Brief History of Psychology

From R. Eric Landrum, Department of Psychology, Boise State University


To look at the beginning of experimental psychology is to look at the beginning of psychology.  The typical perception about psychology today is that it consists mostly of practitioners: clinicians, counselors, and therapists trained in the helping profession.  Currently, that view is accurate: over half of the members of the APA identify themselves as practitioners.  However, the clinical and counseling areas of psychology did not emerge on a large scale until about 1945, at the close of World War II.


            So how did psychology get its start?  Wilhelm Wundt founded the first exclusive psychology laboratory in 1879; it was a laboratory that conducted experiments related to matters in experimental psychology.  However, the study of, and interest in, human behavior has been with us probably since humans walked the earth.  In fact, Hermann Ebbinghaus said it best in 1885, only six years after the founding of psychology, when he said, "Psychology has a long past but a short history."  Our brief review of the history of psychology traces some of the antecedent influences leading psychology to its present status.  As a psychology major, a better understanding of our historical roots will better equip you to evaluate and place current and future ideas in the appropriate context.  Also, this chapter might come in as a handy review source if your college or university requires you to take a History and Systems of Psychology course or some sort of senior Capstone Course that includes historical information.


            Why bother discussing the history of psychology in a book designed to be an introduction and overview of the psychology major?  Watson and Evans (1991) note that there are a number of basic maxims (or beliefs) that govern the process of understanding behavior, and it is the ultimate goal of an experimental psychologist to understand behavior.  Their historical maxims are presented here.  Given the study of human behavior over the ages, a limited, common set of themes have emerged, and understanding the context and perspective of these themes hopefully helps us to understand behavior.  Perhaps the most persuasive evidence for a psychologist to study the history of psychology comes from George Santayana, who once said, "Those who do not know history are doomed to repeat it."  Whether this caution applies to prior research done in a particular area of experimental psychology or whether it applies to larger world events (e.g., the holocaust), the implications are clear: ignorance of the past is undesirable.


Table B.1:  Some Historical Maxims

1.       Remember that a written history is a mediated experience.  The historian is always between you and the historical event.  The historian's preconceptions, the selection of data, and other factors that a given history is according to some particular historian.

2.       If an explanation of a complicated historical event seems to be too simple, chances are that it is.  Historical events are seldom neatly packaged affairs.

3.       Although it is important to understand what a particular writer had to say on a given topic, it is sometimes more important to know what those who were influenced by the person thought the writer said.  The history of psychological thought is fraught with misreadings and misunderstandings.


4.       Whether a given psychological theory in the past turns out to be true or false (from our historical perspective) is irrelevant here.  What should be of importance to us is how a given school of thought or system influenced the thought of its own time, and how it deflected the course of psychological thought.

5.       Ideas seldom, if ever, die.  They may fade for a while, but they will almost always reemerge, perhaps with a different name and in a different context.  None of the basic concepts on which modern psychology is based is new to this century or even to this millennium.  It would be rash to say that a given idea originated with this psychologist or that philosopher.

6.       Human thought, rather than being unlimited and eternally original, turns out to be surprisingly limited and repetitive.  Only a few basic premises underlie psychological thought throughout history. 


Antecedents to Psychology


            In discussing the history of any science, there is always the issue of where to begin.  With psychology one could begin with Wundt's laboratory in 1879 in Leipzig, Germany, but that would overlook many years of important, antecedent influences in the understanding of behavior.  Where do we start then?  We choose to begin our brief discussion with Descartes.


            Descartes.  Although there have been many potential contributors to the beginning of what is often called "modern science," the ideas of the philosopher Rene Descartes (pronounced day-CART) are important to science but particularly to psychology.  Descartes lived from 1596 to 1650, and worked to answer the question "Are the mind and body the same, or different?"  His answer came to be known as Cartesian Dualism, which is the idea that mind and body are different, but that the mind can influence the body and the body can influence the mind.  What was particularly important about this idea is that it allowed the emerging scientists of the Renaissance and the church to co-exist.  The church could still work to influence the mind of individuals, and the scientists of the day could study the body, each group having its own domain to some extent.


