A Walk Through History: A Half-Century of Reminiscences about ISRA

As ISRA approaches its 50th anniversary in 2022, it seems in order to look back and reminisce about my many years with the society going back to the early 1970s. As the outgoing archivist, former ISRA Bulletin editor, and after multiple stints on the Council I have many fond memories. I have personally known every ISRA President with the exception of our current president Barbara Krahé, but I am catching up with her on email exchanges. Today, I’m afraid that there are only a few members remaining who go back to the early years. That would include two Californians (Ross Parke and myself), Rowell Huesmann in Michigan, and Lea Pulkkinen in Finland.

As many know, ISRA was founded by scholars who were concerned about the Viet Nam War, the Cold War, the threat of nuclear war, and the social conflict that was troubling the world. In August of 1972, 14 scientists gathered at the Prince Hotel in Tokyo to consider what they could do to help understand individual and collective violence. Saul Rosenzweig came up with the idea of forming a new society, and he quickly recruited John Paul Scott who remained an inspiration for many decades. In recognition, the Scott Award is presented at every World Meeting to a distinguished scientist who made lifetime contributions to aggression research.

Another ISRA award is the Kirsti Lagerspetz Junior Investigator Award. Kirsti was another founder of the society, a remarkable woman who spent a week on the Trans-Siberian Railway to reach Tokyo from Finland. She was later elected as president of the society and I was privileged to know her when I lived in Finland in 1979. Kirsti typified the interdisciplinary and international interests of many ISRA members. She began her career studying the genetic basis of aggression in mice. Later she turned to bullying in children, media violence, and peace research. She also wrote novels, children’s books, fairy tales, and one of her students (Kaj Björkvist) later became the 23rd president of ISRA.

Paul and Kirsti both exemplify the goals that were set forth by the founders of ISRA. Both were scientists who were truly interdisciplinary in their interests and international in their reach. From the very beginning, the society was dedicated to these principles and a quest to enhance knowledge about the causes and control of aggressive behavior. (Details about the founding of ISRA can be found in Aggressive Behavior, 13, 1987, 53-57.)

Over the last half-century, I have attended 18 ISRA meetings. What always impressed me was the talented people with so many diverse interests coming together from all over the planet with a common goal. I rather liked the international focus of ISRA partly because of my own background which included several years living in Japan as a kid. Later I lived in Egypt for two years was able to travel around the Middle East, parts of Africa, and all over Europe. In graduate school, I flew to Germany, England, and New Zealand testing pilots for the Apollo Space Program. Later I taught at universities in Finland and London. The international focus of ISRA remains one of the distinctive features of the society.

At the 1998 World Meeting that I organized in New Jersey, I worked hard to attract scholars from places that are poorly represented, such as Asia, Africa, and South America. I did get an Egyptian scholar to attend. I also brought in some Russian graduate students and Longquan Cai (we called him Jimmy) from China. I was able to obtain a grant from the Soros Foundation to encourage foreign participation but it became difficult to figure out how to distribute the funds. Finally, I bussed all foreign participants down the road to United Jersey Bank. We marched everyone in, and anyone who could show they were not American was handed $500 in cash.

Interdisciplinarity was another of ISRA’s goals, and many members belonged to multiple international and interdisciplinary societies. I also belonged to ISPP (International Society for Political Psychology) and in 1986 I attended the ISPP meetings in Amsterdam. I quickly ran into none other than ISRA’s first president John Paul Scott, a Rhodes scholar who authored 237 journal articles plus 8 books, including the influential Genetics and the Social Behavior of the Dog. But instead of talking politics, he told me about his research on canine evolution and I told him about my research implanting electrodes in rat brains. In addition to his leadership in founding of ISRA, Paul also helped found the Animal Behavior Society and the Behavior Genetics Society which later elected him president.

