Module 01/PSY1012Textbook/Chapter01/PSY1012Ch01Sct03.html


The History of Psychology and Main Perspectives



The approaches that psychologists have used to assess the issues that interest them have changed dramatically over the history of psychology. Perhaps most importantly, the field has moved steadily from speculation about behavior toward a more objective and scientific approach as the technology available to study human behavior has improved (Benjamin & Baker, 2004).

Overview of the Schools of Psychology
School of Psychology Description Important contributors
Structuralism Uses the method of introspection to identify the basic elements or “structures” of psychological experience Wilhelm Wundt Edward Titchener
Evolutionary Functionalism Attempts to understand why animals and humans have developed the particular psychological aspects they currently possess Charles Darwin William James
Psychodynamic Focuses on the role of our unconscious thoughts, feelings, and memories and our early childhood experiences in determining behavior Sigmund Freud Carl Jung Anna Freud Alfred Adler Karen Horney Erik Erikson
Behaviorism Based on the premise that it is not possible to objectively study the mind; therefore, psychologists should limit their attention to the study of behavior itself Ivan Pavlov John B. Watson B. F. Skinner
Humanism Based on the premise that people work toward personal betterment Carl Rogers Abraham Maslow
Cognitive The study of mental processes, including perception, thinking, memory, and judgments Hermann Ebbinghaus Sir Frederic Bartlett Jean Piaget
Cross-cultural The study of how the cultures in which people live influence thinking and behavior Fritz Heider Leon Festinger Stanley Schachter

  Early Psychologists

Picture of Plato and Aristotle Plato and Aristotle Image Source

The earliest psychologists, so-to-speak, were the Greek philosophers Plato (428–347 BC) and Aristotle (384–322 BC). These philosophers asked many of the same questions that today’s psychologists ask.  They questioned the distinction between nature and nurture and the existence of free will. Plato argued on the nature side, believing that certain kinds of knowledge are innate or inborn, whereas Aristotle was more on the nurture side, believing that each child is born as a “blank slate” (in Latin a tabula rasa) and that knowledge is primarily acquired through learning and experience.

Picture of Rene Descartes Rene Descartes Image Source


European philosophers continued to ask these fundamental questions during the Renaissance. For instance, the French philosopher René Descartes (1596–1650) also considered the issue of free will, arguing in its favor and believing that the mind controls the body through the pineal gland in the brain (an idea that made some sense at the time but was later disproven). Descartes also believed in the existence of innate natural abilities. A scientist as well as a philosopher, Descartes dissected animals and was among the first to understand that the nerves controlled the muscles. He also addressed the relationship between mind (the mental aspects of life) and body (the physical aspects of life). Descartes believed in the principle of dualism, which states that the mind is fundamentally different from the mechanical body. Other philosophers, including Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679), John Locke (1632–1704), and Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778) also pondered these issues.

The fundamental problem these philosophers faced was they had few methods for settling their claims. Most philosophers did not conduct any research on these questions, in part because they did not yet know how to do it, and in part because they were unsure if it were possible to objectively study the human experience. Dramatic changes came during the 1800s with the help of the first two research psychologists: the German psychologist Wilhelm Wundt (1832–1920), who developed a psychology laboratory in Leipzig, Germany, and the American psychologist William James (1842–1910), who founded a psychology laboratory at Harvard University.

  Structuralism: Introspection and the Awareness of Subjective Experience

Wundt’s research in his laboratory in Liepzig focused on the nature of consciousness itself. Wundt and his students believed that it was possible to analyze the basic elements of the mind and to classify our conscious experiences scientifically. Wundt began the field known as structuralism, a school of psychology whose goal was to identify the basic elements or “structures” of the psychological experience. Its goal was to create a “periodic table” of the “elements of sensations.”

Structuralists used the method of introspection to attempt to create a map of the elements of consciousness. Introspection involves asking research participants to describe exactly what they experience as they work on mental tasks, such as viewing colors, reading a page in a book, or calculating a math problem. A participant who is reading a book might report, for instance, that he saw some black and colored straight and curved marks on a white background. In other studies, the structuralists used newly invented reaction time instruments to systematically assess both what the participants were thinking and how long it took them to do so. Wundt discovered that it took people longer to report what sound they had just heard than to simply respond that they had heard the sound. These studies marked the first time researchers realized there is a difference between the *sensation* of a stimulus and the *perception* of the stimulus.

Perhaps the best known of the structuralists was Edward Bradford Titchener (1867–1927). Titchener was a student of Wundt who came to the United States in the late 1800s and founded a laboratory at Cornell University. In his research using introspection, Titchener and his students claimed to have identified more than 40,000 sensations, including those relating to vision, hearing, and taste.

Wundt Research Group Edward Titchener

Wundt & Titchener

Wilhelm Wundt (seated at left) and Edward Titchener (right) helped create the structuralist school of psychology. Their goal was to classify the elements of sensation through introspection.Image Source: Wundt and Titchener

An important aspect of the structuralist approach was that it was rigorous and scientific. The research marked the beginning of psychology as a science because it demonstrated that mental events could be quantified. The structuralists also discovered the limitations of introspection. Even highly trained research participants were often unable to report their subjective experiences. When the participants were asked to do simple math problems, they could easily do them, but they could not easily answer *how* they did them. The structuralists were the first to realize the importance of unconscious processes.  They noted that many important aspects of human psychology occur outside our conscious awareness, and that psychologists cannot expect research participants to be able to accurately report all of their experiences.

  Functionalism and Evolutionary Psychology

In contrast to Wundt, who attempted to understand the nature of consciousness, the goal of William James and the other members of the school of functionalism was to understand why animals and humans have developed the particular psychological aspects they currently possess (Hunt, 1993). For James, thinking was relevant only to behavior. James (1890) stated, “My thinking is first and last and always for the sake of my doing.”

