Coolidge Effect

Calvin Coolidge? Frank A. Beach? Lisbeth Jordan? Robert E. Whalen? Elliot Liebow?

Dear Quote Investigator: The scientific literature on animal behavior contains the term “Coolidge Effect” which apparently was inspired by a ribald anecdote about Calvin Coolidge and his wife Grace. Would you please explore the provenance of this term and the accompanying story?

Quote Investigator: An illuminating letter on this topic from University of California, Berkeley, Professor of Psychology Frank A. Beach appeared in the 1974 fourth edition of “Principles of General Psychology”. Beach asserted that he was responsible for the introduction of the term “Coolidge Effect” into the scientific literature. He said that “the neologism referred to an old joke about Calvin Coolidge” which he described as follows. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

The President and Mrs. Coolidge were being shown around an experimental government farm. When she came to the chicken yard she noticed that a rooster was mating very frequently. She asked the attendant how often that happened and was told, “Dozens of times each day.” Mrs. Coolidge said, “Tell that to the President when he comes by.” Upon being told, Coolidge asked, “Same hen every time?” The reply was, “Oh no, Mr. President, a different hen every time.” Coolidge: “Tell that to Mrs. Coolidge!”

Beach stated that he and co-worker Lisbeth Jordan researched the sexual behavior of rats in 1955. A male rat could copulate with a female a limited number of times before experiencing a period of exhaustion. Researcher Alan Fisher found that the introduction of a new female partner increased the number of encounters. Beach’s group replicated the findings of Fisher, and the results of his group were reported by Dick Whalen during the 1958 meetings of the Western Psychological Association. As a “silly joke” Beach told Whalen to refer to the phenomenon as the “Coolidge Effect” and to provide no further explanation for the term. The session chair Dave Krech also agreed to mention the term.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

The earliest published instance of the term “Coolidge Effect” located by QI appeared in the “Journal of Comparative and Physiological Psychology” within an article co-authored by Frank A. Beach. The article was received by the journal on August 18, 1962 and published in 1963. It did not present the Coolidge anecdote: 2

This phenomenon, which has been termed the “Coolidge effect” (Whalen, 1959) is not limited to Rattus norvegicus, but seems to be rather wide-spread among mammalian species.

The passage above referred to the following paper by Whalen which is listed in the bibliography. Oddly, the year specified is 1959 instead of 1958 which Beach mentioned in his 1974 letter. Whalen’s paper was presented, but QI does not know if it ever appeared in print:

WHALEN, R. E. Analysis of species-specific behavior as exemplified by sexual patterns. Paper read at Western Psychological Association Meeting, 1959.

A joke isomorphic to the Coolidge anecdote appeared in the 1967 book “Tally’s Corner: A Study of Negro Streetcorner Men” by Elliot Liebow. This was the earliest published instance of the tale located by QI. The bawdy nature of the story may have impeded its emergence in print. The book calls it “a standard joke”: 3

An old man and his wife were sitting on their porch, rocking slowly and watching a rooster mount one hen, then another. When the rooster had repeated this performance several times, the old woman turned to her husband and said, “Why can’t you be like that rooster?”

“If you look close,” the old man said, “you’ll see that that rooster ain’t knockin’ off the same hen each time. If he had to stick with the same one, he wouldn’t do no better than me.”

The 1972 book “Aggression in Man and Animals” by Roger N. Johnson included a compressed version of the Coolidge anecdote: 4

. . . “Coolidge Effect” in honor of the late President. Allegedly it refers to an incident in which the First Lady was admiring some barnyard activity, which led her to remark that the males seemed to have impressive sexual powers. The President agreed, but also noted that the males never stayed with the same partner.

In 1978 work “A New Look at Love” by Elaine Walster and G. William Walster discussed the “Coolidge Effect” and included an instance of the story together with a footnote that pointed to an unpublished 1970 article: 5

“Mrs. Coolidge, observing the vigor with which one particularly prominent rooster covered hen after hen, asked the guide to make certain that the President took note of the rooster’s behavior. When President Coolidge got to the hen yard, the rooster was pointed out and his exploits recounted by the guide, who added that Mrs. Coolidge had requested that the President be made aware of the rooster’s prowess. The President reflected for a moment and replied, ‘Tell Mrs. Coolidge that there is more than one hen.'” 19

19. C.S. Blatt and R.C. Blatt, An evolutionary theory of social interaction, unpublished manuscript, 1970.

In conclusion, the Coolidge presidency ended in 1929. According to Beach he convinced a colleague to use the term “Coolidge Effect” in 1958. Hence, Beach knew about the farm anecdote by that date or earlier. Beach and other researchers used the term in the early 1960s, but did not publish the explanatory anecdote.

A version of the comical tale without Coolidge appeared in the 1967 book “Tally’s Corner”, and a version with Coolidge was printed the 1972 book “Aggression in Man and Animals”.

QI believes that Frank A. Beach probably did craft and popularize the term “Coolidge Effect”. The credibility of the underlying farm anecdote is difficult to evaluate. The delay from 1929 to 1958 and the indirect evidence reduces the tales credibility. Future researchers may discover more.

Image Notes: Picture of a couple embracing with a third ambiguous figure present from cocoparisienne at Pixabay.

(Great thanks to George Mannes whose inquiry led QI to reactivate research on this topic after a period of exhaustion. Mannes pointed to the helpful but misleading Wikipedia article. The claim” “Frank A. Beach first mentioned the term ‘Coolidge effect’ in publication in 1955” is inaccurate. Special thanks to top researcher Bonnie Taylor-Blake who accessed an article in the “International Journal of Sexology” via the University of North Carolina library system.)

Notes:

  1. 1974, Principles of General Psychology by Gregory A. Kimble, Norman Garmezy and Edward Zigler, Fourth Edition, Chapter 9: Motivation and Conflict, Letter from: Frank A. Beach, Date: January 4, 1974, Quote Page 249, The Ronald Press Company, New York. (Verified with hardcopy)
  2. 1963, Journal of Comparative and Physiological Psychology, Volume 56, Number 3, Modifications in the Sexual Behavior of Male Rats Produced by Changing the Stimulus Female by James R. Wilson, Robert E. Kuehn, and Frank A. Beach, Start Page 636, Quote Page 641 Column 1, American Psychological Association, Baltimore, Maryland. (Verified with hardcopy)
  3. 1967, Tally’s Corner: A Study of Negro Streetcorner Men by Elliot Liebow, Quote Page 123, Little, Brown and Company, Boston, Massachusetts. (Verified with hardcopy)
  4. 1972, Aggression in Man and Animals by Roger N. Johnson, Chapter 3: Biological Factors II, Quote Page 94, W. B. Saunders, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Verified with hardcopy)
  5. A New Look at Love by Elaine Walster and G. William Walster, Chapter 4: The delightful side of passionate love, Quote Page 75 and 179, Addison-Wesley, Reading, Massachusetts. (Verified with hardcopy)