Memorable Meetings

Among memorable meetings for me was the XVI meeting in Santorini organized by recent ISRA president Kaj Börkqvist who recently replaced me as archivist. While many ISRA meetings have been at isolated conference centers, the Santorini meeting was right in the middle of the picturesque town of Fira overlooking the Aegean Sea. Another notable meeting was the 1990 Banff meeting organized by executive secretary Gordon Russell. I remember joining Gordon, Kaj, and Rowell Huesmann (AB Editor and president in 1998) for a strenuous (for me) hike up a mountain where we talked about everything except aggression.

At the off-year Szombathely, Hungary, meeting in 1989 they trotted all of us to the famous thermal baths where we stripped and waded into the steaming pea green waters to enjoy the distinctive aroma of sulfur. I bumped into none other than Neil Miller, renowned scholar and one of the originals from the Tokyo meeting. As an undergraduate, I devoured many of his writings about S-R reinforcement theory and the idea that principles of animal behavior could apply to humans. He published widely in anthropology, sociology, animal behavior, neurophysiology, and even delved into psychoanalysis. I well remember his books Frustration and Aggression, Social Learning and Imitation, and Personality and Psychotherapy. He was one of the first to do brain stimulation in rats (which was my research in graduate school) and he also became a pioneer in biofeedback. What did we talk about in the steam bath? Raccoons. Neither one of us could figure out what to do about the arch enemy of suburbia. Raccoons destroyed his gardens in Connecticut and they stripped the grapes from my half-acre vineyard in New Jersey when the sugar content reached 15 degrees Brix. Raccoons outsmarted both of us.

At the Szombathely meetings I also got to know Hungarian researcher Borisz Szegal. Turns out he was a former officer in the Russian army. After the meetings, he invited me to his home in Budapest and gave me a royal tour of the city. What did we talk about? The Russian perspective of what happened in WWII vs. the American version found in most history books I was familiar with. Turns out that Borisz knew a lot more about 20th century European history than I did.

The same year I was invited by animal behaviorist and ISRA member Robert Hinde to visit St. Johns College in Cambridge. Robert had an amazing career which ranged from being a captain in the RAF to becoming the president of the British anti-war Pugwash Group. Academically, he received awards for his work in ethology, ornithology, child development, psychiatry, primatology, anthropology, and zoology. His students included Jane Goodall and Dian Fossey. When we toured his labs, my jaw dropped when he quipped that he regretted devoting so much of his career to bird behavior when so much research was needed to understand human aggression. He took me to High Table where we had dinner in academic regalia perched several feet above the rest of St. John’s College. The ceremonies were conducted in Latin and we drank wine from 500-year-old silver chalices. Robert’s contributions and his breath of interests were truly inspiring.

Another fond memory comes from the XIV World Meeting in Valencia organized by Manuela Martinez who was later the European ISRA Bulletin editor. To put a real face on violence, I attempted to organize a bull fight outing so we could see for ourselves whether killing bulls for sport was artistry or butchery. I got no takers. I ended up going by myself to watch these huge animals charge into the ring not knowing that 20 minutes later horses would drag them out dead. My longtime friend Martin Ramirez (who organized the Seville meetings) found out that I had gone and later caught up and joined me in the stands. Martin did not defend the “sport” but he tried to explain the pageantry and ceremonial aspects which made it popular for some.

Perhaps my favorite meeting was the 1984 World Meeting in Turku, Finland, organized by Kirsti Lagerspetz (ISRA president in 1988) and Lea Pulkkinen. Lea was a developmental psychologist who attended many of the early ISRA meetings and then became active in the ISSBD (International Society for the Study of Behavioural Development) where she was elected president in 1991. In 1983 Lea was named woman of the year in Finland. I got to know her quite well when she sponsored me on a Fulbright Fellowship which brought me and my family to the University of Jyväskylä during the winter of 1979. It snowed every day but we sometimes got a peak of sunlight just over the horizon from about 10 to 2. My kids cross-country skied to school and were the only Americans in the entire school.

