A Brief History
Psychology as a separate, scientific discipline has existed for just over 100 years, but since the dawn of time people have sought to understand human and animal nature. For many years psychology was a branch of philosophy until scientific findings in the nineteenth century allowed it to become a separate field of scientific study.
In the mid-nineteenth century a number of German scientists (Johannes P. Muller, Hermann von Helmholtz, and Gustav Fechner) performed the first systematic studies of sensation and perception demonstrating that mental processes could be measured and studied scientifically.
In 1879 Wilhelm Wundt, a German physiologist and philosopher, established the first formal laboratory of psychology at the University of Leipzig in Germany. Wundt's work separated thought into simpler processes such as perception, sensation, emotion, and association. This approach looked at the structure of thought and came to be known as structuralism.
In 1875 William James, an American physician well-versed in philosophy, began teaching psychology as a separate subject for the first time in the United States, and he and his students began doing laboratory experiments. In contrast to structuralists, James thought consciousness flowed continuously and could not be separated into simpler elements without losing its essential nature. For instance, when we look at an apple, we see an apple, not a round, red, shiny object. James argued studying the structure of the mind was not as important as understanding how it functions in helping us adapt to our surroundings. This approach became known as functionalism.
In 1913, the American psychologist John B. Watson, argued that mental processes could not be reliably located or measured, and that only observable, measurable behavior should be the focus of psychology. This approach, known as behaviorism, held that all behavior could be explained as responses to stimuli in the environment. Behaviorists tend to focus on the environment and how it shapes behavior. For instance, a strict behaviorist trying to understand why a student studies hard might say it is because he is rewarded by his teacher for getting good grades. Behaviorists would think posessing internal motivations such as a desire to succeed or a desire to learn is unnecessary.
At about the same time behaviorism was gaining a hold in America, Gestalt psychology, founded by Max Wertheimer, Kurt Koffka, and Wolfgang Kohler, arose in Germany. Gestalt (a German word referring to wholeness) psychology focussed on perception and, like William James, argued that perception and thought cannot be broken into smaller pieces without losing their wholeness or essence. They argued that humans actively organize information and that in perception the wholeness and pattern of things dominates. For instance, when we watch movies we perceive people and things in motion, yet the eye sees what movies really are, that is, individual still pictures shown at a constant rate. The common saying "the whole is greater than the sum of its parts" illustrates this important concept.
Sigmund Freud, an Austrian physician, began his career in the 1890s and formulated psychoanalysis, which is both a theory of personality and a method of treating people with psychological difficulties. His most influential contribution to psychology was his concept of the unconscious. To Freud our behavior is largely determined by thoughts, wishes, and memories of which we are unaware. Painful childhood memories are pushed out of consciousness and become part of the unconscious from where they can greatly influence behavior. Psychoanalysis as a method of treatment strives to bring these memories to awareness and free the individual from his or her often negative influence.
The 1950s saw the development of cognitive and humanistic psychologies. Humanistic psychology was largely created by Abraham Maslow who felt psychology had focused more on human weakness than strength, mental illness over mental health, and that it neglected free will. Humanistic psychology looks at how people achieve their own unique potential or self actualization.
Cognitive psychology focuses on how people perceive, store, and interpret information, studying processes like perception, reasoning, and problem solving. Unlike behaviorists, cognitive psychologists believe it is necessary to look at internal mental processes in order to understand behavior. Cognitive psychology has been extremely influential, and much contemporary research is cognitive in nature.