1 The Science of Psychology


Often, students take their first psychology course because they are interested in helping others and want to learn more about themselves and why they act the way they do. Sometimes, students take a psychology course because it either satisfies a general education requirement or is required for a program of study such as nursing or pre-med. Many of these students develop such an interest in the area that they go on to declare psychology as their major.

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An education in psychology is valuable for a number of reasons. Psychology students hone critical thinking skills and are trained in the use of the scientific method. Critical thinking is the active application of a set of skills to information for the understanding and evaluation of that information. The evaluation of information—assessing its reliability and usefulness— is an important skill in a world full of competing “facts,” many of which are designed to be misleading. For example, critical thinking involves maintaining an attitude of skepticism, recognizing internal biases, making use of logical thinking, asking appropriate questions, and making observations. Psychology students also can develop better communication skills during the course of their undergraduate coursework (American Psychological Association, 2011). Together, these factors increase students’ scientific literacy and prepare students to critically evaluate the various sources of information they encounter.

In addition to these broad-based skills, psychology students come to understand the complex factors that shape one’s behavior. They appreciate the interaction of our biology, our environment, and our experiences in determining who we are and how we will behave. They learn about basic principles that guide how we think and behave, and they come to recognize the tremendous diversity that exists across individuals and across cultural boundaries (American Psychological Association, 2011).

What is creativity? Why do some people become homeless? What are prejudice and discrimination? What is consciousness? The field of psychology explores questions like these. Psychology refers to the scientific study of the mind and behavior. The primary goals of psychology are to describe, explain, predict, and control behavior.

The earliest records of a psychological experiment go all the way back to the Pharaoh Psamtik I of Egypt in the 7th Century B.C.

Describe the precursors to the establishment of the science of psychology.Identify key individuals and events in the history of American psychology.Describe the rise of professional psychology in America.Develop a basic understanding of the processes of scientific development and change.

It is always a difficult question to ask, where to begin to tell the story of the history of psychology. Some would start with ancient Greece; others would look to a demarcation in the late 19th century when the science of psychology was formally proposed and instituted. These two perspectives, and all that is in between, are appropriate for describing a history of psychology. For the purposes of this chapter, we will examine the development of psychology in America and use the mid-19th century as our starting point which we refer to as a history of modern psychology.

Psychology is an exciting field and the history of psychology offers the opportunity to make sense of how it has grown and developed. The history of psychology also provides perspective. Rather than a dry collection of names and dates, the history of psychology tells us about the important intersection of time and place that defines who we are. Consider what happens when you meet someone for the first time. The conversation usually begins with a series of questions such as, “Where did you grow up?” “How long have you lived here?” “Where did you go to school?” The importance of history in defining who we are cannot be overstated. Whether you are seeing a physician, talking with a counselor, or applying for a job, everything begins with a history. The same is true for studying the history of psychology; getting a history of the field helps to make sense of where we are and how we got here.

A Prehistory of Psychology

Precursors to American psychology can be found in philosophy and physiology. Philosophers such as John Locke (1632–1704) and Thomas Reid (1710–1796) promoted empiricism, the idea that all knowledge comes from experience. The work of Locke, Reid, and others emphasized the role of the human observer and the primacy of the senses in defining how the mind comes to acquire knowledge. In American colleges and universities in the early 1800s, these principles were taught as courses on mental and moral philosophy. Most often these courses taught about the mind based on the faculties of intellect, will, and the senses (Fuchs, 2000).

Physiology and Psychophysics

Philosophical questions about the nature of mind and knowledge were matched in the 19th century by physiological investigations of the sensory systems of the human observer. German physiologist Hermann von Helmholtz (1821–1894) measured the speed of the neural impulse and explored the physiology of hearing and vision. His work indicated that our senses can deceive us and are not a mirror of the external world. Such work showed that even though the human senses were fallible, the mind could be measured using the methods of science. In all, it suggested that a science of psychology was feasible.

An important implication of Helmholtz’s work was that there is a psychological reality and a physical reality and that the two are not identical. This was not a new idea; philosophers like John Locke had written extensively on the topic, and in the 19th century, philosophical speculation about the nature of mind became subject to the rigors of science.

The question of the relationship between the mental (experiences of the senses) and the material (external reality) was investigated by a number of German researchers including Ernst Weber and Gustav Fechner. Their work was called psychophysics, and it introduced methods for measuring the relationship between physical stimuli and human perception that would serve as the basis for the new science of psychology (Fancher & Rutherford, 2011).

Wilhelm Wundt is considered one of the founding figures of modern psychology.

