One of the founding figures of communication science, Yale psychologist Carl Iver Hovland (1912 –1961) was born in Chicago to Scandinavian parents. His mother, Augusta Anderson Hovland, had emigrated from Sweden, while his father, Ole C. Hovland, a child of immigrants from Norway who had settled in Minnesota, had left the family farm to become an electrical engineer and inventor in Chicago. Both parents were said to be deeply religious.
Hovland had a solid background in mathematics, physics, and biology, as well as in experimental psychology, receiving his BA (1932) and MA (1933) at Northwestern University (Shepard 1998). In 1934, he arrived at Yale University to become a member of faculty. He was recognized as an outstanding student, shy and self-contained, but gentle and musical (a piano player). He was found to be a very efficient administrator of research who never seemed to be bothered by details which he dealt with very quickly. He received his PhD with honors in 1936, under the prominent Yale learning theorist Clark C. Hull. Hovland rose quickly through the ranks of assistant professor (1937), director of graduate studies (1941), associate professor (1943, in absentia), to become full professor and chairman of the psychological department in 1945, at the age of 33, and Sterling professor in 1947.
During World War II, from 1942 to 1945, Hovland headed the Experimental Section of Samuel Stouffer’s Research Branch under Major General Frederick Osborn’s Information and Education Division of the War Department. The mission of the Experimental Section was to evaluate the training programs and films prepared for American troops in the United States and Europe. Hovland was responsible for guiding the work of more than 15 researchers, who did experimental work on problems of communication and social psychology. The principal long-term researchers were Frances Anderson, John Finan, Irving Janis, Arthur Lumsdaine, Nathan Maccoby, Fred Sheffield, and M. Brewster Smith. The output of their research includes the highly influential book Experiments on mass communication (Hovland et al. 1949).
After his work for the War Department, Hovland returned to Yale to establish the Yale Communication and Attitude Change Program, on which he continued to work until his early death in 1961. Supported by the Rockefeller Foundation for over 15 years, the program, under Hovland, brought together over 30 co-workers and students who went on to become well-known professors of communication science or social psychology. Among the researchers were prominent names such as Robert Abelson, Norman Anderson, Jack Brehm, Jonathan Freedman, Irving Janis, Harold Kelley, Herbert Kelman, Abraham Luchins, Arthur Lumsdaine, William McGuire, Milton Rosenberg, David Sears, Fred Sheffield, Muzafer Sherif, and Philip Zimbardo.
The research program focused on how verbally presented messages change a recipient’s attitudes, opinions, and beliefs as a function of experimentally manipulated variables, such as the credibility of the source, the order of presentation of arguments, the recipient’s prior position on the issue, the recipient’s self-esteem, the recipient’s emotions (especially fear), the time between presentation of a communication, and the assessment of attitude change. The success of the Yale research program stems from Hovland’s conceptual ability to deconstruct the complex relations between persuasive communication and attitude change and to reveal them using controlled laboratory experiment. To this day the program remains a constituent part of persuasion research even though further developments such as the elaboration likelihood model have advanced the field. By “establishing a structural-sequential mode of the input-mediating-output variables and processes involved, Hovland anticipated the later information processing approach that proved so valuable in cognitive psychology” (Zimbardo, quoted in Shepard 1998, 246). In the aftermath of Hovland’s death, this body of work was acknowledged to be the largest single contribution to the field of communication ever made (Schramm 1963), the “biggest single force within psychology’s communication-relevant attitude-change movement” (McGuire 1996, 43).
During his short life, Hovland published over 70 articles and was the editor or coauthor of seven books. His activity was not restricted to within the university but also included consultancy work. He also played a crucial role in the formation of the Bell Telephone Laboratories Behavioral Research Center where he benefited from his early studies in the field of industrial psychology. He was one of the first leading figures to apply basic psychological research in an industrial setting.
- Hovland, C. I., Lumsdaine, A. A., & Sheffield, F. D. (1949). Experiments on mass communication. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
- McGuire, W. J. (1996). The Yale Communication and Attitude Change Program in the 1950s. In E. E. Dennis & E. Wartella (eds.), American communication history: The remembered history. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, pp. 39 –59.
- Miles, W. R. (1961). Carl I. Hovland. In The American Philosophical Society yearbook, pp. 121–125.
- Schramm, W. (1963). Communication research in the United States. In W. Schramm (ed.), The science of human communication. New York: Basic Books, pp. 1–16.
- Shepard, R. N. (1998). Carl I. Hovland, June 12, 1912 –April 16, 1961. Biographical memoirs: National Academy of Science, 73, 231–259.