Benton Underwood (1915-1994)

Benton Underwood

Benton Underwood was a 20th century experimental psychologist who focused his research on verbal learning and memory. 

Professional Life

Benton Underwood was born in Center Point, Iowa on February 28, 1915. After graduating high school, Underwood enrolled in Cornell College at Mount Vernon, Iowa, and received a degree in psychology and education in 1936, planning to become a sports coach. 

Underwood worked as a high school teacher for one year, before joining the faculty of a local junior college as a teacher and coach. After two years, Underwood moved to Oregon to pursue a graduate degree at the University of Oregon, where he studied psychology. Underwood transferred to the University of Missouri when he was invited to be a research assistant for Arthur W. Melton. Melton focused on the study of verbal learning and memory, and this became the focus of Underwood’s career as well. He received his master’s degree in 1940 and worked as a research assistant at the University of Iowa while he completed his PhD.

After completing his degree, Underwood served in the Naval Reserve. In 1946, he became an assistant professor at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, where he remained until his retirement in 1983. In 1976, Underwood was recognized for his contributions to psychology by being named the Stanley G. Harris Professor of Social Science. Underwood served as president of the Experimental Psychology and General Psychology divisions of the American Psychological Association and editor of the American Journal of Psychology. He also helped established the Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior and served as consulting editor for many years.  

Contribution to Psychology

Underwood spent most of his career studying and researching the field of verbal learning and memory, and was well known for both his functionalist approach and his dedication to experimental methods.

Underwood spent years determining how and whether the speed at which a person learns influences the rate at which a person forgets material. He also researched the ways interference with memory can increase forgetting, analyzed the structure of memory, and conducted experiments on the role of implicit memory—including how implicit associations can aid memory and form new connections.

Underwood authored several books, papers, and articles on the field of learning and memory. Among his many published research books and texts are Meaningfulness and Verbal Learning, Temporal Codes for Memories: Issues and Problems, and Attributes of Memory.

Underwood is equally well known for his approach to research. He influenced the method by which students conduct research in the field with the books, Psychological Research, designed for graduate students, and Experimentation in Psychology, designed for undergraduates. As a professor, Underwood carefully designed experiments with hidden flaws for his students to scrutinize.


  1. Benton J. Underwood. (2002). Contemporary Authors Online. Retrieved from
  2. Keppel, G. (1997). Benton J. Underwood (1915-1994): Obituary. American Psychologist, 52(4), 469-470. doi: 10.1037//0003-066X.52.4.469

Last Update: 07-13-2015

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