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Historical and Modern Psychological Perspectives

History of Psychology

Origins of the Field

Psychology emerged from the study of biology and philosophy. Structuralism focused on using introspection to reveal the structure of the mind. Functionalism explored the purpose of consciousness and mental processes.

Philosophers made the first inquiries into causes of behavior and the nature of the human mind. In ancient Greece, philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle explored how people acquire knowledge and perceive the world. In the 17th century, European philosophers such as René Descartes pondered the innate abilities of human beings—the notion that people are born with an awareness of things that cannot be derived from experience, such as spirituality.

Psychology began to emerge as a field distinct from philosophy in the 19th century. The first person to call himself a psychologist was German physician Wilhelm Wundt. He established a laboratory within the philosophy department at the University of Leipzig in Germany in 1879. His goal was to apply the experimental methods of natural science to philosophical problems.

Wundt and his students believed they could understand the structure of the mind through introspection, close examination of one's own conscious experience. Their work involved activities such as having a research assistant describe the perceptions triggered by biting into an apple. Wundt sought to create something similar to the periodic table of elements to categorize and define psychological experience. For example, he divided consciousness into categories such as emotions, sensations, and ideas.

This school of thought became known as structuralism, the attempt to understand the structure of the mind through introspection. Researchers have moved beyond structuralism to the use of more objective measures. However, structuralism is important because it marked the first rigorous and scientific school of thought in psychology. The research represented the beginning of psychology as a science because it showed that mental processes could be quantified.

Another important early psychologist was American William James, who began studying and teaching psychology at Harvard University in the 1870s. James and his students built upon English biologist Charles Darwin's ideas about natural selection. Darwin proposed that physical characteristics of humans and animals evolved because they were functional. For example, in a brownish environment, green beetles are easier to spot. They are more likely to be eaten by birds than brown beetles. Thus, more brown beetles lived long enough to reproduce. Over time, the population of brown beetles increased, and the population of green beetles decreased.

James borrowed this idea and applied it to human psychological characteristics. He believed that the human brain adapted over time to serve a specific purpose. Functionalism was a school of thought focused on understanding the purpose of consciousness and mental processes. Functionalists sought to understand how specific mental processes helped people survive and adapt to their environment. Principles from functionalism continue to influence psychologists today. The work of James and the functionalists developed into evolutionary psychology, which attempts to explain psychological processes such as perception, language, and memory as the products of adaptation.

Psychoanalytic Approaches

Psychoanalytic theorists highlighted the importance of early childhood events in shaping personality and considered unconscious desires critical influences on behavior.

Austrian neurologist Sigmund Freud (1856–1939) is often considered the father of psychoanalysis. Freudian psychology, also called psychoanalytic psychology, focuses on the role of the unconscious in shaping behavior. Freud developed explanations of behavior that focused on forgotten childhood experiences and unconscious desires. Freud believed many patients exhibited psychological symptoms due to painful childhood experiences and repressed sexual desires. He developed psychoanalytic treatment approaches intended to bring unconscious material into conscious awareness through dream analysis and similar techniques. Through the 1960s, psychoanalytic approaches were the primary form of talk therapy.

Freud's work also inspired other psychologists, such as Carl Jung (1875–1961), Erik Erikson (1902–94), Alfred Adler (1870–1937), and Karen Horney (1885–1952). Each of these theorists shared Freud's beliefs about the importance of early childhood experiences. However, they felt that Freud overemphasized sex and had an overly negative view of human nature. They began to explore other motivators, such as the drive to achieve or build close connections.

Many of Freud's ideas were not falsifiable and thus not scientific. For example, it is not possible to test whether a person's behavior is being influenced by an undetectable, unconscious desire. As psychology developed, it became more scientific. Later schools of thought shifted away from psychoanalytic perspectives to focus on testable hypotheses about the causes of thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.

Major Schools of Psychology

Main Period of Influence School of Psychology Main Scientists and Philosophers Description
1879 Structuralism Edward B. Titchener, Wilhelm Wundt Analyzed the adult mind in terms of elements of consciousness, separated facts from experience

Key ideas: introspection, sensation, feelings
Late 19th century Functionalism William James Emphasized states of consciousness, functional purpose of human behaviors and experiences

Key ideas: stream of consciousness, evolutionary influences
1890s–1970s Psychodynamic Alfred Adler, Erik Erikson, Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung Explores psychological forces underlying human behavior, emotions, and feelings

Key ideas: libido, psychoanalysis, archetypes, psychosocial stages
1910s–60s Behaviorism B.F. Skinner, John B. Watson Emphasizes scientific and objective study of environmental influences on behavior

Key ideas: learning, conditioning, reinforcement
Late 1950s–today Humanistic Abraham Maslow, Carl Rogers Views humans as fundamentally good, explores capacity for growth

Key ideas: self-actualization, empathy
1960s–today Cognitive Frederic Bartlett, Hermann Ebbinghaus, Jean Piaget, Albert Ellis, Aaron Beck Emphasizes memory, learning, attention, and language

Key ideas: perception, attention, pattern recognition
1925–today Social-cultural Leon Festinger, Fritz Heider, Stanley Schachter, Lev Vygotsky Focuses on human behavior within their cultural setting

Key ideas: culture, ethnicity, mass communication

Each major school of thought in psychology draws upon the discoveries and limitations of past approaches.