Short history of psychology

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The field of psychology was first introduced as such in the late 1800s by a German scientist named Wilhelm Wundt. Wundt sought to understand the human experience. He wanted to understand human consciousness and believed it should be a scientific field of study.

Why Study Psychology History?

Contemporary psychology is interested in an enormous range of topics, looking at human behavior and mental process from the neural level to the cultural level. Psychologists study human issues that begin before birth and continue until death. By understanding the history of psychology, you can gain a better understanding of how these topics are studied and what we have learned thus far.

From its earliest beginnings, psychology has been faced with a number of questions. The initial question of how to define psychology helped establish it as a science separate from physiology and philosophy.

Background: Philosophy and Physiology

While psychology did not emerge as a separate discipline until the late 1800s, its earliest history can be traced back to the time of the early Greeks. During the 17th-century, the French philosopher Rene Descartes introduced the idea of dualism, which asserted that the mind and body were two entities that interact to form the human experience.1

Many other issues still debated by psychologists today, such as the relative contributions of nature vs. nurture, are rooted in these early philosophical traditions.

Physiology also contributed to psychology’s eventual emergence as a scientific discipline. Early physiological research on the brain and behavior had a dramatic impact on psychology, ultimately contributing to applying scientific methodologies to the study of human thought and behavior.

Psychology Emerges as a Separate Discipline

During the mid-1800s, a German physiologist named Wilhelm Wundt was using scientific research methods to investigate reaction times. His book published in 1873, "Principles of Physiological Psychology," outlined many of the major connections between the science of physiology and the study of human thought and behavior.2

He later opened the world’s first psychology lab in 1879 at the University of Leipzig. This event is generally considered the official start of psychology as a separate and distinct scientific discipline.

How did Wundt view psychology? He perceived the subject as the study of human consciousness and sought to apply experimental methods to studying internal mental processes. While his use of a process known as introspection is seen as unreliable and unscientific today, his early work in psychology helped set the stage for future experimental methods.

An estimated 17,000 students attended Wundt’s psychology lectures, and hundreds more pursued degrees in psychology and studied in his psychology lab. While his influence dwindled as the field matured, his impact on psychology is unquestionable.

Structuralism: Psychology’s First School of Thought

Edward B. Titchener, one of Wundt’s most famous students, would go on to found psychology’s first major school of thought.3 According to the structuralists, human consciousness could be broken down into smaller parts. Using a process known as introspection, trained subjects would attempt to break down their responses and reactions to the most basic sensation and perceptions.

The Functionalism of William James

Psychology flourished in America during the mid- to late-1800s. William James emerged as one of the major American psychologists during this period and publishing his classic textbook, "The Principles of Psychology," established him as the father of American psychology.

His book soon became the standard text in psychology and his ideas eventually served as the basis for a new school of thought known as functionalism.

Both of these early schools of thought emphasized human consciousness, but their conceptions of it were significantly different. While the structuralists sought to break down mental processes into their smallest parts, the functionalists believed that consciousness existed as a more continuous and changing process.

While functionalism quickly faded a separate school of thought, it would go on to influence later psychologists and theories of human thought and behavior.

The Emergence of Psychoanalysis

Up to this point, early psychology stressed conscious human experience. An Austrian physician named Sigmund Freud changed the face of psychology in a dramatic way, proposing a theory of personality that emphasized the importance of the unconscious mind.

In his book "The Psychopathology of Everyday Life" Freud detailed how these unconscious thoughts and impulses are expressed, often through slips of the tongue (known as "Freudian slips") and dreams. According to Freud, psychological disorders are the result of these unconscious conflicts becoming extreme or unbalanced.

The psychoanalytic theory proposed by Sigmund Freud had a tremendous impact on 20th-century thought, influencing the mental health field as well as other areas including art, literature, and popular culture. While many of his ideas are viewed with skepticism today, his influence on psychology is undeniable.

The Rise of Behaviorism

Psychology changed dramatically during the early 20th-century as another school of thought known as behaviorism rose to dominance. Behaviorism was a major change from previous theoretical perspectives, rejecting the emphasis on both the conscious and unconscious mind. Instead, behaviorism strove to make psychology a more scientific discipline by focusing purely on observable behavior.

Behaviorism had its earliest start with the work of a Russian physiologist named Ivan Pavlov. Pavlov's research on the digestive systems of dogs led to his discovery of the classical conditioning process, which proposed that behaviors could be learned via conditioned associations.5

Pavlov demonstrated that this learning process could be used to make an association between an environmental stimulus and a naturally occurring stimulus.

An American psychologist named John B. Watson soon became one of the strongest advocates of behaviorism. Initially outlining the basic principles of this new school of thought in his 1913 paper Psychology as the Behaviorist Views It, Watson later went on to offer a definition in his classic book "Behaviorism" (1924), writing:

"Behaviorism...holds that the subject matter of human psychology is the behavior of the human being. Behaviorism claims that consciousness is neither a definite nor a usable concept. The behaviorist, who has been trained always as an experimentalist, holds, further, that belief in the existence of consciousness goes back to the ancient days of superstition and magic."

The impact of behaviorism was enormous, and this school of thought continued to dominate for the next 50 years. Psychologist B.F. Skinner furthered the behaviorist perspective with his concept of operant conditioning, which demonstrated the effect of punishment and reinforcement on behavior.6

While behaviorism eventually lost its dominant grip on psychology, the basic principles of behavioral psychology are still widely in use today.

The Third Force in Psychology

While the first half of the 20th century was dominated by psychoanalysis and behaviorism, a new school of thought known as humanistic psychology emerged during the second half of the century. Often referred to as the "third force" in psychology, this theoretical perspective emphasized conscious experiences.

American psychologist Carl Rogers is often considered to be one of the founders of this school of thought. While psychoanalysts looked at unconscious impulses and behaviorists focused on environmental causes, Rogers believed strongly in the power of free will and self-determination.7

Psychologist Abraham Maslow also contributed to humanistic psychology with his famous hierarchy of needs theory of human motivation. This theory suggested that people were motivated by increasingly complex needs. Once the most basic needs are fulfilled, people then become motivated to pursue higher level needs.

Cognitive Psychology

During the 1950s and 1960s, a movement known as the cognitive revolution began to take hold in psychology. During this time, cognitive psychology began to replace psychoanalysis and behaviorism as the dominant approach to the study of psychology. Psychologists were still interested in looking at observable behaviors, but they were also concerned with what was going on inside the mind. 

Psychology Continues to Grow

As you have seen in this brief overview of psychology’s history, this discipline has seen dramatic growth and change since its official beginnings in Wundt’s lab. The story certainly does not end here. Today, the majority of psychologists do not identify themselves with a single school of thought. Instead, they often focus on a particular specialty area or perspective, often drawing on ideas from a range of theoretical backgrounds. This eclectic approach has contributed new ideas and theories that will continue to shape psychology for years to come.

Women in Psychology History

As you read through any history of psychology, you might be particularly struck by the fact that such texts seem to center almost entirely on the theories and contributions of men. This is not because women had no interest in the field of psychology, but is largely due to the fact that women were excluded from pursuing academic training and practice during the early years of the field.

There are a number of women who made important contributions to the early history of psychology, although their work is sometimes overlooked. 

A Word From Verywell

In order to understand how psychology became the science that it is today, it is important to learn more about some of the historical events that have influenced its development.

While some of the theories that emerged during the earliest years of psychology may now be viewed as simplistic, outdated, or incorrect, these influences shaped the direction of the field and helped us form a greater understanding of the human mind and behavior.

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