Psychology: Its History and Evolution

Psychology: Its History and Evolution

How Psychology developed

The term psychology comes from Greek words, psyche, meaning the soul, and, logos, referring to the study of a subject. These two Greek roots were first put together to define a topic of study in the 16″ century, when psyche was used to refer to the soul, spirit, or mind, as distinguished from the body. Not until the early 18th century did the term psychology gain more than rare usage among scholars. By that time it had acquired its literal meaning, “the study of the mind.”

A New Science is Born

Psychology’s intellectual parents were the disciplines of philosophy and physiology. By the 1870s a small number of scholars in both fields were actively exploring questions about the mind. How are bodily sensations turned into a mental awareness of the outside world? Are our perceptions of the world accurate reflections of reality? How do mind and body interact? The philosophers and physiologists who were interested in the mind viewed such questions as fascinating issues within their respective fields. It was German professor, Wilhelm Wundt (1832-1920), who eventually changed this view. Wundt mounted a campaign to make psychology an independent discipline rather than a stepchild of philosophy or physiology.
In 1879 Wundt succeeded in establishing the first formal laboratory for research in psychology at the University of Leipzig. In deference to this landmark event, historians have christened 1879 as psychology’s date of birth.”
Wundt (1874) declared that the new psychology should be a science modeled after fields such as physics and chemistry. What
was the subject matter of the new science? According to Wundt, it was consciousness-the awareness of immediate experience. Thus, psychology became the scientific study of conscious experience.
Psychology: Its History and Evolution

The Battle of the “Schools” Begins:

Structuralism Versus Functionalism

Competing schools of thought exist in most scientific disciplines. Sometimes the disagreements among these schools are sharp. Such diversity in thought is natural and often stimulates enlightening debate. In psychology, the first two major schools of thought, structuralism and functionalism, were entangled in the first great intellectual battle in the field.
Structuralism emerged through the leadership of Edward Titchener, an Englishman who emigrated to the United States in 1892 and taught for decades at Cornell University. Although Titchener earned his degree in Wundt’s Leipzig laboratory and expressed great admiration for Wundt’s work, he brought his version of Wundt’s psychology to America. Structuralism was based on the notion that the task of psychology is to analyze consciousness into its basic elements and investigate how these elements are related. Just as physicists were studying how matter is made up of basic particles, the structuralists
wanted to identify and examine the fundamental components of conscious experience, such as sensations, feelings, and images.

Although the structuralists explored many questions, most of their work concerned sensation and perception in vision, hearing, and touch. To examine the contents of consciousness, the structuralists depended on the method of introspection , or the careful, systematic self-observation of one’s own conscious experience.
The functionalists took different view of psychology’s task. Functionalism was based on the belief that psychology should investigate the function or purpose of consciousness, rather than its structure. The chief architect of functionalism was William James (1842-1910), a brilliant American scholar.
James had been impressed with Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection. According to the principle of natural selection, heritable characteristics that provide a survival or reproductive advantage are more likely than alternative characteristics to be passed on the subsequent generation and thus come to be “selected” over time. This cornerstone notion of Darwin’s evolutionary theory suggested that the typical characteristics of a species must serve some purpose. Applying this idea to humans, James (1890) noted that consciousness obviously is an important characteristic of our species. Hence, he contented that psychology should investigate the function rather than structure of consciousness.
James also argued that the structuralists” approach missed the real nature of conscious experience. Consciousness, he argued, consists of a continuous flow of thoughts. In analyzing consciousness into its “elements,” the structuralists were looking at static points in that flow. James wanted to understand the flow itself, which he called the “stream of consciousness.”
Whereas structuralists naturally gravitated to the laboratory, functionalists were more interested in how people adapt their behavior to the demands of the real world around them. This practical slant led them to introduce new subjects into psychology. Instead of focusing on sensation and perception, functionalists such as G. Stanley Hall, James Mckeen Cattell, and John Dewey began to investigate mental testing, patterns of development in children, the effectiveness of educational practices, and behavioral differences between the sexes.
Although functionalism faded as a school of thought, its practical orientation fostered the development of two descendants that have dominated modern psychology: applied psychology and behaviorism.

Watson Alters Psychology’s Course

In the early 1900s, another major school of thought appeared that dramatically altered the course of psychology. Founded by John B. Watson (1878-1958), behaviorism is a theoretical orientation based on the premise that scientific psychology should study only observable behavior. It is important to understand what a radical change this definition represents. Watson was proposing that psychologists abandon the study of consciousness altogether and focus exclusively on behaviors that could observe directly.
Why did Watson argue for such a fundamental shift in direction? Because to him, the power of the scientific method rested on the idea of verifiability. In principle, scientific claims can always be verified (or disproved) by anyone who is able and willing to make the required observation. However, this power depends on studying things that can be observed objectively.
For Watson, mental processes were not proper subject for scientific study because they are ultimately private events. After all, no one can see or touch another’s thoughts. Consequently, if psychology were to be a science, it would have to give up consciousness as its subject matter and become instead the science of behavior.
Behavior refers to any overt (observable) response or activity by an organism. Watson asserted that psychologists could study anything that people do or say— shopping, plying chess, eating, complimenting a friend- but they could not study cientifically the thoughts, wishes, and feelings that might accompany these behaviors.
Watson was extremely influential, but his ideas did not go unchallenged. In Germany opposition came from an emerging school of thought called Gestalt psychology. The Gestalt theorists, who were primarily concerned with perception, argued that psychology should continue to study conscious experience rather than overt behavior. Another alternative conception of psychology emerged from Austria, where an obscure physician named Sigmund Freud had been contemplating the mysteries of unconscious mental processes. We’ll look at Freud’s ideas next.

