Learning Objectives

Explain how psychology changed from a philosophical to a scientific discipline.List some of the most important questions that concern psychologists.Outline the basic schools of psychology and how each school has contributed to psychology.

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In this section we will review the history of psychology with a focus on the important questions that psychologists ask and the major approaches (or schools) of psychological inquiry. The schools of psychology that we will review are summarized in Table 1.3, “The Most Important Approaches (Schools) of Psychology,” while Table 1.4, “History of Psychology,” presents a timeline of some of the most important psychologists, beginning with the early Greek philosophers and extending to the present day. Table 1.3 and Table 1.4 both represent a selection of the most important schools and people; to mention all the approaches and all the psychologists who have contributed to the field is not possible in one chapter. The approaches that psychologists have used to assess the issues that interest them have changed dramatically over the history of psychology. Perhaps most importantly, the field has moved steadily from speculation about behaviour toward a more objective and scientific approach as the technology available to study human behaviour has improved (Benjamin & Baker, 2004). There has also been an influx of women into the field. Although most early psychologists were men, now most psychologists, including the presidents of the most important psychological organizations, are women.

Table 1.3 The Most Important Approaches (Schools) of Psychology.School of PsychologyDescriptionImportant Contributors
StructuralismUses the method of introspection to identify the basic elements or “structures” of psychological experienceWilhelm Wundt, Edward B. Titchener
FunctionalismAttempts to understand why animals and humans have developed the particular psychological aspects that they currently possessWilliam James
PsychodynamicFocuses on the role of our unconscious thoughts, feelings, and memories and our early childhood experiences in determining behaviourSigmund Freud, Carl Jung, Alfred Adler, Erik Erickson
BehaviourismBased on the premise that it is not possible to objectively study the mind, and therefore that psychologists should limit their attention to the study of behaviour itselfJohn B. Watson, B. F. Skinner
CognitiveThe study of mental processes, including perception, thinking, memory, and judgmentsHermann Ebbinghaus, Sir Frederic Bartlett, Jean Piaget
Social-culturalThe study of how the social situations and the cultures in which people find themselves influence thinking and behaviourFritz Heider, Leon Festinger, Stanley Schachter

Although most of the earliest psychologists were men, women are increasingly contributing to psychology. Here are some examples:

1968: Mary Jean Wright became the first woman president of the Canadian Psychological Association.1970: Virginia Douglas became the second woman president of the Canadian Psychological Association.1972: The Underground Symposium was held at the Canadian Psychological Association Convention. After having their individual papers and then a symposium rejected by the Program Committee, a group of six graduate students and non-tenured faculty, including Sandra Pyke and Esther Greenglass, held an independent research symposium that showcased work being done in the field of the psychology of women.1976: The Canadian Research Institute for the Advancement of Women was founded.1987: Janet Stoppard led the Women and Mental Health Committee of the Canadian Mental Health Association.

Although it cannot capture every important psychologist, the following timeline shows some of the most important contributors to the history of psychology. (Adapted by J. Walinga.)