            Descartes suggested that whereas the mind is the source of ideas and thoughts (which he correctly located in the brain), the body is a machine-like structure to be studied and understood.  Descartes believed in both nativism and rationalism.  A nativist believes that all knowledge is innate, inborn, whereas a rationalist believes that to gain knowledge one rationalizes or discovers the truth through experience and the operation of the mind.  Descartes struggled to rationalize his own existence, trying to prove that he was real (in a philosophical way).  His answer to the problem was to suggest "Cognito, ergo sum" meaning "I think, therefore I am."


            Phrenology. Once the pursuit of science through sources other than philosophy was established, many disciplines and areas of study began to flourish.  Two of these disciplines that had an impact on the beginning of psychology were phrenology and psychophysics.  Phrenology was one approach to the mind-body problem studied by Franz Joseph Gall (1758-1828) and subsequently popularized by his student then colleague Joseph Spurzheim (1776-1832).  The basic tenet of phrenology suggested that one could uncover and understand someone's personality by feeling and interpreting the bumps on the head.  Although this idea may seem simplistic by today's standards, it was a popular idea at the time, and it was a concept that could be understood easily by common people.  Phrenology assumed, however, that the skull was an accurate representation of the underlying brain, that the mind can be meaningfully divided and analyzed into 37 or more different functions, and that certain characteristics or qualities that we possess are found in certain precise locations in the brain.  Therefore, by feeling someone's skull and noting the location of an abnormal bump (too much) or indentation (too little), an interpretation could be made as to whether someone possessed an overabundance or shortage of the corresponding trait.


            Phrenology eventually ran its course and skeptics ran phrenologists out of business, but phrenology contributed some important ideas to psychology.  First, phrenology reemphasized that the brain is the organ of the mind, and if we are to understand the mind and behavior, the brain is a central area to understand.  Second, the idea of localization of function (that different parts of the brain have certain specialties) is an idea that is still with us today.  While the brain is not as easy to understand as some popular writers would have us believe (such as books for improving drawing skills by learning to use a particular side of your brain), particular brain structures do specialize in performing certain functions.  Although phrenology's methods did not  last, some of the assumptions of phrenology had great heuristic value. 


            Psychophysics.  The area of psychophysics is probably the area of closest transition from philosophers studying behavior to psychologists studying behavior.  Three researchers were key in the founding of psychology: Hermann von Helmholtz, Ernst Weber, and Gustav Theodor Fechner.


            Hermann von Helmholtz (1821-1894) was interested in the general area of psychophysics.  Psychophysics is the study of the interaction between the behavioral capabilities and limitations of the human perceptual system and the environment.  In other words, how do we literally interpret the world we live in?  For example, Helmholtz is famous for his extension and additions to a trichromatic theory of color vision (the Young-Helmholtz theory), explaining that the three basic colors of light, red, green, and blue, are represented in our visual system by three specialized cells in our retina (called cones).  Helmholtz also worked on such topics as the speed of neuronal conduction and the perception of tones, both individually and in combination (such as in harmony or dissonance). 


            Ernst Weber (1795-1878) also shared this interest in psychophysics but studied the topic from a broader perspective.  Weber was interested in all the sensory systems and how they worked.  It was Weber who gave psychology the concept of just noticeable difference, that is, the smallest difference between two stimuli that can be noted by a person.  This idea of just noticeable difference (jnd) could be applied to all sensory systems (sight, sound, taste, touch, smell), and in experimenting with various sensory systems Weber found that a constant equation emerged for each.  That is, for each of the sensory systems, a consistent ratio emerged to detect a jnd.  For the perception of lifting weight (the sense of touch), the ratio was found to be 1:40.  That is, the average person can tell the difference between a 40- and a 41-pound suitcase, but cannot tell the difference between a 40- and a 40.5-pound suitcase.  In this example, the just noticeable difference is 1 pound for every 40 pounds (hence 1:40).  A jnd ratio was found for many of the sensory systems, and this general conceptualization has come to be known as Weber's Law.