The formal development of modern psychology is usually credited to the work of German physician, physiologist, and philosopher Wilhelm Wundt (1832–1920). Wundt helped to establish the field of experimental psychology by serving as a strong promoter of the idea that psychology could be an experimental field and by providing classes, textbooks, and a laboratory for training students. In 1875, he joined the faculty at the University of Leipzig and quickly began to make plans for the creation of a program of experimental psychology. In 1879, he complemented his lectures on experimental psychology with a laboratory experience: an event that has served as the popular date for the establishment of the science of psychology.

The response to the new science was immediate and global. Wundt attracted students from around the world to study the new experimental psychology and work in his lab. Students were trained to offer detailed self-reports of their reactions to various stimuli, a procedure known as introspection. The goal was to identify the elements of consciousness. In addition to the study of sensation and perception, research was done on mental chronometry, more commonly known as reaction time. The work of Wundt and his students demonstrated that the mind could be measured and the nature of consciousness could be revealed through scientific means. It was an exciting proposition and one that found great interest in America. After the surfacetoairnewyork.coming of Wundt’s lab in 1879, it took just four years for the first psychology laboratory to surfacetoairnewyork.com in the United States (Benjamin, 2007).

Scientific Psychology Comes to the United States

Wundt’s version of psychology arrived in America most visibly through the work of Edward Bradford Titchener (1867–1927). A student of Wundt’s, Titchener brought to America a brand of experimental psychology referred to as “structuralism.” Structuralists were interested in the contents of the mind—what the mind is. For Titchener, the general adult mind was the proper focus for the new psychology, and he excluded from study those with mental deficiencies, children, and animals (Evans, 1972; Titchener, 1909).

Experimental psychology spread rather rapidly throughout North America. By 1900, there were more than 40 laboratories in the United States and Canada (Benjamin, 2000). Psychology in America also organized early with the establishment of the American Psychological Association (APA) in 1892. Titchener felt that this new organization did not adequately represent the interests of experimental psychology, so, in 1904, he organized a group of colleagues to create what is now known as the Society of Experimental Psychologists (Goodwin, 1985). The group met annually to discuss research in experimental psychology. Reflecting the times, women researchers were not invited (or welcome). It is interesting to note that Titchener’s first doctoral student was a woman, Margaret Floy Washburn (1871–1939).

Striking a balance between the science and practice of psychology continues to this day. In 1988, the American Psychological Society (now known as the Association for Psychological Science) was founded with the central mission of advancing psychological science.

Toward a Functional Psychology
William James was one of the leading figures in a new perspective on psychology called functionalism.

While Titchener and his followers adhered to a structural psychology, others in America were pursuing different approaches. William James, G. Stanley Hall, and James McKeen Cattell were among a group that became identified with “functionalism.” Influenced by Darwin’s evolutionary theory, functionalists were interested in the activities of the mind—what the mind does. An interest in functionalism surfacetoairnewyork.comed the way for the study of a wide range of approaches, including animal and comparative psychology (Benjamin, 2007).

William James (1842–1910) is regarded as writing perhaps the most influential and important book in the field of psychology, Principles of Psychology, published in 1890. Opposed to the reductionist ideas of Titchener, James proposed that consciousness is ongoing and continuous; it cannot be isolated and reduced to elements. For James, consciousness helped us adapt to our environment in such ways as allowing us to make choices and have personal responsibility over those choices.

At Harvard, James occupied a position of authority and respect in psychology and philosophy. Through his teaching and writing, he influenced psychology for generations. One of his students, Mary Whiton Calkins (1863–1930), faced many of the challenges that confronted Margaret Floy Washburn and other women interested in pursuing graduate education in psychology. With much persistence, Calkins was able to study with James at Harvard. She eventually completed all the requirements for the doctoral degree, but Harvard refused to grant her a diploma because she was a woman. Despite these challenges, Calkins went on to become an accomplished researcher and the first woman elected president of the American Psychological Association in 1905 (Scarborough & Furumoto, 1987).

G. Stanley Hall (1844–1924) made substantial and lasting contributions to the establishment of psychology in the United States. At Johns Hopkins University, he founded the first psychological laboratory in America in 1883. In 1887, he created the first journal of psychology in America, American Journal of Psychology. In 1892, he founded the American Psychological Association (APA); in 1909, he invited and hosted Freud at Clark University (the only time Freud visited America). Influenced by evolutionary theory, Hall was interested in the process of adaptation and human development. Using surveys and questionnaires to study children, Hall wrote extensively on child development and education. While graduate education in psychology was restricted for women in Hall’s time, it was all but non-existent for African Americans. In another first, Hall mentored Francis Cecil Sumner (1895–1954) who, in 1920, became the first African American to earn a Ph.D. in psychology in America (Guthrie, 2003).

