My career as a psychologist began in the 1970s. It was a time of ideological ferment in the field, a period of consolidation after the cognitive revolution of the 1960s. In high school, there was Skinner on the cover of TIME magazine in 1971, his face painted blue (apparently to show what a cold unfeeling human being he was), his new book Beyond Freedom and Dignity scathingly attacked and ridiculed. The antagonism that his book provoked stirred the contrarian within me: I wanted to understand Skinner's position and why it met with such resistance.
The main battleground was the role of intentional conscious thought in producing the higher mental processes, especially social behavior. The radical behaviorists held the position that consciousness was an epiphenomenon, playing no causal role in our thoughts and lives, and that instead we were all controlled by responses automatically triggered by external environmental stimuli. The cognitive psychologists held the opposite extreme position: that hardly any higher mental processes are under the direct control of external environmental stimuli. Instead, internal, goal-directed, and conscious (intentional, aware) executive processes ran the show. In a span of just ten years – from the publication of Skinner's Verbal Behavior in 1957 to Neisser's Cognitive Psychology in 1967 – the dominant assumption had swung like a pendulum from one extreme to the other.
Back then, the assumption that the higher mental processes were all under conscious control was just that: an assumption. Neisser in his 1967 book was acutely aware that a causal vacuum existed after the removal of the behaviorist's external environment – and that replacing it with a homuncular conscious “executive” calling the shots was not a satisfactory scientific solution by any means. Thus, he explicitly called for research into the cognitive mechanisms of the higher mental processes, and for researchers to strive to shrink the homunculus until it eventually disappeared, just as The Incredible Shrinking Man did in the 1950s science fiction movie.
It was an exciting time also because cognitive psychology was starting to provide new tools that allowed us to ask these important existential questions of human beings for the first time.