            Gustav Fechner (1801-1887) was trained in both medicine and physics; he significantly expanded on the ideas of Weber.  In fact, Fechner is said to be the founder of psychophysics, the science of the functional relationship between the mind and the body.  Fechner has also been called the father of experimental psychology, and some historians (CITATION) suggest that the founding of psychology could be accredited to Fechner in 1850 rather than Wundt in 1879.  Why 1850?  Fechner woke up from a long sickness on October 22, 1850 and recorded something in his journal like "the relative increase of bodily energy [is related to] the measure of the increase of the corresponding mental intensity."  Fechner paved the path for psychology in making this important connection: there is a direct relation between the stimulation received by the body and the sensation received by the mind.  Not only did Fechner make the explicit connection between mind and body, but suggested that measurement is possible for both phenomena.  For the first time in the study of thought the relationship between the mind and body could be measured and quantified, leading to the development of Fechner's Law.  Given the techniques from psychophysics to accomplish this task, later psychologists had the opportunity to measure behavior in much the same way as physical objects are measured.  Although this quantitative link between mind and body may not seem striking today, it was revolutionary in its time and legitimized the work of later psychologists in trying to quantify all types of behaviors.


The Beginning of Psychology


            Wundtian Psychology and Structuralism.  Wilhelm Wundt (1832-1920) is credited with forming the first psychology laboratory (exclusively for psychological work) in Leipzig, Germany in 1879.  This starting date is rather arbitrary, and historians have argued that other dates (and people) are defensible.  We might attribute the founding to Wundt in 1874 when he published Principles of Physiological Psychology (while physiological was the word used in the translation from German, a more appropriate translation would have been experimental), or perhaps the founding could be two years later in 1881 when Wundt began the first journal in psychology, Philosophical Studies (you might think that Psychological Studies would have been a better and less confusing title, but there already was a journal by that name that dealt primarily with psychic forces).


            Wundt was interested in studying the mind and conscious experience.  He believed that a rigorous program of introspection could be used to report the processes at work in the inner consciousness.  Introspection was a technique used by researchers to describe and analyze their own inner thoughts and feelings during a research experience.  Wundt and his colleagues carried out numerous research studies examining the contents of consciousness.  Some of the better known results are Wundt's tridimensional theory of feeling, and his work on mental chronometry.  Thus, although mental processes themselves were not studied (they were unobservable), the time a mental process took was measurable and appropriate for study.


            Wundt's contributions to psychology are briefly mentioned here.  For the remainder of the 19th century Wundt and his laboratory were the center of psychology, and anyone seriously interested in pursuing psychology traveled to Germany to study with Wundt.  This situation changed rapidly by the beginning of the 20th century when America took a stronghold on psychology.  Perhaps Wundt's greatest influence was the mentoring of students: over 160 students (an astounding number) received their Ph.D. under Wundt's supervision.  One of those students was Edward Bradford Titchener, who studied with Wundt in Germany and then immigrated to Cornell University (Ithaca, NY) to promote his own variation of Wundtian psychology called structuralism.


            Structuralism, the study of the anatomy of the mind, as a system of psychology shares some common characteristics with Wundt's ideas.  Both systems were interested in the mind and conscious experience, and both used introspection.  Structuralism departed from Wundt's ideas, however, in its application of introspection as the only method available for experimental inquiry, and applied much more rigorous standards in its use.  Titchener also spelled out quite clearly what structuralism was NOT interested in: applied problems, children, animals, individual differences, and higher mental processes. 


            Titchener's goal for structuralism was to use this rigorous introspective method to discover and identify the structures of consciousness, hence the title structuralism.  Once the structures were understood, the laws of association could be verified and then one could study the physiological conditions under which ideas and concepts become associated.  The ultimate goal was to understand the workings of the mind.  Titchener contributed significantly to the rapid growth of psychology in America by having 54 Ph.D. students complete their work under his direction at Cornell University; he also separated the psychology department apart from the philosophy department there.  Although the pursuit of structuralism basically died with Titchener (1867-1927), he provided a concrete system of psychology which would later be the subject and focus of major changes in psychology, resulting in a alternative approach to psychology: functionalism.


Table B.2: Where are the Women in the History of Psychology?


