Hermann Ebbinghaus

A German psychologist whose work culminated in the development of scientifically reliable experimental methods for the quantitative measurement of rote learning and memory.

Born in Germany in 1850, Hermann Ebbinghaus received his formal education at the universities of Halle, Berlin, and Bonn, where he earned degrees in philosophy and history. After obtaining his philosophy degree in 1873, Ebbinghaus served in the Franco-Prussian War. Following his military service, he spent the next seven years tutoring and studying independently in Berlin, France, and England. In the late 1870s, Ebbinghaus became interested in the workings of human memory. Despite the assertion by Wilhelm Wundt (1832–1920) in his newly published Physiological Psychology that memory could not be studied experimentally, Ebbinghaus decided to attempt such a study, utilizing similar mathematical treatment to that which Gustav Fechner (1801– 87) had described in Elements of Psychophysics (1860) in relation to his study of sensation and perception.

Hermann Ebbinghaus.

Hermann Ebbinghaus.
(© Bettmann/Corbis).

Ebbinghaus also measured immediate memory, showing that a subject could generally remember between six and eight items after an initial list perusal. In addition, he studied comparative learning rates for meaningful and meaningless material, concluding that meaningful items, such as words and sentences, could be learned much more efficiently than nonsense syllables. His experiments also yielded observations about the value of evenly spaced versus massed memorization.Protracted time and effort went into this seminal research. For example, to determine the effects of number of repetitions on retention, Ebbinghaus tested himself on 420 lists of 16 syllables, 340 times each, for a total of 14,280 trials. After careful accumulation and analysis of data, Ebbinghaus published the results of his research in the volume On Memory in 1885, while on the faculty of the University of Berlin. Although Wundt argued that results obtained by using nonsense syllables had limited applicability to the actual memorization of meaningful material, Ebbinghaus's work has been widely used as a model for research on human verbal learning, and On Memory has remained one of the most cited and highly respected sourcebooks in the history of psychology.

In 1894, Ebbinghaus joined the faculty of the University of Breslau. While studying the mental capacities of children in 1897, he began developing a sentence completion test that is still widely used in the measurement of intelligence. This test, which he worked on until 1905, was one of the first reliable and valid tests of mental ability. Ebbinghaus also served on the faculties of the Friedrich Wilhelm University and the University of Halle. He was a cofounder of the first German psychology journal, the Journal of Psychology and Physiology of the Sense Organs, in 1890, and also wrote two successful textbooks, The Principles of Psychology (1902) and A Summary of Psychology (1908), both of which went into several editions. His achievements represented a major advance for psychology as a distinct scientific discipline and many of his methods continue to be followed in verbal learning research.

See also Forgetting curve ; Learning curve ; Learning theory ; Memory .



Anderson, John R., and G. H. Bower. Human Associative Memory. Hoboken, NJ: Taylor and Francis, 2014.

Danziger, Kurt. Marking the Mind: A History of Memory. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2008.

Ebbinghaus, Hermann. Psychology: An Elementary Text Book. New York: Arno Press, 1973.

Ebbinghaus, Hermann. Memory: A Contribution to Experimental Psychology. New York: Dover Publications, 1964.

Haselgrove, Mark, and Lee Hogarth. Clinical Applications of Learning Theory. Hove, UK: Psychology Press, 2012.

Herrnstein, Richard J., and Edwin Garrigues Boring. A Source Book in the History of Psychology. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1965.

Mook, Douglas G. Classic Experiments in Psychology. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2004.


Martinez, Michael E. “Human Memory: The Basics.” Phi Delta Kappan 91, no. 8 (May 2010): 62-65.


Classics in the History of Psychology. “Memory: A Contribution to Experimental Psychology. Hermann Ebbinghaus (1885).” http://psychclassics.yorku.ca/Ebbinghaus/ (accessed November 17, 2014).

Flashcard Learner. “Hermann Ebbinbghaus, a pioneer of memory research.” http://www.flashcardlearner.com/articles/hermann-ebbinghaus-a-pioneer-of-memoryresearch/ (accessed November 17, 2014).