James and the other members of the functionalist school were influenced by Charles Darwin’s (1809–1882) theory of natural selection, which proposed that the physical characteristics of animals and humans evolved because they were useful, or functional. The functionalists believed Darwin’s theory applied to psychological characteristics too. Just as some animals have developed strong muscles to allow them to run fast, the human brain, so functionalists thought, must have adapted to serve a particular function in the human experience.

Picture of William James Picture of Charles Darwin

James & Darwin

The functionalist school of psychology, founded by the American psychologist William James (left), was influenced by the work of Charles Darwin (right).Image Sources: James and Darwin

Although functionalism no longer exists as a school of psychology, its basic principles have been absorbed into psychology and continue to influence it in many ways. The work of the functionalists has developed into the field of evolutionary psychology, a branch of psychology that applies the Darwinian theory of natural selection to human and animal behavior (Dennett, 1995; Tooby & Cosmides, 1992). Evolutionary psychology accepts the functionalists’ basic assumption, namely that many human psychological systems, including memory, emotion, and personality, serve key adaptive functions.

A key component of evolutionary psychology is fitness. Fitness refers to the extent to which having a given characteristic helps the individual organism survive and reproduce at a higher rate than do other members of the species who do not have the characteristic. Fitter organisms pass on their genes more successfully to later generations, making the characteristics that produce fitness more likely to become part of the organism’s nature than characteristics that do not produce fitness.

Despite its importance in psychological theorizing, evolutionary psychology also has some limitations. One problem is that many of its predictions are extremely difficult to test. Unlike the fossils that are used to learn about the physical evolution of species, we cannot know which psychological characteristics our ancestors possessed or did not possess. Because it is difficult to directly test evolutionary theories, the explanations we apply tend to be construed after the fact to account for observed data (Gould & Lewontin, 1979). Nevertheless, the evolutionary approach is important to psychology because it provides logical explanations for why we have many psychological characteristics.  Also, evolutionary psychology contributed to the study of the biological basis of behavior and mental processes. The biological perspective to psychology studies the ways in which brain structures, as well as brain processes, including hormones, neurotransmitters, and genetics contribute to psychological functioning.  This perspective also addresses the contributions of the endocrine and nervous systems.

  Psychodynamic Psychology

Perhaps the school of psychology that is most familiar to the general public is the psychodynamic approach to understanding behavior, which was championed by Sigmund Freud (1856–1939) and his followers. Psychodynamic psychology is an approach to understanding human behavior that focuses on the role of unconscious thoughts, feelings, and memories. Freud developed his theories about behavior through extensive analysis of the patients that he treated in his private clinical practice. Freud believed that many of the problems that his patients experienced, including anxiety, depression, and sexual dysfunction, were the result of the effects of painful childhood experiences the person could no longer remember.

Picture of  Sigmund Freud

Sigmund Freud

Sigmund Freud and the other psychodynamic psychologists believed that many of our thoughts and emotions are unconscious. Image Source

Freud’s ideas were extended by other psychologists whom he influenced, including Carl Jung (1875–1961), Alfred Adler (1870–1937), Karen Horney (1855–1952), Anna Freud (1895-1982), and Erik Erikson (1902–1994). These and others who follow the psychodynamic approach believe that it is possible to help the patient if the unconscious drives can be remembered, particularly through a deep and thorough exploration of the person’s early childhood experiences. These explorations are revealed through talk therapy in a process called psychoanalysis.

The founders of the school of psychodynamics were primarily practitioners who worked with individuals to help them understand and confront their psychological symptoms. Although they did not conduct much research on their ideas, and although later, more sophisticated tests of their theories have not always supported their proposals, psychodynamics has nevertheless had a substantial impact on the field of psychology (Moore & Fine, 1995). The importance of the unconscious in human behavior; the idea that early childhood experiences are formative; and the concept of therapy as a way of improving human lives are all ideas derived from the psychodynamic approach that remain central to contemporary psychology.


Although they differed in approach, both structuralism and functionalism were essentially studies of the mind. The psychologists associated with the school of behaviorism, on the other hand, were reacting in part to the difficulties psychologists encountered when they tried to use introspection to understand behavior. Behaviorism is a school of psychology that is based on the premise that it is not possible to objectively study the mind, and therefore psychologists should limit their attention to the study of behavior itself. Behaviorists believe that the human mind is a “black box” into which stimuli are sent and from which responses are received. They argue that there is no point in trying to determine what happens in the box because we can successfully predict behavior without knowing what happens inside the mind. Furthermore, behaviorists believe that it is possible to develop laws of learning that can explain most behaviors.

American behaviorist John B. Watson (1878–1958) was influenced in large part by the work of the Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov (1849–1936), who discovered that dogs would salivate at the sound of a tone that had previously been associated with the presentation of food. Watson and other behaviorists began to use these ideas to explain how events that people and other organisms experienced in their environment (stimuli) could produce specific behaviors (responses). For instance, in Pavlov’s research the stimulus (either the food or, after learning, the tone) would produce the response of salivation in the dogs.

Picture of John Watson John Watson Image Source Picture of Ivan Pavlov Ivan Pavlov Image Source

In his research, Watson found that systematically exposing a child to a fearful stimulus in the presence of objects that did not themselves elicit fear could lead the child to respond with a fearful behavior to the presence of the previously unfeared stimulus (Watson & Rayner, 1920; Beck, Levinson, & Irons, 2009). In the best known of his studies, an 8-month-old boy named Little Albert was used as the subject. Here is a summary of the findings:

The boy was placed in the middle of a room; a white laboratory rat was placed near him, and he was allowed to play with it. The child showed

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