Table 1.4 History of Psychology.DatePsychologist(s)Description
428 to 347 BCEPlatoGreek philosopher who argued for the role of nature in psychological development.
384 to 432 BCEAristotleGreek philosopher who argued for the role of nurture in psychological development.
1588 to 1679 CEThomas HobbesEnglish philosopher.
1596 to 1650René DescartesFrench philosopher.
1632 to 1704John LockeEnglish philosopher.
1712 to 1778Jean-Jacques RousseauFrench philosopher.
1801 to 1887Gustav FechnerGerman experimental psychologist who developed the idea of the “just noticeable difference” (JND), which is considered to be the first empirical psychological measurement.
1809 to 1882Charles DarwinBritish naturalist whose theory of natural selection influenced the functionalist school and the field of evolutionary psychology.
1832 to 1920Wilhelm WundtGerman psychologist who opened one of the first psychology laboratories and helped develop the field of structuralism.
1842 to 1910William JamesAmerican psychologist who opened one of the first psychology laboratories and helped develop the field of functionalism.
1849 to 1936Ivan PavlovRussian psychologist whose experiments on learning led to the principles of classical conditioning.
1850 to 1909Hermann EbbinghausGerman psychologist who studied the ability of people to remember lists of nonsense syllables under different conditions.
1856 to 1939Sigmund FreudAustrian psychologist who founded the field of psychodynamic psychology.
1867 to 1927Edward Bradford TitchenerAmerican psychologist who contributed to the field of structuralism.
1878 to 1958John B. WatsonAmerican psychologist who contributed to the field of behavioralism.
1886 to 1969Sir Frederic BartlettBritish psychologist who studied the cognitive and social processes of remembering.
1896 to 1980Jean PiagetSwiss psychologist who developed an important theory of cognitive development in children.
1904 to 1990B. F. SkinnerAmerican psychologist who contributed to the school of behaviourism.
1926 to 1993Donald BroadbentBritish cognitive psychologist who was pioneer in the study of attention.
20th and 21st centuriesLinda Bartoshuk; Daniel Kahneman; Elizabeth Loftus; Geroge Miller.American psychologists who contributed to the cognitive school of psychology by studying learning, memory, and judgment. An important contribution is the advancement of the field of neuroscience. Daniel Kahneman won the Nobel Prize in Economics for his work on psychological decision making.
1850Dorothea DixCanadian psychologist known for her contributions to mental health and opened one of the first mental hospitals in Halifax, Nova Scotia.
1880William Lyall; James BaldwinCanadian psychologists who wrote early psychology texts and created first Canadian psychology lab at the University of Toronto.
1950James Olds; Brenda Milner; Wilder Penfield; Donald Hebb; Endel TelvingCanadian psychologists who contributed to neurological psychology and opened the Montreal Neurological Institute.
1960Albert BanduraCanadian psychologist who developed ‘social learning theory’ with his Bobo doll studies illustrating the impact that observation and interaction has on learning.
1970Hans SelyeCanadian psychologist who contributed significantly in the area of psychology of stress.

Although psychology has changed dramatically over its history, the most important questions that psychologists address have remained constant. Some of these questions follow, and we will discuss them both in this chapter and in the chapters to come:

Nature versus nurture. Are genes or environment most influential in determining the behaviour of individuals and in accounting for differences among people? Most scientists now agree that both genes and environment play crucial roles in most human behaviours, and yet we still have much to learn about how nature (our biological makeup) and nurture (the experiences that we have during our lives) work together (Harris, 1998; Pinker, 2002). The proportion of the observed differences of characteristics among people (e.g., in terms of their height, intelligence, or optimism) that is due to genetics is known as the heritability of the characteristic, and we will make much use of this term in the chapters to come. We will see, for example, that the heritability of intelligence is very high (about .85 out of 1.0) and that the heritability of extraversion is around .50. But we will also see that nature and nurture interact in complex ways, making the question “Is it nature or is it nurture?” very difficult to answer.Free will versus determinism. This question concerns the extent to which people have control over their own actions. Are we the products of our environment, guided by forces out of our control, or are we able to choose the behaviours we engage in? Most of us like to believe in free will, that we are able to do what we want—for instance, that we could get up right now and go fishing. And our legal system is premised on the concept of free will; we punish criminals because we believe that they have choice over their behaviours and freely choose to disobey the law. But as we will discuss later in the research focus in this section, recent research has suggested that we may have less control over our own behaviour than we think we do (Wegner, 2002).
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Figure 1.2 Lac-Mégantic Derailment. Psychologists study the causes of poor judgments such as those made by executives like the three criminally charged in relation to the Lac-Mégantic train derailment in 2013. This picture was taken from a Sûreté du Québec helicopter on the day of the derailment.Conscious versus unconscious processing. To what extent are we conscious of our own actions and the causes of them, and to what extent are our behaviours caused by influences that we are not aware of? Many of the major theories of psychology, ranging from the Freudian psychodynamic theories to contemporary work in cognitive psychology, argue that much of our behaviour is determined by variables that we are not aware of.Differences versus similarities. To what extent are we all similar, and to what extent are we different? For instance, are there basic psychological and personality differences between men and women, or are men and women by and large similar? And what about people from different ethnicities and cultures? Are people around the world generally the same, or are they influenced by their backgrounds and environments in different ways? Personality, social, and cross-cultural psychologists attempt to answer these classic questions.

