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Ira Bernstein

From left to right: Ira Bernstein, Ira and Linda Bernstein

When Ira Bernstein (B.A.: Psychology Honors, 1959) left White Plains, NY to come to Michigan in 1955, he originally planned to major in Math. After enrolling in an abnormal psychology class early in his undergraduate career, however, he realized that while he did enjoy the abstraction of mathematics, he also wanted to address more real-world human problems. Those two passions eventually led Bernstein to a Psychology Honors B.A. from U-M, a Psychology Ph.D. from Vanderbilt, and 50+-year career performing research in the fields of perception and psychometric testing. Indeed, Bernstein’s change in major was just one of many unpredictable effects of his time at Michigan, and he believes the broad but carefully chosen U-M curriculum provided him with both the space to discover his passions and the scientific skills necessary to succeed in graduate school and beyond.

A particularly important and inspiring class for Bernstein ended up being one that many of his fellow students dreaded—statistics, taught by Dr. William Hays—and he credits Michigan for requiring students to take it, despite its unpopularity. “I took the class,” he recalls. “I had to. But contrary to what I was told, I loved it! I thought it was wonderful. Sigma x over n always equals the mean and all of that stuff. One of the problems you have is that students often listen to the wrong people. If you ever hear a course criticized, people will say, ‘Why do I have to take statistics? I’m never going to use it.’ As if someone who is 18 has any idea what they may end up using down the line! But I thought the program of work at Michigan was excellent and extremely well-chosen—not just the honors part of it, which was a great experience, but the entire set of prerequisites, particularly some of the music classes I took.” Bernstein also names two other often-dreaded courses—Psychology of Tests and Measurements, taught by Dr. Benno Fricke, and Psychology of Visual Perception, taught by Drs. James Smith and Crawford Clark—as instrumental in determining the course of his career.

Overall, Bernstein describes the Honors Program at Michigan as “a wonderful experience and incredible preparation for graduate school,” despite the fact that much of what he learned was rooted heavily in late-1950s behaviorism and would soon be eclipsed by the cognitive revolution in psychology. “I could mention the people we focused on in our senior seminar to almost anyone in psychology,” he says, “and they would say ‘who the heck are those people?’ But those were the movers and shakers of 1950s behaviorism, which of course promptly led to 1960s cognitive psychology and the immediate and total obsolescence of everything we learned—as particular content. But that didn’t stop us from learning a great deal about the process of science, and to have seen those giants in action is something that stayed with me.” A series of U-M Friday afternoon seminars featuring visiting psychologists was important to Bernstein as well. At one of the talks, he met Dr. Charles W. Eriksen, a perception researcher at the University of Illinois who developed the Eriksen flanker task used for evaluating how the brain responds to conflicting visual stimuli. Bernstein eventually took a postdoctoral position with Eriksen and spent the early years of his career researching and publishing papers on audiovisual processing.

Outside of academics, Bernstein was also involved in Greek life at Michigan, which yielded other unexpected benefits, chief among them his wife of nearly 60 years, Linda. “She is also part of my Michigan legacy,” he laughs. “We met at an AEPi fraternity party, and next June we will have been married 60 years. But obviously I didn’t know that at the time! A major advantage of Michigan was that it was a place to meet a wide variety of people from around the world. Specifically, it allowed a New York boy to fall in love with a Memphis, Tennessee girl.”

After finishing his B.A., Bernstein attended graduate school at Vanderbilt, earning his M.A. in 1961 and Ph.D. in 1963. He began in the clinical psychology program there but grew frustrated with some of the then-paradigmatic thinking in clinical psychology and switched to experimental psychology, which he preferred for its emphasis on scientific rigor and statistical analysis.

As Bernstein’s career progressed, he increasingly shifted his focus to psychometric testing, and particularly to developing and assessing the validity of scales for depression and other medical pathologies. This offered an ideal balance for Bernstein because it allowed him to use mathematics to make a meaningful difference in people’s lives. “Studying psychometrics meant that I could combine real-world problems that everyone could understand with the technical stuff that few people could understand. If you ever want to close down a party quickly, start explaining what confirmatory factor analysis is—you couldn’t do it any quicker!” he laughs. “Yet everybody knew what I meant if I told them I’m studying which is the best scale for measuring depression. Anyone could understand that.”

All in all, Bernstein says, “I had a long career—over 50 years. I’m an APA Fellow, a Psychonomic Society Fellow. I didn’t win that Nobel Prize I was hoping for [laughs], but most people would say, ‘Yeah, he did a good job and cast a positive light on both Michigan and Vanderbilt.”

Louis Bernstein with granddaughters Dina (left) and Cari (right) in the early 1970s

To express his gratitude for the U-M Department of Psychology and to support future psychology undergraduates, Bernstein generously gifted $10,000 to establish the Louis Bernstein Undergraduate Psychology Research Fund, which he also plans to support through future donations. The fund will provide financial support for seniors as they begin their honors research projects, including covering research expenses and providing stipends for living expenses, with preference given to students working in experimental or cognitive psychology. Bernstein established the fund in honor of Dr. Benno Fricke, the Michigan professor who taught the Psychology of Tests and Measurements course Bernstein took as an undergraduate, and named it after his own father, a Jewish immigrant from Argentina.  He hopes the fund will offset some of the rapidly rising costs of attending college, particularly for out-of-state students like him, and that the name of the fund will celebrate the hard work of immigrants like his father.