findings made by Miller resulted in a great change in the conception of behavior and motivation .

It should be said that Miller is considered one of the first to use the concept of biofeedback, that is, the process of gaining greater awareness of many psychological functions using tools that provide information on those same functions.

Together with John Dollard and O. Hobart Mowrer, Neal E. Miller attempted to integrate concepts and theories from the behavioral and psychoanalytic streams. He was able to ‘translate’ psychoanalyst concepts into behavioral language, making it easier to approach them experimentally.

This trio of great American psychologists focused especially on the main theory of behaviorism, that is, the relationship between stimulus and response.

It is also important to mention that they recognized as valid Sigmund Freud’s vision of anxiety, who argued that this emotion was an alarm signal in the face of danger, whether imagined or real.

It is important to note that the academic and professional life of Neal E. Miller was very prolific, being the author of nearly 300 articles, books and other publications.

His best known work, co-authored with John Dollard, was Personality and Psychotherapy (1950). This work is about neurosis and learning.

Honors and recognitions

Among all the honors that this American psychologist has had are having been the president of the APA between 1960 and 1961. In addition, a year earlier, he received the award for the most distinguished scientific contribution by the same association.

In 1964 he became the first psychologist to receive the United States National Medal of Science, awarded by then-President Lyndon B. Johnson.

Other notable honors include being the president of the Society for Neurosciences, the Biofeedback Society of America, and the Academy of Research in Behavioral Medicine.

Controversy over animal rights

Psychology is a science that needs to carry out experiments in order to prove and disprove its theories. Sometimes, for ethical reasons, it is not possible to carry out research with human subjects, with animal experimentation being the best alternative. Miller used animals in his experiments, something that already involved some debate in his time, especially from sectors that defend animal rights.

Although it can be said that it is not always necessary or ethical to experiment with animals, Neal E. Miller was a staunch defender of the practice, in addition to also giving his opinion on those who criticized him for using this type of subject in his research.

In fact, on one occasion, he commented that if scientists did not have the right to use animals in research, then no one would have the right to kill animals for food or clothing from their skin.

In addition, he continued to comment that the matter was complex, saying that although all life could be considered sacred, where should the line be located? There are animals that kill other animals in order to feed themselves, which raises the question to what extent we should talk about animal rights and how it hurts human beings not being able to experiment or feed on the rest of the animal kingdom.

Theory about the learning process and personality

Both Miller and Dollard believed that personality can be defined on the basis of habits. By habit we understand an association between a stimulus and a response that causes this habit to occur more frequently. Habits are temporary, since they can be continued or, for one reason or another, stop being done.

The main objective of the theory of these two authors was to find out and specify the environmental conditions that promote the acquisition of a particular habit.

Another interesting aspect of the theory is that personality develops to the extent that impulses are controlled and reduced. In this case, an impulse is understood as an uncomfortable sensation that, if satisfied, provides relief, such as, for example, hunger and eating behavior.

According to the psychologist Clark Hull, learning occurs in the way in which an impulse or need of the organism is reduced, being satisfied in the appropriate way.

Reducing an impulse by getting what you want is something reinforcing, making the individual behave in such a way as to relieve the tension that the need generates.

Dollard and Miller distinguished between primary drives and secondary drives. The primary ones are those that are associated with physiological processes necessary for the survival of the individual, such as eating and sleeping. The secondary ones are forms of the primary but more refined impulses, such as having to eat at a certain time, or needing to sleep in a special type of bed.

In turn, these authors also made a distinction between primary and secondary reinforcers. A reinforcer is understood to be that event that encourages the carrying out of a certain response. The primary reinforcers are those that reduce the primary impulses, while the secondary ones reduce the secondary impulses. As a primary reinforcer we would have food, water, the power to sleep, while as a secondary we could speak, for example, money or professional success.

Dollard and Miller indicated that the learning process can be due to four aspects.

  • Impulse: what makes a person act.
  • Clue: specific stimulus that indicates when, how and where to act.
  • Response: individual’s reaction to a clue.
  • Reinforcement: effect produced by the response.

Bibliographic references:

  • Dollard, J .; Miller, NE (1950). Personality and psychotherapy: an analysis in terms of learning, thinking, and culture. McGraw-Hill publications in psychology. New York: McGraw-Hill.
  • Richter-Heinrich, E .; Miller, NE, eds. (1982). Biofeedback: basic problems and clinical applications. Selected revised papers presented at the XXIInd International Congress of Psychology, Leipzig, GDR, July 6–12, 1980. Amsterdam: North-Holland.
  • Sears, RR; Hovland, CI; Miller, NE (1940). “Minor studies of aggression: I. Measurement of aggressive behavior”. The Journal of Psychology: Interdisciplinary and Applied. 9 (2): 275–294.
  • Miller, NE (1948). “Studies of fear as an acquirable drive: I. Fear as motivation and fear-reduction as reinforcement in the learning of new responses”. Journal of Experimental Psychology. 38 (1): 89–101.

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