Early Psychologists

The earliest psychologists that we know about are the Greek philosophers Plato (428-347 BC) and Aristotle (384-322 BC). These philosophers (see Figure 1.3) 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.

Figure 1.3 Early Psychologists. The earliest psychologists were the Greek Philosophers Plato (left) and Aristotle (right). Plato believed that much knowledge was innate, whereas Aristotle thought that each child was born as an “empty slate” and that knowledge was primarily acquired through learning and experience.

European philosophers continued to ask these fundamental questions during the Renaissance. For instance, the French philosopher René Descartes (1596-1650) also considered the issue of free will, arguing in its favour and believing that the mind controls the body through the pineal gland in the brain (an idea that made some sense at the time but was later proved incorrect). Descartes also believed in the existence of innate natural abilities. A scientist as well as a philosopher, Descartes dissected animals and was among the first to understand that the nerves controlled the muscles. He also addressed the relationship between mind (the mental aspects of life) and body (the physical aspects of life). Descartes believed in the principle of dualism: that the mind is fundamentally different from the mechanical body. Other European philosophers, including Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), John Locke (1632-1704), and Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778), also weighed in on these issues. The fundamental problem that these philosophers faced was that they had few methods for settling their claims. Most philosophers didn’t conduct any research on these questions, in part because they didn’t yet know how to do it, and in part because they weren’t sure it was even possible to objectively study human experience. But dramatic changes came during the 1800s with the help of the first two research psychologists: the German psychologist Wilhelm Wundt (1832-1920), who developed a psychology laboratory in Leipzig, Germany, and the American psychologist William James (1842-1910), who founded a psychology laboratory at Harvard University.

Structuralism: Introspection and the Awareness of Subjective Experience

Wundt’s research in his laboratory in Leipzig focused on the nature of consciousness itself. Wundt and his students believed that it was possible to analyze the basic elements of the mind and to classify our conscious experiences scientifically. Wundt began the field known as structuralism, a school of psychology whose goal was to identify the basic elements or structures of psychological experience. Its goal was to create a periodic table of the elements of sensations, similar to the periodic table of elements that had recently been created in chemistry. Structuralists used the method of introspection to attempt to create a map of the elements of consciousness. Introspection involves asking research participants to describe exactly what they experience as they work on mental tasks, such as viewing colours, reading a page in a book, or performing a math problem. A participant who is reading a book might report, for instance, that he saw some black and coloured straight and curved marks on a white background. In other studies the structuralists used newly invented reaction time instruments to systematically assess not only what the participants were thinking but how long it took them to do so. Wundt discovered that it took people longer to report what sound they had just heard than to simply respond that they had heard the sound. These studies marked the first time researchers realized that there is a difference between the sensation of a stimulus and the perception of that stimulus, and the idea of using reaction times to study mental events has now become a mainstay of cognitive psychology.

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Figure 1.4 Wundt and Titchener. Wilhelm Wundt (seated at left) and Edward Titchener (right) helped create the structuralist school of psychology. Their goal was to classify the elements of sensation through introspection.