I taught undergraduate and graduate courses on aggression. I remember many challenges, such as trying to explain what television violence was all about. There were only a couple of black and white TV channels at that time and they usually carried old Russian movies or marathon cross-country ski races that went on all day. Living in Finland did give me an opportunity to travel including a harrowing trip when we drove our Renault into the Soviet Union at the height of the cold war. A more pleasant trip was when I lectured at the Universities of Stockholm, Uppsala, and Bergen, Norway, where I got to know Dan Olweus who became ISRA president in 1996. On one trip we drove straight north well beyond the Arctic Circle maybe only a thousand miles from the North Pole. I still remember the look on the face of the lone soldier guarding the border at Kivilompolon tulli when he was confronted with an American family driving south into Suomi, one of the northernmost countries in the world.


The highlight of the Turku meeting was the closing banquet which was held in the famous 13th-century Turku Castle. Please note the photo which shows a processional of ISRA members filing into the castle.
Other photos show the elaborate banquet inside and a conversation with Len Eron and Sey and Norma Feshback. (Len was the 10th ISRA president and Sey was our 8th president.) Another photo shows the boat ride at Naantali where Rowell Huesmann and Ron Baenninger can be seen chatting on the right.


Meeting Drama

ISRA’s history has not always been smooth. In fact, the first World Meeting in 1974 attended by about 50 participants was disrupted by Toronto protesters who misunderstood what we meant by “aggression.” Lea Pulkkinen remembers being shocked when protesters disrupted a plenary session and threatened founding president Saul Rosenzweig, which forced him to leave the meetings.

This brings me to the drama of my own World Meeting at Ramapo College in 1998. Everyone got a T-shirt with the names of the famous cities where ISRA had met in the past: Tokyo, Paris, Siena, Mexico City, Toronto, etc., but emblazoned in the middle was MAHWAH which most people never heard or and few could pronounce. The town is actually larger than Manhattan but with only .01 percent of its population. The Lenape Indian name Mahwah means “meeting place” and its claim to fame was when George Washington’s armies camped there several hundred years earlier.

This was the 25th anniversary of ISRA and we featured the first president John Paul Scott who talked about the founding of the society and its goals. He observed that any animal that can invent war can also invent peace. He urged the group to remember the words of Francis Bacon that “knowledge is power” but he went on to add that scientific knowledge alone is not enough. We must also figure out ways to share knowledge in order to promote peace.

One session on TV violence featured a PowerPoint presentation by media expert Ed Donnerstein (an ISRA president and executive secretary). This was in the early days of computer graphics and as luck would have it the projector promptly broke. Ed gracefully continued his media presentation without media describing what we would have seen if the projector had worked. The next day we bussed everyone into NYC for a joint session at the Rockefeller University sponsored by Neil Miller. When we arrived at the East Side of Manhattan, a water main broke and flooded all the streets forming a moat around the university. We could not get anywhere near the meeting site so everyone had a long walk through ankle-deep water.

Even more drama took place when I chartered an evening boat ride around Manhattan and the Statue of Liberty. We bussed everyone to a wharf at Liberty Harbor where I had carefully arranged for dinner at the only restaurant in the warehouse area. Upon arrival we were stunned to find out that the restaurant had closed. Frantically we dispatched a cab back to Jersey City to buy some pizza which we served on the boat. We quickly ran out and many people had a lovely boat ride but almost nothing to eat. On the way home, the bus driver refused to stop at any restaurant because it was not in his contract. All the restaurants were closed when we got back to the boonies in Mahwah so many people went hungry that night.

This meeting was co-chaired with my good friends Ron and MaryAnn Baenninger. Ron was the Aggressive Behavior editor from 1979–2003 and became the ISRA archivist after that. Like many in ISRA, he had a wide variety of interests and talents beyond his animal research. His father was Swiss, his mother was Canadian, and he was born in Japan. He co-authored a book In the Eye of the Wind about how his family escaped Japan on a cargo ship during World War II. Ron started his career as a mechanical engineer but quickly took up an interest in animal behavior. He was also a cook, actor and singer, and loved dogs. Since we had both published research on why Betta splendens (Siamese fighting fish) kill each other, that was often a topic of conversation when we met. But Ron was also a car nut so instead of talking about aggression we often debated whether the British or the Italians made better sports cars. He drove an MG and I had an Alfa. In his later years he became a leading expert on yawning behavior. When Mary Ann became a college president, Ron published “Confessions of a Male Presidential Spouse” in Inside Higher Ed. I was saddened to learn that Ron passed away in March of this year.

