The earliest psychologists that we know about are 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; for instance, they questioned the distinction between nature and nurture and the existence of free will. In terms of the former, 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 an “empty slate” (in Latin a tabula rasa) and that knowledge is primarily acquired through learning and experience.
EARLY MODERN ERA
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 1874, Principles of Physiological Psychology, outlined many of the major connections between the science of physiology and the study of human thought and behavior. Wundt viewed psychology as the study of human consciousness and sought to apply experimental methods to studying internal mental processes.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. Wundt is often regarded as the father of psychology.
Structuralism Becomes Psychology’s First School of Thought
Structuralism is considered to be the first school of thought in psychology. It involved breaking down and analyzing the mind into the smallest possible parts. Structuralist psychology is most often associated with Wilhelm Wundt, who was famous for founding the very first lab devoted to experimental psychology and is generally considered the father of modern psychology.Was Wundt really the founder of this early school of thought? While Wundt is often listed as the founder of structuralism, he never actually used the term. Instead, Wundt referred to his ideas as voluntarism. It was his student, Edward B. Titchener, who invented the term structuralism.
The Functionalism of William James
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. The focus of functionalism was about how behavior actually works to help people live in their environment. Functionalists utilized methods such as direct observation to study the human mind and behavior. 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.
The Rise of Behaviorism
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. 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. 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 impact of behaviorism was enormous, and this school of thought continued to dominate for the next 50 years.
The word Gestalt roughly translates to “whole;” a major emphasis of Gestalt psychology deals with the fact that although a sensory experience can be broken down into individual parts, how those parts relate to each other as a whole is often what the individual responds to in perception. For example, a song may be made up of individual notes played by different instruments, but the real nature of the song is perceived in the combinations of these notes as they form the melody, rhythm, and harmony. In many ways, this particular perspective would have directly contradicted Wundt’s ideas of structuralism
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. Since that time, cognitive psychology has remained a dominant area of psychology as researchers continue to study things such as perception, memory, decision-making, problem-solving, intelligence, and language. The introduction of brain imaging tools such as MRI and PET scans have helped improve the ability of researchers to more closely study the inner workings of the human brain.
While the first half of the twentieth-century was dominated by psychoanalysis and behaviorism, a new school of thought known as humanistic psychology emerged during the second half of the century. American psychologist .Humanistic psychology developed as a response to psychoanalysis and behaviorism. Humanistic psychology instead focused on individual free will, personal growth and the concept of self-actualization.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.
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. Psychology has continued to evolve since 1960 and new ideas and perspectives have been introduced. Recent research in psychology looks at many aspects of the human experience, from the biological influences on behavior to the impact of social and cultural factors.