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History of Psychology


Modern psychology embraces a variety of theories, approaches and practical methods aimed at studying human behaviour and mental processes. It is hard to navigate in this complex sphere without knowing the history of psychology as a science and the origins of key approaches. History of psychology allows to realize what subjects and issues should be studied by psychology, what research methods are used by this science, and what aspects of human behavior belong to the field of psychology.

Analysis of the history of psychology will contribute to in-depth understanding of psychology and the processes behind each of the main theories and approaches. The purpose of this paper is to consider the evolution of psychology, to discuss key theorists behind each approach, and to study the foundations of major theories as well as their limitations.

1. Psychology as a science

Psychology can generally be defined as the scientific study of human body and mind. However, the term “psychology” became commonly used only in the nineteenth century, and psychology emerged as a separate science in the middle of that century. Psychology uses scientific methods for measuring and understanding human behavior and links empirical evidence with appropriate explanations using research experiments. Explanations of human behaviour in psychology can take place at three levels: biological, interpersonal and socio-cultural (Nairne 14). For each of these levels, psychologists have to realize the origins and main concepts of appropriate theories in order to apply them in practice.

It is possible to outline three types of psychologists: research psychologists, clinical psychologists and applied psychologists (Nairne 17). The former commonly work in academic settings or private industry, and they are engaged in conducting research in order to discover the mechanisms governing human body and mind. The responsibilities of clinical psychologists include diagnosing and treating psychological problems, while applied psychologists focus on the extension of psychological principles on practical problems. The responsibilities of these three types of psychologists might often overlap,

2. Roots of psychology

The roots of psychology derive from philosophy and earliest psychological evidence can be traced back to Aristotle and Plato: they analyzed such issues as sensation, memory and sleep, which are currently clearly defined as the scope of psychology. Such problems as the origins of knowledge, laws governing sensation, and conditions for remembering and learning were considered by these philosophers. In the seventeenth century, Rene Descartes described the dualism of body and mind as the shaping factor of human experience. The questions of free will versus determinism and accuracy versus inaccuracy of information processing by human brain also came to psychology from philosophy.

An important psychological position coming from philosophy is empiricism, which assumes that knowledge originates directly from experience (Stangor 12), also originated from philosophy. A contrasting position is occupied by nativism: this approach assumes that certain ideas and kinds of knowledge are innate (Nairne 19). One of the key problems of psychology, nature versus nurture, is associated with these two approaches. Greek philosophers were mostly the adepts of nativism, while John Locke later suggested that knowledge was defined by experience, and that human mind at birth represents a tabula rasa (Stangor 13). Nowadays, the debate “nature versus nurture” is still going on, although the majority of psychologists came to the conclusion that both factors affect human behaviour.

Apart from philosophy, the roots of psychology also are in biology and particularly in physiology. Early physiologic approaches were established by Plato and Aristotle, as they In fact, psychology owes its existence to a physiologist Wilhelm Wundt (Nairne 21). He studied the reaction times, and managed to outline many connections between physiology and the issues of human behavior and thought (later called psychology). Wundt created a first physiology lab in 1879 in Leipzig (Nairne 23), and this event was marked as the official appearance of psychology as a separate science. At that time, psychology focused at the study of human consciousness and Wundt developed experimental methods for analyzing internal mental processes. These methods set the stage for experimental psychological methods in future.

3. Early approaches to psychology

3.1. Structuralism

The first distinctive school of thought in psychology was structuralism, founded by Edward B. Titchener (Stangor 17). This approach evolved from Wundt’s physiological methods: from structuralist point of view, consciousness can be broken down into smaller parts in a periodic table similar to a table of chemical elements (Kowalski and Westen 20). Using the method of introspection, structuralists attempted to map the elements of consciousness. Overall, Titchener managed to outline more than 40,000 structural sensations of psychological experience (Nairne 26).

Although structuralism was the first direction of psychology which used scientific methods, there emerged significant limitations of introspection. Participants found it difficult to analyze and report their subjective experiences (Stangor 18). The understanding of these limitations emphasized the importance of unconscious processes, and scientists posed many important questions regarding the nature of consciousness. Thus, although the methods of structuralism were biased and limited, this approach greatly contributed to the formation of psychology as a science.