Freud Brings the Unconscious into the Picture

Freud’s approach to psychology grew out of his efforts to treat mental disorders. In his medical practice, Freud treated people troubled by psychological problems such as irrational fears, obsessions, and anxieties with an innovative procedure he called psychoanalysis. Decades of experience probing into his patients’ lives provided much of the inspiration for Freud’s theory. He also gathered material by looking inward and examining his own anxieties, conflicts, and desires.
His work with patients and his own self-exploration persuaded Freud of the existence of what he called unconscious. According to Freud, the unconscious contains thoughts, memories, and desires that are well below the surface of conscious awareness but that nonetheless exert great influence on behavior.
Freud eventually concluded that psychological disturbances are largely caused by personal conflicts existing at an unconscious level. More generally, his psychoanalytic theory attempts to explain personality, motivation, and mental disorders by focusing on unconscious determinants of behavior.

Freud’s concept of the unconscious was not entirely new, However, it was a major departure from the prevailing belief that people are fully aware of the forces governing their behavior. In arguing that behavior is governed by unconscious forces, Freud made the disconcerting suggestion that people are not masters of their own minds. Other aspects of Freud’s theory also stirred up debates. For instance, he proposed that behavior is greatly influenced by how people cope with their sexual urges. At a time
when people were far less comfortable discussing sexual issues than they are today, even scientists were offended and scandalized by Freud’s emphasis on sex.
Psychoanalytic ideas steadily gained acceptance in the culture at large, influencing thought in medicine, the arts, and literature. Then, in the 1930s and 1940s, more and more psychologists found themselves becoming interested in areas Freud had studied: personality, motivation, and abnormal behavior.

Skinner Questions Free Will as Behaviorism Flourishes

Like Watson, B. F. Skinner also emphasized how environment factors mold behavior. Although he repeatedly acknowledged that an organism’s behavior is influenced by its biological endowment, he argued that psychology could understand and predict behavior adequately without resorting to physiological explanations.
The fundamental principle of behavior documented by Skinner is deceptively simple: Organisms tend to repeat responses that lead to positive outcomes, and they tend not to repeat responses that lead to neutral or negative outcomes. Despite its simplicity, this principle turns out to be quite powerful.
Working primarily with laboratory rats and pigeons, Skinner showed that he could exert remarkable control over the behavior of animals by manipulating the outcomes of their responses. He was even able to train animals to perform unnatural behaviors. For example, he once trained some pigeons to play Ping Pong! Skinner’s followers eventually showed that the principle uncovered in their animal research could be applied to complex human behaviors as well. Behavioral principles are now widely used in factories, schools, prisons, mental hospitals, and a variety of other settings.

The Humanists Revolt

By the 1950s behaviorism and psychoanalytic theory had become the most influential schools of thought in psychology. However, many psychologists found these theoretical orientations unappealing. The principal charge hurled at both school was that they were “dehumanizing.” Psychoanalytic theory was attacked for its belief that behavior is dominated by primitive, sexual urges. Behaviorism was criticized for its preoccupation with the study of simple animal behavior. Both theories were criticized because they suggested that people are not masters of their own destinies. Above all, many people argued, both schools of thought failed to recognize the unique qualities of human behavior.
Beginning in the 1950s, the diverse opposition to behaviorism and psychoanalytic theory blended into a loose alliance that eventually became a new school of thought called “humanism.” In psychology, humanism is a theoretical orientation that emphasizes the unique qualities of humans, especially their freedom and their potential for personal growth. Some of the key differences between the humanistic, psychoanalytic, and behavioral viewpoints are summarized in Table below, which compares six contemporary theoretical perspectives in psychology.
Humanists take an optimistic view of human nature. They maintain that people are not pawns of either their animal heritage  or environmental circumstances. Furthermore, they say, because humans are fundamentally different from other animals, research on animals has little relevance to the understanding of human behavior. The most prominent architects of the humanistic movement have been Carl Rogers (1902-1987) and Abraham
Maslow (1908-1970). Rogers argued that human behavior is governed primarily by each individual’s sense of self, or “selfconcept” – which animals presumably lack. Both he and Maslow maintained that to fully understand people’s behavior, psychologists must take into account the fundamental human drive toward personal growth. They asserted that people have a basic need to continue to evolve as human beings and to fulfill their potentials.

Table 1. Overview of Six Contemporary Theoretical Perspectives in psychology

Perspective and its influential periodPrincipal contributionsSubject matterBasic premise
Behavioral (1913-present)John B. Watson

Ivan Pavlov

B. F. Skinner

Effects of environment on the overt behavior of humans and animalsOnly observable events (stimulus response relations) can be studied scientifically.
Psychoanalytic (1900-present)Sigmund Freud

Carl Jung

Alfred Adler

Unconscious determinants of behaviorUnconscious motives and experiences in early childhood govern personality and mental disorders.
Humanistic (1950s-present)Carl Rogers

Abraham Maslow

Unique aspects of human experienceHumans are free, rational beings with the potential for personal growth, and they are fundamentally different from animals.
Cognitive (1950s-present)Jean Piaget

Noam Chomsky

Herbert Simon

Thoughts, Mental processesHuman behavior cannot be fully understood without examining how people acquire, store and process
Biological(1950s-present)James Olds

Roger Sperry

David Hubel

Torsten Wiesel

Psychology bases of behavior in humans and animals.An organism’s functioning can be explained in terms of the bodily structures and biochemical process that underlie behavior.
Evolutionary(1980s-present)David Buss

Martin Daly

Margo Wilson

Leda Cosmides

John Toby

Evolutionary bases of behavior in humans and animals.Behavior patterns have evolved to solve adaptive problems, natural selection favors behaviors that enhance reproductive success.


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