We have come a long way since the early 1970s, and I have been fortunate to witness much of this evolution. Perhaps by accident, my 1972 book Aggression in Man and Animals came out of the ethos of the time when scientists were asking how the biological and behavioral sciences could improve understanding of the violence in the world. Many of us were alarmed at the direction civilization seemed to be taking. About 100 million people died from wars in the 20th century, a figure 12 times higher than the 19th century and 22 times greater than the 18th century.

ISRA Evolves With Technology

After joining ISRA I served on the council a number of times. In 1987 I took over the Editorship of the ISRA Bulletin from founding editor Caroline Blanchard. Her husband Bob was an original from the Tokyo meeting and his expertise as executive secretary from 1978 to 1984 greatly strengthened the society. As Bulletin editor, I gradually converted it from a typewritten and mimeographed format to a computer-generated newsletter which enjoyed the breathtaking new technology of proportional spacing. I changed the editorship format from a single American editor to a dual rotating North American Editor and a European Editor. During my 18 years of editorship, I had frequent interchanges with ISRA treasurer (and later executive secretary and president) John Knutson. What often happened was that the enthusiasm generated at World Meetings tended to dissipate during the off year. John displayed considerable leadership in holding everything together and at times the two of us had to make important decisions about the society.

With the advent of computers, everything changed. I set up a website for the society and became the first webmaster. I had to adopt the web address “ISRAsociety.com” because the acronym ISRA was already taken by the Illinois State Rifle Association. In the beginning, our website was primitive and nothing like the polished version we enjoy today. Eventually the Bulletin was converted into a dual format with both a paper version and an identical electronic version posted on the website and circulated by email. I well remember the years of delivering hard copy of the Bulletin to the print room and later picking up cartons of the newsletter which had to be stapled, folded, inserted into envelopes, and then stamped and addressed. Inevitably it was suggested we eliminate the paper version, but many resisted arguing that it was preferable to read something on a piece of paper like we had been doing all our lives rather than staring at the screen of a stupid computer.

In 2006 I retired from academia and moved to California. I had cartons full of old ISRA material including all the ISRA Bulletins but I had to downsize so I sadly discarded most of it. Then, a few years later, they asked me to take over the role of archivist from Paul Brain, ISRA president in 1984. Paul sent me two enormous cartons filled with folders of typewritten letters, mostly correspondence among officers, letters from people inquiring about membership, and bank statements of deposits and withdrawals. (Today there is very little paper generated since everything is now electronic.) I carefully guarded all of this until 2016 when Kaj Börkqvist became archivist.

When the time came to transfer the archives, I prepared a big package which was carefully wrapped and double boxed and then mailed to executive secretary Dominic Parrott in Atlanta. A few weeks later I got an unmarked letter from the United States Postal Service which contained a torn portion of the carton indicating that the package had been damaged or lost and they were trying to find it. Apparently something happened between a postal transfer facility in California and Atlanta. Dominic and I frantically tried to contact the USPS but you could not call either facility and no one responded to letters. I contacted the Postmaster General of the United States and Dominic tried to contact the mail recovery center in Atlanta. Months of letters and phone calls led to nothing. The USPS claimed they were doing a tracing but they found nothing. Alas, part of the old archives are now gone forever. Fortunately, a second shipment I sent later was received. Even better, Dominic wisely asked me earlier to forward to him what I consider the most important letters so we still have those. Dominic has now converted all that paper to computer files, which appear to be safely in the hands of current archivist Kaj Björkvist, former president and European Editor of the Bulletin.