            As you read about the history of psychology (whether it is in this brief appendix or in texts fully devoted to the topic), it is startling to notice the lack of women noted for their accomplishments and contributions to psychology.  Why does this situation exist?  Were women just not interested in psychology?  Have historians of psychology been negligent in cataloging the contributions of women?  Did societal forces preclude women from making contributions to psychology?  The best evidence available indicates that general societal forces seemed to inhibit a woman's ability to receive training in psychology, hence limiting her contributions (Schultz & Schultz, 1992).

            However, when looking at the late 1800s and the subsequent turn of the century, prohibition of women in the sciences was the status quo, not just in psychology.  Although two women were elected as members of the APA in 1893 (the organizations' second meeting ever), it wasn't until 1915 and 1918 that the American Medical Association and the American Bar Association admitted female members, respectively (Schultz & Schultz, 1992). 

            Three factors are identified as inhibiting the contributions of women during the early days of psychology.  First, graduate programs were not very accessible to women.  Women faced discrimination in their application to graduate school, and once admitted, sometimes had difficulty obtaining their rightfully earned degree.  Second, there was a general discrimination held against women at the turn of the century.  It was believed that women had innate deficits that hindered academic performance, and believing this, male graduate school professors did not want to "waste" educational opportunities on women.  It was also believed that the rigors of graduate school were too much for a frail woman's physique.  Third, even if a woman persevered through graduate school (gained admission, completed degree requirements, graduated), job availability for women was poor.  Locked out of male-controlled faculty positions at universities, women often turned to more applied areas, such as clinical, counseling, and school psychology.  Some of the most successful woemen from the early days of psychology include Margaret Floy Washburn, Christine Ladd-Franklin, Bluma Zeigarnik, Mary Whiton Calkins, and Karen Horney.



            Functionalism. Functionalism is important to the history of American psychology, because it is a system of psychology that is uniquely American.  Wundtian psychology and structuralism both have their roots in Germany, but functionalism is an American product.  Three men were instrumental in promoting functionalism: William James, G. Stanley Hall, and James M. Cattell.


            What was so different about functionalism that set it apart from Titchener's structuralism?  Whereas structuralism focused on discovering the structure of consciousness and how its contents are organized and stored, functionalists were more interested in how the mind worked, what mental processes accomplish, and what role consciousness plays in our behavior.  As you can see, these are two strikingly different approaches.  The functionalist wanted to know how and why the mind works (as opposed to how is it structured).


            William James (1842-1910) is noted in this transition period from structuralism to functionalism for his clarity of thought and strong opposition to Titchener.  At Harvard University in 1875-1876 he offered a course in "The Relations Between Physiology and Psychology."  In 1890 James published a two volume Principles of Psychology which was an impressive work written with brilliance and clarity.  James supported more than just the introspective method, and felt that more experimental procedures as well as comparative studies (between species) were valuable approaches.  James contributed his honorable reputation and standing to oppose the division of consciousness into structures, offering an alternative approach for studying the mind.


            G. Stanley Hall (1844-1924) was a contributor to the founding of functionalism, but probably would not be considered a functionalist.  Hall is famous for his number of accomplishments in psychology (see Table B.3).  Particularly important were his (a) founding the first American psychology laboratory at Johns Hopkins University in 1883; (b) founding of the American Psychological Association in 1892; and (c) bringing Sigmund Freud to America in 1909 (Freud's only visit to the U.S.).  Hall was interested in a number of topics, including studying children and how they develop, and he founded developmental psychology and educational psychology.  Hall's interests highlight the functioning of consciousness, and how it allows us to adapt and survive in our environment.


Table B.3: G. Stanley Hall Firsts


         First American Ph.D. student in Psychology

         First American student to study in the first psychology laboratory in the world in the first year that it opened (1879)

         Founded the first psychology research laboratory in the U.S.

         Founded the first U.S. journal of psychology

         First President of Clark University

         Organizer and first President of the American Psychological Association

         Eleven of the first 14 American Ph.D.s in psychology were his students



            James M. Cattell (1860-1944) was a student in G. Stanley Hall's laboratory course at Johns Hopkins University and went on to study with Wilhelm Wundt in Germany in 1883.  Cattell was interested in studying human abilities and how they could be assessed and measured.  Cattell brought this practical approach into the classroom where he was the first psychologist to teach statistics and advocate their use in data analysis.  In 1888 he was appointed a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania; this type of appointment was the first in the world (at the time, all other psychologists held positions through a department of philosophy).  Cattell's great contribution was his focus on a practical, test-oriented approach to studying mental processes rather than through introspective structuralism.


