How A Revolutionary War Hero Used Modern Psychology

How ASometimes I think the formal study of behavior science is really about putting names and a framework around concepts we already intuitively understand. After all, we are all human beings experiencing attitudes, behaviors, and cognitions every single day. That doesn’t mean we know how to talk about it or fully understand the nuances that determine when something is more or less likely to happen, but your average person does have more of a sense for psychology than for, say, nuclear physics.Side note: Part of my doctoral dissertation was testing whether non-psychologists’ “naive understanding” of relationships aligned with the academic theory I was using for my analysis. It largely did. /side note.

I was delighted to see that a solid lay theory of learning via competence support has existed in the United States at least since the Revolutionary War. In the book Lafayette in the Somewhat United States by Sarah Vowell, which is a plain language, humorous recounting of the French Lafayette’s support of the American colonies and later the fledgling United States, there is an account of when George Washington brought a Prussian military officer, Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben, to train the somewhat amateur Continental Army. The army had been doing poorly in battle; Steuben discovered that this was in part because they had no idea how to use their weapons. Many soldiers used their bayonets exclusively as skewers for grilling food over a fire. A very basic learning plan was needed.

This tall drink of water was an effective amateur psychologist. Baron von Steuben
This tall drink of water was an effective amateur psychologist. Baron von Steuben

As Vowell recounts, Steuben’ elementary instruction was effective in the sense that soldiers figured out how to use their guns, and went on to make progress in battle. One soldier’s recollection of Steuben shows that the efficacy of this training may have partly hinged on Steuben’s naive understanding of how to support competence for better engagement and growth. Per Vowell:

John Laurens admired Steuben because he “seems to understand what our Soldiers are capable of . . . He will not give us the perfect instructions absolutely speaking, but the best which we are in condition to receive.”

What a great way to describe optimal challenge! It’s not about perfection per se, but doing the best that you are capable of doing given your current abilities. Steuben’s methods are validated today by motivational psychology. Way to go, Baron von Steuben.

2 thoughts on “How A Revolutionary War Hero Used Modern Psychology”

  1. Wow I knew that Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben was a huge part in getting our military up to snuff, but I had no idea he used psychology. That is some pretty impressive stuff. I guess us Americans owe Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben more than I realized.

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