3.2. Functionalism

Another important approach in the early years of psychology was functionalism; its founder is William James, who is also considered the father of American psychology, as he published a classic textbook called “The principles of psychology” (Kowalski and Westen 23). While structuralists wanted to understand the nature of consciousness, supporters of functionalism wanted to determine why humans and animals have developed their existing psychological aspects. This approach focused on the functions of experience, and here’s the reason why this theory was called “functionalism”.

According to James, the roots of particular mechanisms of consciousness were conditioned by behaviour, i.e. that processes in consciousness were developed to help individuals to adapt to their environment. Darwin’s theory of evolution has significantly impacted the ideas of functionalists (and a century later, behaviorism also referred to this theory).

Functionalists regarded human consciousness as a dynamic and changing process, and they used various methods of research, not only introspection and examination, as structuralists. Although their methods were more reliable, there was one significant limitation of functionalism (which extended later to all theories associated with evolution): many of its assumptions could not be tested and thus it was not possible to state for sure that the explanations existing in this theories really accounted for the existence of certain psychological phenomena.

4. Psychology in XIX-XX centuries

4.1. Psychodynamic approach (psychoanalysis)

Early psychological theories focused on consciousness, and research of Sigmund Freud devoted to the unconsciousness has thus dramatically changed the pace of psychology. Origins of the concept relate to Freud’s patients, who exhibited symptoms of illness which were not conditioned by physiological reasons (Kowalski and Westen 26). Freud came to the conclusion that personality and behavior are strongly affected by unconscious impulses and shaped by childhood experience. The theory of psychoanalysis (which later evolved into psychodynamics) had a tremendous impact not only on psychology, but also on literature, art and popular culture. Besides Freud, other famous psychodynamists are Carl Jung, Karen Horney, Gustav Adler, and Erik Erikson (Nairne 29).

There are three premises of psychodynamic approach: a) actions of people are determined by the connection of their wishes, thoughts and feelings; b) the majority of these events are happening unconsciously; c) these mental processes can be contradictory, thus leading to compromises between wishes, thoughts and feelings (Kowalski and Westen 27). The methods of psychodynamics use the interpretation of meanings in order to infer unconscious motives based on conscious behaviors. These assumptions are based on clinical data, and the major limitation of psychodynamics is in the variety of possible interpretations of the same phenomena (Stangor 21). Another limitation of the approach is that psychoanalysis focuses on the entire person, and it does not allow to study the certain variables. Modern psychodynamics also uses scientific methods and experiments, thus linking psychodynamic theories with research data. This approach allows to reduce the initial limitations of psychodynamics.

4.2. Behaviorism

In the beginning of twentieth century another important branch of psychology emerged, which was called behaviorism. This direction of thought departed from analyzing conscious and unconscious in human mind, and focused on observable behavior. One of the founders of behaviorism was Ivan Pavlov, who discovered the process of classical conditioning: ability of humans and animals to adopt new behaviors due to conditioned associations (Kowalski and Westen 29). Skinner determined the existence of operant conditioning, showing the effect of rewards and punishments on the behavior. John Watson, a well-known behaviorist, stated that consciousness was an indefinite and unusable concept, and the only relevant subject of psychology could be behavior (Nairne 31).

Thus, the main studies in behaviorism related to the relationship between stimuli and responses (exhibited behaviors). Skinner made a major contribution to philosophy by applying these ideas and findings to education and creation of productive societies (Stangor 24).

An important contribution of behaviorism to psychology was the discovery of the principles of learning. This approach relied on experimental research, and the results obtained by behaviorists were quite justifiable. However, the major limitation of this theory was the rejections of thoughts and feelings as important variables influencing human behavior. Many existing techniques and practices in psychology date back to behaviorism, for example, token economies, behavior analysis and modification, conditioning, etc (Stangor 26).

4.3. Humanistic psychology

This approach emerged in the second part of the twentieth century. Within this approach, conscious experiences of human beings and human potential became the central focus of the research. The major contribution into humanistic psychology was done by Carl Rogers and Abraham Maslow (Stangor 27). Rogers stated that self-determination and free will affected human behavior first of all, and developed a concept of the full functioning person (Kowalski and Westen 30). The contribution of Rogers into psychology is client-centered therapy.

Maslow has created his famous hierarchy of needs, and emphasized the influence of personal growth and self-actualization on mental health (Stangor 28). The major distinction of humanistic psychology from other concurrent branches (behaviorism and psychodynamics) was the initial assumption that people were innately good and had a great potential, and that such issues as mental and social problems were the result of deviations. The achievement of this approach is the development of a holistic concept of an individual.

