The History of Modern Psychology in a Nutshell
Psychology is generally regarded as the science of both mind and behavior; it matured into a science grounded in thorough observation and experimentation only in the late nineteenth century. In 1879, Wilhelm Wundt at the University of Leipzig created a psychological laboratory, but rather than being a scientist per se he was more proficient at systematizing and compiling data than at providing a theoretical framework to explain its meaning. Wundt, a philosopher educated in medicine and physiology, also edited the oldest journal of experimental psychology, and wrote Fundamentals of Physiological Psychology (1874) which served as an example for many years for the creation of psychology manuals. The American philosopher William James created at Harvard the oldest psychology laboratory in the United States soon after the one established by Wundt.* He also published the oldest psychology textbook, Principles of Psychology (1890) which continues to be held in high repute. In these volumes he lavishes praise on the European experimentalists but disparages their limited atomistic methodology, and presents a characteristically American variety of psychology—functionalism. To James, we can best understand psychology as the investigation into the functions of human thought and behavior, which he believes are primarily adaptive and guarantee the survival of both individual and species. The efforts of James and Wundt commemorated the birth of psychology as an independent field of study from its mother philosophy. But since then psychologists have differed about their subject matter and how they should best study it. Therefore, several main schools of thought arose and grew over the decades. We shall examine each in turn.
Structuralism directly developed from the efforts of Wundt, James, and their colleagues. The structuralists thought that the raison d’être of psychology was to examine, describe, and elucidate the conscious mind, especially its emotional states and sensations. They tried to provide a scientific analysis by employing a technique of study known as introspection in which people monitored and conveyed as exactly as they could their mental activities, emotions, and experiences after which the researchers would break them down into particular components or structures. For example, after categorizing four fundamental skin sensations (cold, warmth, pressure, and pain) they concluded that the experience of wetness was a blending of cold and smoothness.
Meanwhile, the Austrian physician Sigmund Freud originated psychoanalysis at the turn of the twentieth century. Though he started out as a neurologist, he developed an interest in disorders that had no seeming neurological or physiological origin. These disorders, termed hysterias, involve blindness, paralysis, and amnesia as part of their symptomology. He developed psychoanalysis as the theory that powerful internal forces, the majority of which the unconscious mind suppresses, govern behavior. In his greatest book, The Interpretation of Dreams, he professed that dreams, when correctly interpreted, reveal the fulfillment of a wish, or were manifestations of unconscious drives and conflicts that are intolerable to the conscious mind. Accordingly, people repress all needs or wants that are objectionable to themselves or to their society. These repressed emotions can instigate personality conflicts, self-destructive behavior, in addition to physical symptoms. He determined that these were indications of mental discord and that this discord is fundamentally sexual—a risqué interpretation for Victorian times. Freud created numerous techniques to cause repressed feelings to surface into conscious awareness. In one approach termed free association the patient unwinds (usually lying on a couch) and discusses anything that arises in his mind as the therapist listens for indications to the person’s inner feelings. The aim of psychoanalysis is to assist the patient in comprehending and acknowledging repressed feelings and finding ways to handle them.
His further contributions to psychology included the concepts of infantile sexuality and the explanation of the intricate ego defense mechanisms with which humans protect themselves against the feelings and desires that they find disturbing and which deviate from their acknowledged views of themselves.
Though he started his research in comparative seclusion, Freud quickly obtained a following, and the impact of his research extended worldwide. Currently psychologists consider psychoanalysis to be a theory of human behavior, a technique of research, and a type of healing for emotional illnesses. Even though the value of psychoanalytic care is often disputed, and the importance of psychoanalysis as a valid scientific subject persists as a topic of debate, the importance of Freud’s research remains undisputed. Though numerous psychologists debate particular beliefs held by Freud, the majority believe in his idea that the unconscious performs a focal role in determining behavior.†
The research of Russian physiologist Ivan P. Pavlov considerably inspired the behaviorist school. Pavlov noticed that when he combined a neutral stimulus, for instance a bell ringing, with an innate stimulus, like food, after numerous repetitions the ringing of the bell prompted the reflexive reaction to the food (salivating). He named this process conditioning i.e. the procedure by which a response becomes linked to a novel stimulus. Following Pavlov, psychologists later patterned the initial investigations in child psychology on experiments of animal learning and compelled children to master mazes similar to those used in animal studies.