            The transition from structuralism to functionalism reflects the rapidly changing times in psychology.  In just the span of twenty years (1880-1900), the major focal point of psychology shifted from Germany to America.  Multiple changes were taking place, and the work and influence of Charles Darwin was becoming better known (see Table B.4).  In 1880, there were no American laboratories and no American psychological journals; by 1900, there were 26 U.S. laboratories and 3 U.S. psychology journals.  In 1880, anyone wanting a respectable psychology education made the trip to Germany to study with the master, Wilhelm Wundt.  By 1900, Americans stayed home to get a superior education in psychology.  These changes seem revolutionary in that they occurred over a twenty-year period, but the next system of psychology to come along was definitely revolutionary.


Table B.4: Contributions of Charles Darwin


            The work of Charles Darwin (1809-1882) has influenced a number of scientific endeavors, including psychology.  During a scientific voyage on the H.M.S. Beagle from 1831 to 1836, Darwin made some keen observations about the similarities and differences in the plant and animal life encountered in various regions of the world.  Darwin discovered fossils and bones of animals that were no longer on earth.  What could explain why some animals left traces of the past but were no longer present?  In 1836 Darwin began considering a theory to explain the phenomena he had seen.

           Twenty-two years later, in 1858, Darwin was pushed to publish his theory and in 1859 On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection was published.  Darwin proposed a theory of survival of the fittest based on a few simple (parsimonious) ideas: (a) there is a degree of variation among members of a species; (b) this spontaneous variability is inheritable; (c) in nature, a process of natural selection works by identifying those organisms best suited for the environment.  The best-suited organisms live and survive; those organisms not well suited are eliminated.  Species must be adaptable and adjustable or else they die, ultimately through this process of natural selection.  Darwin's practical approach to dealing with matters of survival greatly influenced the course of functionalism.

            Darwin espoused the study of animals in addition to the study of humans.  This viewpoint was accepted by the functionalists and subsequently made even stronger by the behaviorists.  The subject matter of functionalism also fits quite well with the overall focus with the theory of natural selection: how does an organism function and adapt in its environment?  Darwin's use of evidence from a number of fields of inquiry legitimized psychology's use of multiple approaches in studying functionalism, such as introspection, the experimental method, and particularly the comparative method.  Lastly, Darwin's work focused on the individual differences between members of a similar species; today psychologists are still interested in understanding how we are different from one another.



            Behaviorism and Neobehaviorism.  In 1913 a functionalism-trained John B. Watson literally declared war against the establishment by describing a totally new approach to psychology: Behaviorism.  The goals of this new behaviorism were to study only behaviors and processes that were totally objective and fully observable.  In this new system there would be no introspection, no discussion of mental concepts, no study of the mind, and no mention of consciousness.  Watson, in a pure scientific approach, wanted to study behavior, making no assumptions beyond what was available to the senses.  Although behaviorism had a slow beginning, it took off in the 1920s and became (along with neobehaviorism) the dominant system of psychology for four decades.  Any type of behavior was appropriate for study under Watson so long as it met the criteria of behaviorism.  The methods of behaviorism were limited to observation and objective testing/experimentation.


            Watson's views and behaviorism became quite popular both in psychology and to the general public.  When studying and explaining behavior based on only what is observable, Watson did not depend on sexual overtones to explain behavior (this was a relief for many, because Freudian ideas seemed to suggest that sex and sexual desires were the basis for just about everything we do).  His message of behaviorism gave people hope in that they were not explicitly tied to their past or their heritage, but could also be greatly influenced by their immediate environment.  Watson's beliefs directly fed into the great American dream of the 1920's (freedom, liberty, hope).


