In Memoriam: Ronald Baenninger (1937–2019)

Ronald Baenninger

Ronald Baenninger

Ronald Baenninger, longtime ISRA member, and the second (and longest serving) editor of Aggressive Behavior (1979–2003) passed away suddenly on March 29, 2019, at the age of 81. Under his dynamic editorship, Aggressive Behavior expanded from its initial focus more on animal aggression to a broader focus on animal and human aggression and the connections between them. This reflected his own eclectic evolving interests spanning biology, technology, art, and psychology.

After graduating with his bachelor’s in mechanical engineering from Stephens Institute of Technology in the late 1950s, Ron enrolled in the Graduate School of Industrial Administration (GSIA) at Carnegie-Institute of Technology (now Carnegie-Mellon University) in 1960 thinking of a business career that would take advantage of his engineering background. However, GSIA was closely connected with psychology at Carnegie, and Ron became close friends with several bio-psychology graduate students (particularly Gordon Pitz and James Korn) and took courses from Psychology Professor Kenneth (‘Keck’) Moyer, an early ISRA member and outstanding teacher and researcher on the psychobiology of animals’ aggressive behavior. Moyer, who, later on, became the first editor of Aggressive Behavior (1974–1979), had a significant influence on Ron’s career path.

Despite having the appearance and dress of other GSIA graduate students (he tooled around Pittsburgh in a Jaguar XK140) Ron realized that studying the bio-psychology of aggression was more interesting than pursuing business and engineering and would connect him with much more congenial, free-spirited colleagues whom he would enjoy. Consequently, after he obtained his master’s at Carnegie, Ron left GSIA, and spent a year teaching psychology at Bethany College in West Virginia. Then in 1962 he enrolled in the Ph.D. program in Behavioral Neuroscience at Johns Hopkins University where he earned his Ph.D. in 1966 under James S. Meyer with a dissertation showing (with a clever experiment) that aggressive mouse killing by rats was not suppressed by concurrent administration of pain but was suppressed by a conditioned stimulus signaling a forthcoming administration of pain (1).

Ron outside his lab at Temple University

Ron outside his lab at Temple University

Moving to Temple University as an Assistant Professor of Psychology, Ron accelerated his exploration of what moderates both interspecies (rat-mouse) and intra-species (Siamese fighting fish) aggression and particularly how aggression and non-aggression can be conditioned or suppressed. With multiple experiments in high impact journals, Ron replicated his discovery of the enhancing effects of concurrent pain and inhibiting effects of anticipated pain on interspecies aggression; was able to demonstrate that the septal area in rats’ brains plays a notable role in controlling interspecies aggression (2); showed that aggression had an intrinsic reward value (3); and showed how multiple conditioning procedures could be used to inhibit interspecies aggression (4). At the same time, he demonstrated that performing intra-species threat displays (in Siamese fighting fish) can be reinforcing but that the characteristics of a conspecific that enhance the likelihood of a threat display (e.g., larger size) diminish the likelihood of a predatory attack (5). These were all significant and important additions to our understanding of aggressive behavior and predatory attacks, but for those who knew Ron for the gentle, smiling, non-aggressive, animal loving person he was, this focus of his research on aggression in animals seemed surprising—until they realized that Ron was most interested in how aggression could be inhibited and in the connections between animal and human behavior.

Through his well-designed experiments with rats and Siamese fighting fish, Ron had confirmed for himself that predation and other forms of inter- and intra-species aggression operated with different mechanisms, and, certainly, Ron was a believer in the value of the careful experimental method as psychologists know it (he even built his own equipment for automatically recording aggressive contacts between animals during experiments [6]). However, he was also a voracious reader of scholars who used other methods including naturalistic observations of animals and humans and was constantly trying to integrate findings from different methodologies (7). As an art lover and animal lover (and particularly a dog lover), he was also not shy about venturing into new areas of animal behavior that he found interesting even if they seemed to have little connection to aggression, and he produced well written, interesting articles about these things, e.g., ‘the connotative meaning of animal names (8),’ ‘the decline of the appearance of animals from Western art (9),’ and ‘herding-dog behavior (10).’

