The work of Narziss Ach
Narziß Kaspar Ach (1871-1946), a German psychologist, was the first who empirically studied the competition between learned associations and task goals. In his “combined method for investigating will power”, subjects first built up associations between the members of a series of nonsense syllables by repeatedly reading them aloud. In the second phase, the subjects had to perform a different task (e.g. forming a rhyme) with the same stimuli. The decrease in performance (reaction time and errors) relative to neutral stimuli was considered a measure of the “will power” needed to overcome the inner associative obstacles. Ach thought that goal-directed behaviour overcomes such obstacles by what he called “determining tendency” (determinierende Tendenz).
In a sense, Ach’s combined method can be regarded as the predecessor of modern conflict paradigms such as the Stroop task or the Eriksen Flanker task. Since these paradigms are currently widely used to investigate executive control and conflict monitoring mechanisms, Ach’s method also deserves consideration. Moreover, his various thoughts regarding will and volitional behaviour are still a source of inspiration and ideas.
Although Ach published several books, his work is hardly known even to German researchers. One reason might be that his books are not easily accessible. Therefore, we provide his main books as electronic versions (facsimile). Moreover, because he published in German, his international reception has been rather limited. In order to promote Ach’s work and ideas, we additionally provide an English translation of a published lecture (Ach, 1910/2006), which summarizes his main ideas.