Perhaps the best known of the structuralists was Edward Bradford Titchener (1867-1927). Titchener was a student of Wundt’s who came to the United States in the late 1800s and founded a laboratory at Cornell University (Figure 1.4). (Titchener was later rejected by McGill University (1903). Perhaps he was ahead of his time; Brenda Milner did not open the Montreal Neurological Institute until 1950.) In his research using introspection, Titchener and his students claimed to have identified more than 40,000 sensations, including those relating to vision, hearing, and taste. An important aspect of the structuralist approach was that it was rigorous and scientific. The research marked the beginning of psychology as a science, because it demonstrated that mental events could be quantified. But the structuralists also discovered the limitations of introspection. Even highly trained research participants were often unable to report on their subjective experiences. When the participants were asked to do simple math problems, they could easily do them, but they could not easily answer how they did them. Thus the structuralists were the first to realize the importance of unconscious processes—that many important aspects of human psychology occur outside our conscious awareness, and that psychologists cannot expect research participants to be able to accurately report on all of their experiences.

Functionalism and Evolutionary Psychology

In contrast to Wundt, who attempted to understand the nature of consciousness, William James and the other members of the school of functionalism aimed to understand why animals and humans have developed the particular psychological aspects that they currently possess (Hunt, 1993). For James, one’s thinking was relevant only to one’s behaviour. As he put it in his psychology textbook, “My thinking is first and last and always for the sake of my doing” (James, 1890). James and the other members of the functionalist school (Figure 1.5) were influenced by Charles Darwin’s (1809-1882) theory of natural selection, which proposed that the physical characteristics of animals and humans evolved because they were useful, or functional. The functionalists believed that Darwin’s theory applied to psychological characteristics too. Just as some animals have developed strong muscles to allow them to run fast, the human brain, so functionalists thought, must have adapted to serve a particular function in human experience.

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Figure 1.5 Functionalist School. The functionalist school of psychology, founded by the American psychologist William James (left), was influenced by the work of Charles Darwin (right).

Although functionalism no longer exists as a school of psychology, its basic principles have been absorbed into psychology and continue to influence it in many ways. The work of the functionalists has developed into the field of evolutionary psychology, a branch of psychology that applies the Darwinian theory of natural selection to human and animal behaviour (Dennett, 1995; Tooby & Cosmides, 1992). Evolutionary psychology accepts the functionalists’ basic assumption, namely that many human psychological systems, including memory, emotion, and personality, serve key adaptive functions. As we will see in the chapters to come, evolutionary psychologists use evolutionary theory to understand many different behaviours, including romantic attraction, stereotypes and prejudice, and even the causes of many psychological disorders. A key component of the ideas of evolutionary psychology is fitness. Fitness refers to the extent to which having a given characteristic helps the individual organism survive and reproduce at a higher rate than do other members of the species who do not have the characteristic. Fitter organisms pass on their genes more successfully to later generations, making the characteristics that produce fitness more likely to become part of the organism’s nature than characteristics that do not produce fitness. For example, it has been argued that the emotion of jealousy has survived over time in men because men who experience jealousy are more fit than men who do not. According to this idea, the experience of jealousy leads men to be more likely to protect their mates and guard against rivals, which increases their reproductive success (Buss, 2000). Despite its importance in psychological theorizing, evolutionary psychology also has some limitations. One problem is that many of its predictions are extremely difficult to test. Unlike the fossils that are used to learn about the physical evolution of species, we cannot know which psychological characteristics our ancestors possessed or did not possess; we can only make guesses about this. Because it is difficult to directly test evolutionary theories, it is always possible that the explanations we apply are made up after the fact to account for observed data (Gould & Lewontin, 1979). Nevertheless, the evolutionary approach is important to psychology because it provides logical explanations for why we have many psychological characteristics.

Psychodynamic Psychology

Perhaps the school of psychology that is most familiar to the general public is the psychodynamic approach to understanding behaviour, which was championed by Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) and his followers. Psychodynamic psychology is an approach to understanding human behaviour that focuses on the role of unconscious thoughts, feelings, and memories. Freud (Figure 1.6) developed his theories about behaviour through extensive analysis of the patients that he treated in his private clinical practice. Freud believed that many of the problems that his patients experienced, including anxiety, depression, and sexual dysfunction, were the result of the effects of painful childhood experiences that they could no longer remember.