Williams, Baenninger, Donnerstein, & Johnson discover ‘gun’ at ISRA in Santorini in 2004

Williams, Baenninger, Donnerstein, & Johnson discover ‘gun’ at ISRA in Santorini in 2004

At about the same time, Ron was thinking about the need to see human aggressive behavior other than as a simple extrapolation of animal behavior (11) and was perceiving the limits of neurophysiology in explaining human aggressive behavior (12). Ron had never believed that humans had an innate aggressive drive, but he felt more research was needed on differences and similarities between humans and animals in learning mechanisms affecting aggression. When he took over as editor of Aggressive Behavior in 1979, he was determined to give as much voice to cognitive, social, and developmental psychologists who were researching human aggression as was given to bio-psychologists studying animal aggression. In his opening editorial, he wrote, “Inevitably, each editor of a journal helps to characterize it. My aim is to foster mutual interest and even a rapprochement among those who study aggressive behavior from social and biological perspectives.” He stuck to this aim all through his 14 years as editor, and even proposed a cognitive/social/developmental psychologist as editor (me) when he ended his term. As a result, Aggressive Behavior became a recognized high-impact source for research on the social/cognitive foundations of aggression in humans as well as on the biological foundations of aggression in animals and humans.

In 1991 Ron edited and released the book Targets of Violence and Aggression (13), in which he had his invited authors focus on human aggression but draw a parallel with animal aggression by emphasizing the role that the “target of aggression” plays in “eliciting” aggression. Of course, Ron would not have denied that humans also “emit” aggressive behavior with no noticeable immediate stimulus behavior by the target, but I am sure he saw this approach to a volume of essays by distinguished authors as a way to draw animal and human researchers closer together, and I think the book has done just that. At about the same time as he edited this book, Ron embarked on a new research direction that, while only tangentially related to aggression, attracted widespread attention—the functions of yawning. With a combination of experiments and field studies, Ron showed that yawning is predictive of a subsequent increase in arousal and activity, suggesting to Ron that yawning may be a mechanism that both animals and humans use to prepare for situations where vigilance is important as in agonistic contexts where aggression may occur (14).

The above review of Ron Baenninger’s scholarly research reveals him as a careful and unbiased scholar who has contributed substantially to the advance in our knowledge of aggression and to the directions in which our field is going. But the work I have mentioned is only the tip of an iceberg. One needs to read the many book reviews, obituaries for colleagues, and other essays that he has written on everything from art to automobiles to female aggression (written with his wife, MaryAnn Baenninger) and to read his lovely memoire (written with his brother) about his parents (15) to really see the extent and depth of his contributions to our world. His writings reveal Ron as an outstanding and compassionate author with broad interests, whose works are a pleasure to read.

When Ron retired from Temple University in 2007, he enthusiastically took on the role of “first spouse” for his wife, MaryAnn, who was appointed president of the College of Saint Benedict in Minnesota and then President of Drew University in New Jersey. Ron loved the role and had great fun at events for college presidents’ spouses, riding around on buses with the other spouses (most of whom were female, of course). In retirement, as throughout his life, Ron loved acting and singing, cooking, mentoring his grandchildren, reading mysteries, walking on beaches, and being a good conservationist. He also never lost his love of all animals and especially dogs.

To those who have known this congenial, gentle, warm, non-hostile man, it is impressive that he could do so much without losing any of his humility or kindness toward others. However, it is even more impressive when one considers the path of Ron’s early life while the world was at war.

Ron & his mother visit Canada from Japan in January 1941

Ron & his mother visit Canada from Japan in January 1941

Ron was born in Japan in November 1937—the son of a Canadian mother from Saskatchewan and a Swiss father from Zurich who was the Japanese commercial representative for a Swiss silk and textile company. Roni, as his parents called him, was an even tempered baby and began his extensive world travels almost immediately when he was only 1 year old, going with his mother to Canada, New York, and then Switzerland via boat, of course, where his father joined them. War clouds loomed though Roni was too young to notice the many signs apparent particularly at the Swiss borders. When WWII began in September 1939, Roni and his parents had to struggle to get passage back to their Japan home from Genoa to New York, from there to Montreal and Vancouver by train, and from Vancouver to Japan by boat. Despite the scary situation and growing animosity for foreigners in Japan during this time, Roni had a stimulating time growing up in Japan and gaining from the influence of at least three cultures and languages—Canadian (English), Swiss (German), and Japanese. The 4-year-old attended a protestant Sunday school, learned Japanese, played with Japanese kids, helped the Japanese servants with cooking (to their great pleasure), entertained everyone with his enthusiastic singing of English songs, and was befriended by a Japanese naval officer who was the son of one of the servants. However, as the political situation worsened, Roni and his mother, who had health problems, again traveled across the Pacific to Canada for treatment, but returned to Japan and Roni’s father in September 1941.