Pavlov’s experiments inspired much research by his American followers. Enter John B. Watson who pioneered behaviorism in 1913. Watson maintained that psychology is the exploration of behavior and that thought is a nonscientific concept that is poorly suited for scientific study. He and his followers believed that observable behavior, not inner experience, was the only reliable source of information. This emphasis on the observable was a response to the structuralists’ stressing of introspection. He likewise believed that all behavior is learned, that conditioning could change it, and that he could create nearly any response by manipulating the rewards and punishments in a person’s surroundings. The behaviorists watched for stimuli found in a subject’s surroundings and looked for the influences it had on the subject’s behavior. American behaviorism progressed through the century; psychologists B.F. Skinner of Harvard and Clark L. Hull of Yale later also held that human thought is only a conjecture from behavior and that psychology should confine itself only to behavior. Skinner’s book Walden Two (1948) illustrates how the principles of conditioning could be applied to construct a perfect planned society. It was not till around 1960 that American psychologists returned to the classical description of psychology and included the investigation of thought processes in their studies.
Gestalt psychology, just like behaviorism, grew as a response to structuralism. This school provided a helpful equilibrium to the excessively atomistic approaches in both Europe and North America. German psychologist Max Wertheimer created it around 1912. He and others in Europe resisted the atomistic methodology of Wundt and his followers. This group—also comprising Kurt Koffka and Wolfgang Köhler—argued that the atomistic methodology would never help scientists grasp key psychological phenomena. To the Gestalt school the well-known saying, “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts” articulates a vital principle about the human mind. The word gestalt in German means shape, form, or pattern that functions as a whole. In contrast to the behaviorists, the Gestaltists thought that psychologists ought to study behavior as an ordered pattern instead of as detached episodes of stimulus and response. Gestalt psychologists concentrated on perception, and showed that it arranges itself into holistic as opposed to atomistic elements. As an example, a motion picture contains thousands of still pictures individually projected for a fraction of a second, but we observe what seems to be a smooth, uninterrupted motion.
* Some would grant to James the credit for founding the first psychology lab.
† Ed. Note: The April 2014 edition of Discover magazine devotes an article to resurrecting Freud’s reputation and showing how modern neuroscience has vindicated a great deal of the Viennese psychiatrist’s fundamental premises about the human mind.
Humanistic psychology as a school of thought grew as an alternate to behaviorism and psychoanalysis. The majority of psychologists accepted the behaviorists’ contention that one’s surroundings affects behavior and that psychology should primarily study observable actions, but several opposed pure behaviorism. Humanistic psychologists consider individuals to be controlled by their own ideals, principles, and choices and not completely by their surroundings, as behaviorists believe, or by unconscious drives, as psychoanalysts believe. The aim of humanistic psychology is to help people to live successfully and achieve their own highest potential. The advocates of this methodology included American psychologists Abraham H. Maslow* and Carl R. Rogers among others.
The cognitive school of psychology also believes that human nature is more complex than a sequence of stimulus-response associations. To them behaviorism pays too little consideration to biological and cognitive activities. This school focuses on such mental states as self-awareness, thinking, and reasoning, and examines the biological activities connected to behavior and cognition (the means by which a person collects information, obtains knowledge, resolves problems, and formulates plans). A substantial portion of cognitive psychology is interdisciplinary. For instance, some of these researchers work together with computer scientists on the subject of artificial intelligence, with behavioral geneticists to search for connections between genes and behavior/personality, or with neuroscientists to investigate how the activities in the brain and nervous system generate distinct experiences connected with senses, emotions, and thoughts.
Several other schools have arisen since the 1950s. One is psychopharmacology. Beginning in the 1960s, this interdisciplinary study has not only added to our understanding about mental illness and addiction it has offered new drug treatments for such critical mental disorders as depression and anxiety. Countless people nowadays lead normal useful lives who but for this field of research may have had to live their older years in institutions. Another is the sociocultural school that acknowledges the part that social and cultural surroundings play in cognition and behavior. Psychologists pursuing research in this field see even themselves as controlled by the cultural and historical milieu in which they live. Numerous psychologists disassociate themselves from any specific school or theory. As an alternative, they choose what appears worthiest from a wide assortment of schools. This is termed eclecticism and from the 1950s onwards these practitioners have become progressively focused on real world therapies with whatever works.
Since it is an interdisciplinary science, psychology is influenced by developments in other fields; breakthroughs in biology, biochemistry, anthropology, and sociology have a direct effect on psychological research and real world applications.
* Ed. Note: Maslow’s The Farther Reaches of Human Nature with its emphasis on a hierarchy of needs leading to self-actualization (a term coined by psychologist Kurt Goldstein) serves as the bedrock of modern marketing theory.