Troublesome Issues for ISRA

In looking back over almost 50 years, I see three recurring troublesome issues. The first has to do with the interdisciplinary thrust of ISRA. While much of the impetus in the early years of the society came from those in the biological sciences, that perspective has unfortunately declined. Not only do we miss the zoologists, primatologists, medical doctors, and neurophysiologists, we also continue to lack the contributions of anthropologists, sociologists, and political scientists from the social sciences. Is ISRA becoming a society of American psychologists? In the early days we had quite a few disciplines represented, especially in the biological sciences. I remember many meetings when we ran two parallel sessions with the human/social on one side, and animal/physiological on the other. I am disturbed to see one of the pillars of the society slowly diminishing.

Second, I was often puzzled why ISRA was well-represented by certain countries but not their neighbors and why entire continents went unrepresented. Why were there so many members from Finland, U.K., Spain, Italy, Canada, France, and Germany but so few from other European countries? Why are there almost no members from Asia, Africa, and South America?

A third issue is the lack of clarity regarding the mission of the society. The ISRA mission statement says that the purpose of the society should be both scientific and educational. We know what scientific means but it is unclear what is meant by educational. Should ISRA involve itself with social issues? What about complicated issues such as gun violence, war, sexual harassment, or media violence where science tries to weigh in on matters tainted by politics? Researchers applying for a grant dealing with aggressive behavior often pay lip service to the need for curing the evils of society. The research gets done, but the authors are often cautious about applications to society. Currently there is no provision in the ISRA Constitution or Bylaws for the society to make endorsements on social or political matters, even if they are also scientific issues. But the Bylaws do allow the president to appoint a commission to review a special problem and to issue a public statement on its own if it wishes.

An early case of this came up with the Seville Statement on Violence (SSV). To oversimplify, the SSV states that there is nothing in our biology which makes human beings inherently violent. It argues that warfare is a cultural invention, not a biological system. The SSV goes on to issue a message of hope and purpose saying that we have the ability to end war and acts of violence. This issue was debated at the ISRA World Meeting of 1982 in Mexico City. Twenty leading world scientists (half of them ISRA members) then gathered in May of 1986 in Seville at the Spanish National Commission for UNESCO. They crafted the SSV statement and approved it.

A year later there was heated discussion in the same city at the off-year 1987 ISRA meeting which led to debates about whether ISRA should also adopt the SSV. Founding president Saul Rosenzweig opposed the SSV saying that ISRA should have nothing to do with the United Nations. One of the leading advocates was ISRA member David Adams who began his career doing single unit recordings from cat brains and ended his career developing the Culture of Peace Programme for UNESCO. Typical ISRA member! Reminds me of how I started my own career doing brain stimulation and ended up studying nuclear war (and now I am working to expose the dangers of nuclear power). In any case, the SSV was supported by the ISRA Commission on Violence, however it was never formally endorsed by the society. The ISRA Commission on Violence became one of 40 organizations which endorsed the SSV.

Media Violence

An even bigger issue came up with regard to media violence. Those who attend ISRA meetings know that at almost every conference there is a session on media violence. Back in the 1980s, Len Eron (ISRA president in 1990) generally started his talk proclaiming that “researchers have finally put the last nail in the coffin” on this issue. The public knew very little about the media research that scientists had been doing for decades but finally the issue made a big public splash when California passed a law banning the sale of violent video games to minors. The state was immediately challenged by the video game industry and the case ended up in the U.S. Supreme court in 2011.

ISRA became involved after 13 members who were media researchers generated a statement summarizing the scientific findings from hundreds of research studies which reported harmful effects on children exposed to media violence. Following the Constitution and Bylaws, ISRA members requested the establishment of a Media Violence Effects Commission. After all, six ISRA presidents spent much of their careers researching media violence. ISRA president at the time Deborah Richardson declined to establish a commission which meant that ISRA would not take any position on media violence. She reasoned that ISRA was a scientific society which cannot get involved in political issues. Many were disappointed and argued that public education was also one of the defining purposes of the society. They also felt that media violence was not just a political issue but also a scientific issue because there was so much empirical evidence (much of it done by ISRA members).

