Jerome S. Bruner

An American psychologist and educator whose principal areas of study were in the fields of cognitive psychology and language development.

Jerome S. Bruner was born in New York City and educated at Duke University. During World War II, Bruner worked on the subject of propaganda and popular attitudes for U.S. Army intelligence at General Dwight D. Eisenhower's headquarters in France. He obtained his Ph.D. from Harvard University in 1947, after which he joined the faculty, serving as professor of psychology, as well as cofounder and director of the Center for Cognitive Studies. In 1972, Bruner left Harvard to teach at Oxford University, where he remained for several years. He returned to Harvard as a visiting professor in 1979; two years later he joined the faculty of the New School for Social Research in New York City. Bruner's early work in cognitive psychology focused on the sequences of decisions made by subjects as part of their problem-solving strategies in experimental situations.

Dr. Jerome S. Bruner in 1965.

Dr. Jerome S. Bruner in 1965.
(© AP Photo)

Beginning in the 1940s, Bruner, along with colleague Leo Postman (1918–2004), did important work on the ways in which needs, motivations, and expectations (or mental sets) affect perception. Their approach, sometimes referred to as the New Look, contrasted a functional perspective with the prevailing formal one that treated perception as a self-sufficient process to be considered separately from the world around it. When Bruner and Postman showed young children toys and plain blocks of equal height, the children, expecting toys to be larger than blocks, thought the toys were taller. The toys also increased in perceived size when the researchers made them inaccessible. In further experiments involving mental sets, the two scientists used an instrument called a tachistoscope to show their subjects brief views of playing cards, including some nonstandard cards, such as a red ace of spades. As long as the subjects were not alerted to the presence of the abnormal cards, almost none saw them.

Bruner's work in cognitive psychology led to an interest in the cognitive development of children and related issues of education. In the 1960s, he developed a theory of cognitive growth. Bruner's theories, in contrast to those of Jean Piaget (1896–1980), focus on the environmental and experiential factors influencing each individual's specific pattern of development. His theoretical perspective, that human intellectual ability develops in stages from infancy to adulthood through step-by-step progress in how the mind is used, has influenced experimental psychologists and educators worldwide. Bruner remained particularly interested in language and other representations of human thought. In one of his best-known papers, Bruner defined three modes of representing, or symbolizing, human thought. The enactive mode involves human motor capacities and includes activities such as tool use. The iconic mode pertains to sensory capacities. The sym-bolic mode involves reasoning and is exemplified by language, which plays a central role in Bruner's theories of cognition and development. He has called it “a means, not only for representing experience, but also for transforming it.”

Bruner's belief that the student should become an active participant in the educational process has been widely accepted. In The Process of Education (1960) he asserted that, given the appropriate teaching method, every child can study any subject successfully at any stage of intellectual development. Bruner's later work involved the study of the pre-speech developmental processes and linguistic communication skills in children. The Relevance of Education (1971) applied his theories to infant development. In 1963, he received the Distinguished Scientific Award from the American Psychological Association, and in 1965 he served as its president. Bruner's expertise in the field of education led to his appointment to the President's Advisory Panel of Education, and he also advised agencies of the United Nations. Bruner published 15 books and more than two dozen articles.

See also Cognitive psychology ; Learning ; Language development .



Domjan, Michael P., and James W. Grau. The Principles of Learning and Behavior, 7th ed. Stamford, CT: Cengage Learning, 2015.

Groome, David. An Introduction to Cognitive Psychology: Processes and Disorders, 3rd ed. London: Psychology Press, Taylor & Francis Group, 2014.

Halpern, Diane F. Sex Differences in Cognitive Abilities, 4th ed. New York: Psychology Press, 2012.

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

Robins, Gill. Praise, Motivation, and the Child. New York: Routledge, 2012.


Takaya, Keiichi. “Jerome Bruner's Theory of Education: From Early Bruner to Later Bruner.” Interchange 39, no. 1 (January 2008): 1–19.


New York University. “Jerome Bruner.” (accessed September 15, 2015).

Social Psychology Network. “Jerome Bruner.” (accessed September 15, 2015).