Then Pearl Harbor intervened. While the Swiss (and Roni was Swiss by birth) were neutral, the situation for Westerners in Japan deteriorated particularly after General Doolittle’s bombers flew over Roni’s house and woke him from a nap on their way to bombing Tokyo. The family decided to leave Japan for good, but it was only with great difficulty and with the help of the Swiss diplomats whom Roni’s father had cultivated that they managed to sail starting in August 1942 from Kobe by a very circuitous route through Japanese occupied territory (Shanghai – Singapore) across the Indian Ocean to Mozambique, then through U-boat infested waters to Cape Town, and north to Liverpool, and by train to London where Roni celebrated his fifth birthday at the London Zoo. Finally, Roni and his family zig-zagged across the U-boat infested North Atlantic and arrived in Canada at the end of December 1942, having spent almost 5 months escaping from Japan back to Canada.

Ron & his brother Martin and his father & mother in Canada in 1947

Ron & his brother Martin and his father & mother in Canada in 1947

Ron’s remaining childhood, spent on a farm in Saskatchewan, an apartment in Montreal, a flat near Zurich, and a house in Montclair, New Jersey, was much less dangerous but perhaps equally responsible for his life-long interests in human and animal behavior in different cultures, in his fascination with machines and great automobiles, in his interests in ice skating and watching hockey, and in his devotion to education and learning. How much Ron’s achievements and demeanor in life were influenced by this exotic childhood is hard to estimate, but it seems certain that the diversity of his interests, his determination to acquire knowledge, his gentleness and good grace, and the smile he had for everyone had to be influenced by this background.

Ron is survived by MaryAnn, his spouse of 32 years; his children and their spouses, Maggie Baenninger Nass and Karl Nass, Dan Moore and Lucy Cucciniello Moore; grandchildren Lukas and Sela Nass, and Jack and Luke Moore; his brother and sister-in-law, Martin and Celia Baenninger; nephews Christopher and Olivier Baenninger and their families; and the extended Kyle and Bänninger families of Canada and Switzerland.

L. Rowell Huesmann
University of Michigan

1. Baenninger, R. (1967). Contrasting effects of fear and pain on mouse killing by rats. Journal of Comparative and Physiological Psychology, 63(2), 298-303.

2. Miley, W. & Baenninger, R. (1972). Inhibition and facilitation of interspecies aggression in septal lesioned rats. Physiology and Behavior.

3. Baenninger, R. (1974). Some consequences of aggressive behavior: A selective review of the literature on other animals. Aggressive Behavior, 1(1), 17-37.

4. Baenninger, R. (1970). Suppression of interspecies aggression in the rat by several aversive training procedures. Journal of Comparative and Physiological Psychology, 9 (3), 379-384.

5. Baenninger, R. & Kraus, S. (1981). Some determinants of aggressive and predatory responses in Betta splendens. Journal of Comparative and Physiological Psychology, 95 (2), 220-227.

6. Berg, D. & Baenninger, R. (1972). A device for recording aggressive contact between animals. Behavior Research Methods and Instrumentation.

7. Baenninger, R., Estes, R., & Baldwin, S. (1977). Anti-predator behavior of baboons and impalas toward a cheetah. African Journal of Ecology, 15(4), 37-329.

8. Baenninger, R., Dengelmaier, R., & Navarrete, J. (2000). What’s in a name? Uncovering the connotative meanings of animal names. Anthrozoos, 13(2), 113-117.

9. Baenninger, R. (1987). Vanishing species: The disappearance of animals from Western art. Anthrozoos.

10. Marschark, E. & Baenninger, R. (2002). Modification of instinctive herding dog behavior using reinforcement and punishment. Anthrozoos, 15 (1), 51-68.

11. Baenninger, R. (1991). Differences between human and animal aggression. Aggressive Behavior, 17(2), 59-60.

12. Baenninger, R. (1979). Limits of neurophysiological approaches to aggression. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 2(2), 214.

13. Baenninger, R. (1991). Targets of violence and aggression. North Holland: Elsevier.

14. Baenninger, R., Binkley, S., & Baenninger, M. (1996). Field observations of yawning and activity in humans. Physiology and Behavior, 59(3), 421-425.

15. Baenninger, R. & Baenninger, M. (2009). In the eye of the wind: A travel memoir of prewar Japan, 193pp, Montreal: McGill-Queens University Press.