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Figure 1.6 Sigmund Freud. Sigmund Freud and the other psychodynamic psychologists believed that many of our thoughts and emotions are unconscious. Psychotherapy was designed to help patients recover and confront their “lost” memories.

Freud’s ideas were extended by other psychologists whom he influenced, including Carl Jung (1875-1961), Alfred Adler (1870-1937), Karen Horney (1855-1952), and Erik Erikson (1902-1994). These and others who follow the psychodynamic approach believe that it is possible to help the patient if the unconscious drives can be remembered, particularly through a deep and thorough exploration of the person’s early sexual experiences and current sexual desires. These explorations are revealed through talk therapy and dream analysis in a process called psychoanalysis. The founders of the school of psychodynamics were primarily practitioners who worked with individuals to help them understand and confront their psychological symptoms. Although they did not conduct much research on their ideas, and although later, more sophisticated tests of their theories have not always supported their proposals, psychodynamics has nevertheless had substantial impact on the field of psychology, and indeed on thinking about human behaviour more generally (Moore & Fine, 1995). The importance of the unconscious in human behaviour, the idea that early childhood experiences are critical, and the concept of therapy as a way of improving human lives are all ideas that are derived from the psychodynamic approach and that remain central to psychology.

Behaviourism and the Question of Free Will

Although they differed in approach, both structuralism and functionalism were essentially studies of the mind. The psychologists associated with the school of behaviourism, on the other hand, were reacting in part to the difficulties psychologists encountered when they tried to use introspection to understand behaviour. Behaviourism is a school of psychology that is based on the premise that it is not possible to objectively study the mind, and therefore that psychologists should limit their attention to the study of behaviour itself. Behaviourists believe that the human mind is a black box into which stimuli are sent and from which responses are received. They argue that there is no point in trying to determine what happens in the box because we can successfully predict behaviour without knowing what happens inside the mind. Furthermore, behaviourists believe that it is possible to develop laws of learning that can explain all behaviours. The first behaviourist was the American psychologist John B. Watson (1878-1958). Watson was influenced in large part by the work of the Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov (1849-1936), who had discovered that dogs would salivate at the sound of a tone that had previously been associated with the presentation of food. Watson and the other behaviourists began to use these ideas to explain how events that people and other organisms experienced in their environment (stimuli) could produce specific behaviours (responses). For instance, in Pavlov’s research the stimulus (either the food or, after learning, the tone) would produce the response of salivation in the dogs. In his research Watson found that systematically exposing a child to fearful stimuli in the presence of objects that did not themselves elicit fear could lead the child to respond with a fearful behaviour to the presence of the objects (Watson & Rayner, 1920; Beck, Levinson, & Irons, 2009). In the best known of his studies, an eight-month-old boy named Little Albert was used as the subject. Here is a summary of the findings: The boy was placed in the middle of a room; a white laboratory rat was placed near him and he was allowed to play with it. The child showed no fear of the rat. In later trials, the researchers made a loud sound behind Albert’s back by striking a steel bar with a hammer whenever the baby touched the rat. The child cried when he heard the noise. After several such pairings of the two stimuli, the child was again shown the rat. Now, however, he cried and tried to move away from the rat. In line with the behaviourist approach, the boy had learned to associate the white rat with the loud noise, resulting in crying.

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Figure 1.7 Skinner. B. F. Skinner was a member of the behaviourist school of psychology. He argued that free will is an illusion and that all behaviour is determined by environmental factors.

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The most famous behaviourist was Burrhus Frederick (B. F.) Skinner (1904 to 1990), who expanded the principles of behaviourism and also brought them to the attention of the public at large. Skinner (Figure 1.7) used the ideas of stimulus and response, along with the application of rewards or reinforcements, to train pigeons and other animals. And he used the general principles of behaviourism to develop theories about how best to teach children and how to create societies that were peaceful and productive. Skinner even developed a method for studying thoughts and feelings using the behaviourist approach (Skinner, 1957, 1972).