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John A. Swets Family

The Swets Family: Honoring John A. Swets Achievements and the Spirit of Collaboration

John A. Swets

As a psychology graduate student at the University of Michigan, John A. Swets, along with Wilson P. “Spike” Tanner, introduced signal detection theory (SDT) to Psychological Science. Their accomplishment had an enormous impact on the field.

SDT is “arguably the most important, fundamental, rigorous, and broadly applicable theory in all of modern cognitive psychology”, commented David E. Meyer, Distinguished Professor of Mathematical Psychology and Cognitive Sciences at Michigan.  Affirming and elaborating these laudatory sentiments, Dr. Raymond S. Nickerson of Tufts University wrote in an obituary published after Swets’ death in 2016. “It is not too much to say that it (SDT) revolutionized the study of sensation, perception, and decision making, by establishing the importance of decision processes in the interpretation of sensory experience.”

Like so much important scientific work, SDT grew out of collaboration and cooperation, not just between Swets and Tanner, but also among scholars across other complementary mathematical and technological disciplines at Michigan. To honor their husband and father, and the spirit of intellectual teamwork that the University has nurtured, his wife Maxine (Mickey) and sons Stephen and Joel Swets established the John A. Swets Memorial Award for Excellence in Collaborative Psychological Science Research with a gift of $25,000 in September of 2018. The U of M Psychology Department will present this award biennially to teams of faculty and graduate students to encourage innovative high-impact psychological discoveries stemming from collaborative scientific work.

“Dad felt that signal detection theory, as applied to perception, was the result of some friendships and professional interaction with some of the older engineering students and later, some mathematicians,” his sons explain. “We’d like to help support collaborations between psychologists and folks in other fields and think dad would have found this a wonderful and appropriate idea.”

By establishing this award in their father’s name, Joel and Stephen are following in his footsteps. Swets himself, together with his long-time colleague David Green, created the Tanner Memorial Award to honor Spike Tanner. It provides financial support for undergraduates undertaking “particularly innovative, original, and meritorious research projects.”

John Swets, a native son from Holland, Michigan, entered the University of Michigan in 1946 to become an undergraduate psychology major, and stayed at the university for his entire education, earning a B.A. degree in 1950, an M.A. in 1953, and a Ph.D. in 1954. As a freshman, thanks to a registration glitch, he wasn’t placed in West Quad with first and second year students and instead landed in East Quad with upperclass engineering majors. This dormitory assignment was serendipitous: one of those engineers, Wes Peterson, helped Swets improve his table tennis and bridge games during their East Quad years and later made significant contributions to Swets’ doctoral thesis.

Swets had planned a career as a social psychologist in order to help people and society, but Michigan introduced him to aspects of psychological science that much better suited his skills and interests. As he recalled later in writing his autobiography, “I found ‘sensory’ psychology” during graduate school, “…which began, and remained at the center of, my entire career.”

In his autobiography, Swets also honored a number of university faculty members who were key influences on his work. As an undergraduate, Prof. Don Lauer served as a mentor, taking Swets under his wing, and hiring him as a research assistant on a project that examined conditioned responses in dogs. Several graduate classes had a significant impact on him, including Elizabeth Crosby’s course in neuroanatomy and a seminar on neural mechanisms led by then Psychology chairman Donald Marquis. Swets also studied phonetics and phonemics with Kenneth Pike, acoustic speech analysis with Gordon Peterson, sensory function with Dick Blackwell, math with Robert Thrall, and mathematical psychology with Clyde Coombs.

During his graduate studies, Swets also became friends with Spike Tanner, who was several years ahead of him, and they discovered similar dissertation interests. It was Tanner who reconnected Swets to engineers Wes Peterson and Ted Birdsall, who were working on a version of signal detection theory for applications in radar and sonar. They quickly realized that SDT could have applications in how people detect faint sensory stimuli and recognize meaningful signals against backgrounds of noise or random interference. Through this realization, Swets and Tanner adapted receiver operating characteristic (ROC) curves to their purposes, thereby helping determine the best decision thresholds for performing various tasks involving signal-detection processes. Subsequently, this analytic tool became central in the study of human perception and memory as well as in medical diagnostics.

The Michigan psychology community’s influence on Swets also went well beyond academics. Many of his fellow students became lifelong friends and these relationships were among his greatest joys, according to his sons. Swets played on departmental touch football and softball teams with colleagues like Bill McKeachie and Spike Tanner. One of his favorite memories from his life back then was learning that he had a higher batting average than McKeachie—the only teammate ever to achieve this feat.

After Swets finished the Psychology doctoral program in 1954, he remained in Ann Arbor as a faculty member for two years before taking a faculty position at MIT and expanding his research program. “I continued to draw on my Michigan years as I built a computer-based lab for auditory and visual detection research and developed projects on computer-assisted learning of complex sounds, second languages, and medical diagnosis.”

During 1958, Swets began consulting part-time at Bolt, Beranek and Newman Inc. (now BBN Technologies), a Cambridge, Massachusetts think-tank spawned by MIT. Subsequently, in 1962, he moved into a full-time position there. Starting as a supervisory scientist, he quickly became vice president and co-director of BBN’s Sciences and Technology Division. Eventually he became BBN’s chief scientist in information science.

As Swets describes it, his work focused on “recognition of complex visual patterns, primarily in medical imaging, and to extensions of detection theory and methods to the diagnostic process” in other fields, including medicine. In 1966, Swets and David Green coauthored Signal Detection Theory and Psychophysics, which became a classic book in the field. It was “required reading by anyone doing, or anticipating doing, research on human sensation and perception,” writes Dr. Nickerson in his obituary for Swets. The theory has been successfully applied in numerous practical areas, including weather forecasting, materials testing, aptitude testing, information retrieval, and polygraph lie detection.

Swets worked at BBN until he retired in 1998. During this time, he was also a senior research associate at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and a health care policy lecturer at the Harvard Medical School. Along the way, many honors and awards came to him, including election to the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, and receipt of the Distinguished Scientific Contribution Award from the American Psychological Association.  As Michigan professor David E. Meyer has extolled: “John Swets richly deserved all of these esteemed professional recognitions.  He was a true giant of Psychological Science, and leading pioneer of the mid-20th Century ‘Cognitive Revolution’, which sparked an enormous rebirth in the rigorous investigation of mental processes and the human mind after a prior ‘Dark Age’ of Radical Behaviorism.”

Although Swets spent most of his life away from his native Michigan home, he maintained a deep love for his alma mater and it had a long influence on his life. “Dad always talked about what attending Michigan meant to him,” his sons affirm. Michigan's influence extended from the small things: “We got our first color TV so dad could watch Michigan sports in color, and he always had a Michigan baseball cap handy,” to his highly notable life’s work: “He always credited his start at Michigan as the basis for his many accomplishments and the recognition he earned as a result of them.”