In response, I circulated a petition to dozens of other scientific societies and ended up with an impressive list of 115 professionals (both ISRA and non-ISRA scholars) who endorsed the statement on media violence. (For details, view the December 2011 issue of the ISRA Bulletin.) All of this became part of the Amicus Brief submitted to the U.S. Supreme Court by the state of California. In the end, the $20 billion (at the time) video game industry easily won the case by a 7-2 vote. The majority opinion was presented by Justice Scalia who ridiculed scientific research and referred to the pro-media violence endorsers as “experts.” Justice Breyer presented a detailed and scholarly dissent citing 60 research journal articles. Clarence Thomas was the only other dissenter. He offered a bizarre argument that freedom of speech does not apply to children. No one knows if the outcome would have been different if ISRA had weighed in.

Here is a passionate excerpt from Justice Breyer: “What sense does it make to forbid selling to a 13-year-old boy a magazine with an image of a nude woman, while protecting a sale to that 13-year-old of an interactive video game in which he actively, but virtually, binds and gags the woman, then tortures and kills her? What kind of First Amendment would permit the government to protect children by restricting sales of that extremely violent video game only when the woman—bound, gagged, tortured, and killed—is also topless?” In short, the court ruled that it is OK for children to see women tortured and killed as long as they are not topless.

ISRA members Deana Pollard Sacks, Brad Bushman, and Craig Anderson went to the trouble of analyzing 3 million references to test the “expertise” of those who entered testimony on both sides. They found that 60 percent of those who endorsed the California law had published research on the topic. Only 17 percent of the entertainment industry “experts” had conducted research. Most of the leading newspapers praised the decision as a victory for free speech. The New York Times published a number of op-eds ridiculing video game violence but they refused to publish a counterpoint submitted by ISRA presidents Len Eron and Rowell Huesmann.

Should ISRA Get Involved in Public Issues?

So sexual content and cursing continues to be regulated, but extreme violence is not. In the 1980s, kids could watch fun video games like “Rape-Lay” and now we can all enjoy “Sniper 3D Assassin,” a game where the purpose is to kill reporters. Many feel frustrated at how scientific research gets ignored or denigrated, and in fact the anti-science stance of politicians is now worse than ever. So what can researchers and scientific societies do to exert more influence on public discourse and public policy?

A strong response came from ISRA president Menno Kruk, himself a medical pharmacologist who continued efforts after his presidency in 2008. He urged ISRA to take a much stronger role in public debates about aggression. He argued that ISRA was unprepared to deal with media violence and with its present structure it cannot provide an effective challenge related to other social issues which will arise in the future. He argued that participating in public debate can be done without taking sides, and that retreating to the ivory tower of pure science allows charlatans to prevail. He urged ISRA to change some of its Bylaws and be proactive in educating the public.

Although not much came from Menno’s advice, I am pleased to see more voices speaking out on public issues. In the July 2017 issue of the ISRA Bulletin, past president Mike Potegal issued a call to action for ISRA to address the public good. He focused on the controversial issue of gun control. In the same issue, our current president Barbara Krahé implored aggression researchers to get involved in complex issues such as terrorism.

In conclusion, may I also call attention to additional remarks that Barbara made at the business meeting of the XXIII World Meeting in Paris in 2018. Her title was “Continuing the ISRA Mission: Some Challenges and Ideas.” Barbara reminded everyone that ISRA is dedicated to being truly international and interdisciplinary and we need to place research in a broader framework which promises to impact the spread of human violence. In particular, she said we must engage in translational science to increase the influence of our work beyond academia. She noted the concentration of membership in North America and lack of representation from many important areas of the world. She also lamented the declining participation of those in both the biological sciences and the social sciences other than psychology. Curious how these same themes have been coming up for almost half of a century!

Does ISRA need structural changes? More outreach efforts? More sensitivity to the origins and purposes of the society? While there are many ways in which ISRA has thrived, troublesome challenges remain. It has been a wonderful experience for me to observe and participate in so many of the developments over the last half-century. Many others have done the same and I hope they will speak out and share their views. And I hope that current members will thoughtfully consider how they can promote goals of the society.

Roger Johnson
Professor Emeritus, San Clemente, California