Hermann Ebbinghaus

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Hermann Ebbinghaus

Hermann Ebbinghaus (born January 24, 1850 in Barmen (today a district of Wuppertal ), † February 26, 1909 in Halle (Saale) ) was a German psychologist . He is considered a pioneer in cognitive-psychological research. Ebbinghaus founded experimental memory research with his work on the learning and forgetting curve and paved the way for empirical teaching, learning and educational research. His son was the philosopher Julius Ebbinghaus , his grandson the philologist Ernst Albrecht Ebbinghaus .

life and work

Ebbinghaus was born in Barmen (today part of Wuppertal) in 1850 as the son of an entrepreneurial family. At the age of 17 he began studying history at the Rheinische Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität , Bonn. In 1868 he became a member of the Corps Guestphalia Bonn . He turned to philosophy . His studies were interrupted in 1870 when he went to the Franco-Prussian War with the Prussian army . After this military service Ebbinghaus received his doctorate on August 16, 1873 at the age of 23 with his dissertation on Eduard von Hartmann's philosophy of the unconscious . In London, in a second-hand bookshop, he came across Gustav Fechner's book Elements of Psychophysics , which prompted him to carry out his famous “memory experiments”. After completing his doctorate, Ebbinghaus visited England and France and gave tutoring to students in order to provide for a living. He completed his habilitation at the Friedrich Wilhelms University and became a professor there in 1886 .

At the University of Berlin he founded the third psychological test laboratory in Germany (after Wilhelm Wundt and Georg Elias Müller ). He began his memory studies here in 1879. In 1885, he published his monumental work On Memory. Studies on experimental psychology , where he was most likely to receive recognition of this publication as a professor at the University of Berlin.

In 1890, together with Arthur König , he founded the psychological journal for Physiology and Psychology of the Sensory Organs (Die Psychologie und Physiologie der Sinnesorgane) .

In his famous dispute with Wilhelm Dilthey , he defended experimental psychology against understanding psychology .

In 1894 he was passed over when he was promoted to head of the Philosophical Department - presumably due to a lack of publications. Carl Stumpf was appointed in his place . As a result, Ebbinghaus left Berlin and went to the University of Breslau (now Wrocław, Poland), where Theodor Lipp's chair had become vacant. During his time in Wroclaw he worked on a commission that observed the decline in attention during a school day. The details of how these mental faculties were measured have unfortunately been lost. However, the results obtained served the commission as a basis for future intelligence tests . Ebbinghaus founded another psychological test laboratory in Breslau.

In 1896 he conducted a kind of sentence completion test with school children to examine the effect of fatigue on performance. He had the teachers assess the children's talents and then assign the results to a lower, middle and upper third. In doing so, he found a significant relationship between the test results and the teacher’s judgment without being able to determine a correlation with the means available at the time. This should have been the first test of verbal intelligence in a group.

In 1902 Ebbinghaus published his work The Basics of Psychology , which was an immediate success and remained so long after his death. His last publication, Outline of Psychology , was printed in 1908. This book was also a bestseller, published in eight different editions.

In 1905 he moved to Halle, where he died of pneumonia on February 26, 1909 at the age of 59. His grave is there in the St. Laurentius cemetery .

Ebbinghaus was the founder of experimental research into memory and the discoverer of the learning curve and the forgetting curve . Ebbinghaus was also the inventor of the three psychological measuring methods of memory performance that are still valid today: the recognition method, the reproduction method and the savings method . What was new was his experimental approach to operate with the learning of meaningless syllables in order to minimize the errors that result from experience and content.

Ebbinghaus was the first to use KVK trigrams to conduct memory experiments independently of the subject's vocabulary.

Ebbinghaus illusion

The Ebbinghaus illusion

In the most famous version of this illusion, two circles of identical size are placed close to each other and one is surrounded by large circles while the other is surrounded by smaller circles; the first central circle appears smaller than the second central circle. This illusion has been used extensively in cognitive psychology research to learn more about the different pathways of perception in our brain.

In the English-speaking world, Edward Bradford Titchener's circles were published in a book on experimental psychology in 1901 , hence their alternative name, Titchener circles .

Ebbinghaus and the history of psychology

"Psychology has a long past, but only a short history," wrote the pioneer of memory research in 1907. This sentence may be surprising, since humanity has been concerned with psychological questions since ancient times. With his formulation, Ebbinghaus alludes to the short time since psychology has been practiced with scientific methods.


Hans Jürgen Eysenck quotes in his book Sigmund Freud - Downfall and End of Psychoanalysis on page 36 - but without citing the source! - a saying that Ebbinghaus is said to have made in connection with Sigmund Freud's ideas of the unconscious:

"What is new about these theories is not true, and what is true is not new."

However, Eysenck was wrong in his polemics. The sentence comes on the one hand from Hermann Ebbinghaus's dissertation on Hartmann's philosophy of the unconscious , on the other hand it refers to the philosopher Eduard von Hartmann .

Fonts (selection)


Individual evidence

  1. ^ Kösener corps lists 1910, 21 , 558
  2. ^ Habilitation thesis: About memory
  3. Helmut Lück: History of Psychology. Currents, schools, developments . Volume 1, 4th edition. Stuttgart 2009, p. 51
  4. ^ Hermann Ebbinghaus: Psychology . In: Systematic Philosophy. Berlin / Leipzig 1907, p. 173. This representation appeared again as a separate print in 1908 under the title Abriss der Psychologie in Verlag von Veit & Comp.
  5. Bonn 1873, page 67

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