ISSN 0439-755X
CN 11-1911/B

Acta Psychologica Sinica ›› 2017, Vol. 49 ›› Issue (4): 554-568.doi: 10.3724/SP.J.1041.2017.00554

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A microhistory of psychology in letters: What happened to I. Huang’s research reports on the size-weight illusion?

YAN Shu-Chang1; GAO Zhipeng2   

  1. (1 Department of Psychology, Hebei Normal University, Shijiazhuang 050024, China) (2 Department of Psychology, York University, Toronto M3J1P3, Canada)
  • Received:2016-03-16 Published:2017-04-25 Online:2017-04-25
  • Contact: YAN Shu-Chang, E-mail:


In the recent development of history and sociology of science, peer review practice has been scrutinized. However, historians have not paid any attention to this important topic in the history of Chinese psychology. Primarily based on thirteen recently discovered letter correspondences among leading scholars such as I. Huang, Siegen K. Chou, and Wu Youxun, this paper studies the complicated stories behind I. Huang’s two publications on the size-weight illusion using a microhistory approach. I. Huang (1903-1944) was an important Chinese psychologist who received trainings in child psychology and Gestalt psychology from Arnold Gesell and Kurt Koffka in the USA. A few years after returning to China, Huang’s research was severely impeded by the Sino-Japanese War, poverty, and terminal cancer. Nonetheless, Huang persevered in conducting research in hopes of delivering two research reports to international colleagues. Unexpectedly, in 1941 and again in 1943, the only two state-run international outlets both invited the same reviewer, Wang Jingxi, a physiological psychologist heading the Psychology Institute of Academia Sinica, who kept criticizing Huang’s reports. Unconvinced by Wang’s criticisms, Huang wrote letters to the editors in defense of his reports as well to his old classmate and colleague, psychologist Siegen K. Chou, for support. These correspondences discussed a number of core issues in the peer review practice: evaluation criteria, the composition and qualifications of reviewer (s), dispute resolution, and institutional and social factors that shape research activities. For example, various evaluation criteria – originality, theoretical contribution, methodological rigor, sample size, experimenter effects, the suitability of the statistics used, replicability, referencing, and language style – were brought up and discussed. In Huang’s view, Wang nitpicked about language style while downplaying other more important criteria, failed to appreciate that high reliability and statistical significance can overcome the limitation of the small sample size, and did not possess appropriate expertise to evaluate his research. When Wang criticized Huang’s study as repetitive of extant literature, Huang argued, first, that successful replication is not entirely useless, and, moreover, that his research was mainly aimed at theoretical integration rather than empirical findings. Huang admitted that his reports did indeed have certain shortcomings but argued that the wartime scarcity of literature and research equipment had made these inevitable. For instance, such scarcity had led to Huang’s lack of awareness of extant literature resembling his independent theoretical innovation. In order to resolve the disagreements, Huang contended that his methodological and language choices were no different than those of authoritative psychologists. When Huang called upon Siegen K. Chou to mediate the dispute, Chou delicately voiced his support of Huang, his intimate friend and colleague, while paying due respect to Wang, the leading figure in Chinese psychology. Chou echoed Huang’s proposal of recruiting additional reviewers, and offered further suggestions to improve the peer review process. Finally, Huang refused the two state-run outlets’ sympathetic offers of acceptance of the articles along with remuneration. He instead submitted the articles to The Journal of General Psychology based in the USA. Unfortunately, Huang soon passed away in extraordinary hardship before his articles were published. It is worth noting that the published papers include editorial footnotes about their having been accepted by Arnold Gesell, who deeply respected and mourned his former student.

Key words: I. Huang, letters, microhistory of psychology, research normativity, sociology of scientific knowledge