            Behaviorism as proposed by Watson defined a relatively narrow field of interest.  While proposing a continuity between man and animals (so that animals are an appropriate avenue of study to understand humans), he also dictated that all mentalistic concepts were useless.  For example, thinking, reasoning, and cognitive problem solving were not the subject matter of psychology because they were not directly observable.  Watson did not deny that those processes existed, but they were not studiable under a system of psychology that stressed the study of directly observable behaviors only.  Watson also held a belief of extreme environmentalism, such that the situations and context that a person grows up in totally shape how the person behaves.  Quite literally, Watson believed that the environment greatly controlled our behavior, and to understand how a certain environmental stimulus elicits a particular behavioral responseóthat was psychology.  This theme was greatly expanded upon by B.F. Skinner and his vast work in operant (instrumental) conditioning.  Although the behaviorism approach literally attacked and demolished functionalism, some of the functionalist view survived.  Behaviorists too were interested in how we adapt, survive, and function in our environment, but behaviorists had a vastly different approach to the study of these topics.  This narrow approach of studying only directly observable behaviors troubled many, and eventually a new version of behaviorism called neobehaviorism developed.


            Neobehaviorism continued much of the rigor of behaviorism while widening the scope of acceptable behaviors to study.  Much of the distinction between behaviorism and neobehaviorism rests on the distinction between positivism and logical positivism (Maxwell & Delaney, 1991).  Positivism is a system of evaluating knowledge based on the assumptions that (a) the only knowledge considered valuable was that which is objective and undebateable (b) the only knowledge one can be sure of this that which is observable, and (c) empirical observations should be the basis for the acquisition of knowledge.  Positivism in this sense means that knowledge is based on the presence of something; the basis for knowledge must physically exist, be objective, and be undebateable.  Logical positivism allows for the study of unobservable phenomena as long as these hypothetical constructs and ideas are defined in such a way that they can be logically inferred.  Behaviorists were strict positivists, only studying what was directly observable and undebateable. 


            What would be an example of the distinction between positivism and logical positivism?  I like to use the concept of hunger.  To a strict positivist, hunger is probably not a subject that can be studied by psychology.  Can we directly observe hunger?  No, because hunger is a hypothetical construct.  For the logical positivist, hunger is an appropriate topic of study if and only if it can be operationally defined in directly observable terms.  For example, we might operationally define hunger as the number of hours since last consuming food, or the decibel level of a growling stomach (at this point, we won't debate whether these definitions are any good).  The logical positivist can study any topic in psychology so long as it could be operationally defined in observable, measurable terms.


            Neobehaviorists, however, wanted to study somewhat mentalistic concepts like learning, memory, and problem solving, but at issue was the inability to directly observe behavior.  Neobehaviorists found a solution by adopting logical positivism.  That is, theoretical concepts that are not directly observable may be studied if these concepts are defined in terms of directly observable behaviors.  Logical positivism hastened the need for operational definitions. 


            In neobehaviorism, any theoretical construct could now be studied (even ones that were directly unobservable) as long as the actual behavior measured was observable.  What?  Consider this example: a neobehaviorist in interested in doing a memory study.  To a strict behaviorist, memory is not an acceptable subject to study because a person's memory is not directly observable.  In neobehaviorism, memory is an acceptable concept so long as it is defined in observable terms.  In this case, memory could be defined as the number of items recalled from an original list of 25 items.  The concept of memory has now been defined in terms of its operations (what happens), and number of items verbally recalled is an observable behavior.  Neobehaviorism widened the focus of behaviors acceptable for study in psychology, and this combined approach of behaviorism and neobehaviorism dominated psychology for approximately 40 years (1920-1960).


            Cognitive Psychology.  In the field of experimental psychology in general, cognitive psychology seems to be the dominant area currently.  Cognitive psychologists study how mental processes work, and how knowledge is formed and used.  The topics are wide-ranging, subjects such as attention, memory, problem-solving, reasoning, logic, decision-making, creativity, language, cognitive development and intelligence are some of the many areas of interest in cognitive psychology.  Cognitive psychology grew out of and as a reaction to neobehaviorists who tried to limit the acceptable topics of study (for example, if you were interested in memory when neobehaviorism was still in, you were a "verbal learner;" nowadays you are a cognitive psychologist).  Cognitive psychology is not quite yet a system of psychology, but it is probably the most popular approach in experimental psychology today.