5. Contemporary psychology

5.1. Cognitive approach

The focus of this approach is on mental processes, such as memory, thinking and judgment. This branch of psychology is also associated with cybernetics and computer science, as it utilizes principles of information processing with regard to human brain. The major contributors to this branch of psychology were Hermann Ebbinghaus, Frederic Bartlett, Jean Piaget, George Miller, etc (Nevid 18). These researchers analyzed how people retrieve, perceive and process information.

Overall, followers of cognitive approach state that thinking has a strong influence on behavior – a position opposite to behaviorist perspective. According to this approach, people interpret the stimuli of the environment, and behavior is to a large extent affected by the evaluation and interpretation of stimuli.

This approach greatly influenced modern psychological techniques such as neuroimaging. It is the use different mechanisms to show the functioning of a living brain, and allows to identify brain injury and disease (Stangor 31). Cognitive perspective is also effectively used for decision-making. The primary method used in this sphere of psychology is experimental, and the results of the research are commonly reliable and can be reproduced. Although these studies are limited by the mechanistic perceptions of human brain, recent representatives of cognitive school of psychology refer to broader perception and analyze a wide range of phenomena.

5.2. Evolutionary approach

This perspective is based on the advanced understanding of Darwin’s theory and has some of its roots on behaviorism. Behaviorist perception of adaptive human behaviors was strongly criticized, as human beings and animals often exhibited behaviors which could not be regarded as adaptive (for example, altruistic behaviors). Supporters of evolutionary approach explained it as the effect of the natural selection on the genetic or species-related level rather than on the level of individual unit. According to this perspective, human beings are born with a set of behaviors shaped by evolution in order to secure the existence of the species (Nairne 33). The emphases is on effective reproduction: the concept of fitness as the measure of effect of a particular characteristic on the ability of the organism to survive and reproduce was developed by evolutionists. A branch of evolutionary psychology is sociobiology; one of its key representatives is O. Wilson, who proposed that behaviors and mental trends are also subject to genetic transmission (Nevid 24).

Although this theory offers fairly rational explanations to many psychological phenomena, it still suffers from the same evolutionary limitations as before, i.e. it is not possible to check evolutionary hypotheses in experimental way. Certain attempts to study laboratory behaviors were performed in the end of twentieth century (Nevid 25), such as the analysis of genetic transmission between grandparents and grandchildren,

6. New theories in psychology

Nowadays a number of new theories and approaches to psychology have emerged. The most important of them are positive psychology and social-cultural psychology (Nevid 27). The latter studies the impact of social situations and culture on individual behaviour and thinking. This branch of psychology also analyzes social norms, cultural perspectives and the differences in human behaviour deriving from the differences of social groups (Stangor 33).

Positive psychology studies subjective experiences: past experiences such as contentment, well-being and satisfaction, happiness and flow as present experiences, and hope and optimism as future experiences. Key representatives of this approach are C.R. Snyder, Martin Seligman and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (Nevid 28). The goal of this branch of psychology is to epitomize positive individual traits at the individual as well as at the social level.

Furthermore, different fields of psychology now interact and exchange experiences, thus creating a variety of approaches and techniques for understanding human mind and behavior.


Psychology has passed a long way since it departed from philosophy and physiology as a separate discipline. It is possible to trace spiral development of psychological approaches, with main focus being on behavior and stimuli, evolution, consciousness and unconsciousness. Thus, mental processes and behaviors in psychology are studied from three major perspectives: psychological experience and functioning, biological makeup and socio-cultural background (Stangor 34). Psychology has significantly developed its research and experimental methods, and even the approaches which previously relied on descriptive and introspective methods, are now based on solid practice of experimental analysis. It is also possible to trace that each of psychological perspectives has uniquely contributed to modern set of psychological knowledge, and even theories which were based on ineffective research methods played an important role in future achievements of this science. The convergence between different branches of psychology which is taking place nowadays will allow to address major problems of psychology from different points of view and will help researchers to develop a more in-depth understanding of human mind and body.

Works Cited

Nairne, James. Psychology. Cengage Learning, 2010.
Kowalski, Robin and Drew Westen. Psychology. Wiley, 2010.
Nevid, Jeffrey S. Psychology: Concepts and Applications. Cengage Learning, 2008.
Stangor, Charles. Introduction to Psychology. Flat World Knowledge, 2010.