James McKeen Cattell (1860–1944) received his Ph.D. with Wundt but quickly turned his interests to the assessment of individual differences. Influenced by the work of Darwin’s cousin, Frances Galton, Cattell believed that mental abilities such as intelligence were inherited and could be measured using mental tests. Like Galton, he believed society was better served by identifying those with superior intelligence and supported efforts to encourage them to reproduce. Such beliefs were associated with eugenics (the promotion of selective breeding) and fueled early debates about the contributions of heredity and environment in defining who we are. At Columbia University, Cattell developed a department of psychology that became world-famous also promoting psychological science through advocacy and as a publisher of scientific journals and reference works (Fancher, 1987; Sokal, 1980).

The Growth of Psychology

Throughout the first half of the 20th century, psychology continued to grow and flourish in America. It was large enough to accommodate varying points of view on the nature of mind and behavior. Gestalt psychology is a good example. The Gestalt movement began in Germany with the work of Max Wertheimer (1880–1943). Opposed to the reductionist approach of Wundt’s laboratory psychology, Wertheimer and his colleagues believed that studying the whole of any experience was richer than studying individual aspects of that experience. The saying “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts” is a Gestalt perspective. Consider that a melody is an additional element beyond the collection of notes that comprise it. The Gestalt psychologists proposed that the mind often processes information simultaneously rather than sequentially. For instance, when you look at a photograph, you see a whole image, not just a collection of pixels of color. Using Gestalt principles, Wertheimer and his colleagues also explored the nature of learning and thinking. Most of the German Gestalt psychologists were Jewish and were forced to flee the Nazi regime due to the threats posed on both academic and personal freedoms. In America, they were able to introduce a new audience to the Gestalt perspective, demonstrating how it could be applied to perception and learning (Wertheimer, 1938). In many ways, the work of the Gestalt psychologists served as a precursor to the rise of cognitive psychology in America (Benjamin, 2007).

Behaviorism emerged early in the 20th century and became a major force in American psychology. Championed by psychologists such as John B. Watson (1878–1958) and B. F. Skinner (1904–1990), behaviorism rejected any reference to mind and viewed overt and observable behavior as the proper subject matter of psychology. Through the scientific study of behavior, it was hoped that laws of learning could be derived that would promote the prediction and control of behavior. Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov (1849–1936) influenced early behaviorism in America. His work on conditioned learning, popularly referred to as classical conditioning, provided support for the notion that learning and behavior were controlled by events in the environment and could be explained with no reference to mind or consciousness (Fancher, 1987).

For decades, behaviorism dominated American psychology. By the 1960s, psychologists began to recognize that behaviorism was unable to fully explain human behavior because it neglected mental processes. The turn toward a cognitive psychology was not new. In the 1930s, British psychologist Frederic C. Bartlett (1886–1969) explored the idea of the constructive mind, recognizing that people use their past experiences to construct frameworks in which to understand new experiences. In the 1950s, Bruner conducted pioneering studies on cognitive aspects of sensation and perception. Brown conducted original research on language and memory, coined the term “flashbulb memory,” and figured out how to study the tip-of-the-tongue phenomenon (Benjamin, 2007). Miller’s research on working memory is legendary. His 1956 paper “The Magic Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on Our Capacity for Processing Information”is one of the most highly cited papers in psychology. A popular interpretation of Miller’s research was that the number of bits of information an average human can hold in working memory is 7 ± 2. Around the same time, the study of computer science was growing and was used as an analogy to explore and understand how the mind works. The work of Miller and others in the 1950s and 1960s has inspired tremendous interest in cognition and neuroscience, both of which dominate much of contemporary American psychology.

Applied Psychology in America

In America, there has always been an interest in the application of psychology to everyday life. Mental testing is an important example. Modern intelligence tests were developed by the French psychologist Alfred Binet (1857–1911). His goal was to develop a test that would identify schoolchildren in need of educational support. His test, which included tasks of reasoning and problem solving, was introduced in the United States by Henry Goddard (1866–1957) and later standardized by Lewis Terman (1877–1956) at Stanford University. The assessment and meaning of intelligence has fueled debates in American psychology and society for nearly 100 years. Much of this is captured in the nature-nurture debate that raises questions about the relative contributions of heredity and environment in determining intelligence (Fancher, 1987).

Applied psychology was not limited to mental testing. What psychologists were learning in their laboratories was applied in many settings including the military, business, industry, and education. The early 20th century was witness to rapid advances in applied psychology.

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Clinical psychology was also an early application of experimental psychology in America. Lightner Witmer (1867–1956) received his Ph.D. in experimental psychology with Wilhelm Wundt and returned to the University of Pennsylvania, where he surfacetoairnewyork.comed a psychological clinic in 1896. Witmer believed that because psychology dealt with the study of sensation and perception, it should be of value in treating children with learning and behavioral problems. He is credited as the founder of both clinical and school psychology (Benjamin & Baker, 2004).