Wilhelm Wundt (1832-1920) is generally honored as the founder of scientific psychology. Wundt wrote his first book on psychology, dealing with sensory perceptions, in 1862. It was based largely on his training as a physiologists and would be characteristic of much of his work. In 1879, Wundt founded the first research laboratory in psychology at the University of Leipzig.
The initial goal of scientific psychology was to understand the nature of human consciousness. To understand this, Wundt used the method of introspection, in which a person experiences something and then describes the personal nature of the experience. This technique can be used quite rigorously when stimulus presentation are controlled, so that introspective accounts can be compared across many experiences. Researchers were to report their experiences in terms of specific sensations and feelings, which were then developed into the basic building blocks of the conscious mind. The main goal of Wundt’s psychology was to first discover these building blocks, and then discover how they combined to form the more complex elements of mental processes.
The research in Wundt’s lab consisted of studies in the fields of sensation and perception: investigating color vision and the passage of time, as well as research into other mental processes such as emotion. One famous study in Wundt’s lab was in the field of reaction time. Wundt hypothesized that by measuring the difference between the speed of a simple mental event and a complex mental event, it was possible to calculate the amount of time mental processing required.
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Other scientific psychology laboratories soon emerged, including that of Herman Ebbinghaus (1850-1909), whose memory studies are still being referenced. These laboratories challenged many of Wundt’s views on psychology, such as his insistence that consciousness could be broken into elemental parts and his reliance on introspection. One German branch of psychology that was opposed to Wundt’s ideas was Gestalt psychology which originated with Max Wertheimer (1880-1943), Kurt Koffka (1886-1941), and Wolfgang Köhler (1887-1967). They argured with the atomistic approach to human consciousness, and instead claimed that “the whole is different from the sum of its parts.” For instance, a picture with all of the color information inverted is still recognizable as having the same pattern, even though the elements comprising the picture are completely different in the two versions. Gestalt psychology made substantial contributions to the areas of perception and learning before many in the field moved from Germany to the United States during the mid-1930s. Even though Gestalt psychology never became part of the mainstream, it had a great influence on the beginnings of American psychology. Much of the modern work with Gestalt theories are now associated with the cognitive approach.
The Start of American Psychology
One of the representatives of Wundt’s psychology that came to America was the British student E. B. Titchener (1867-1927). Titchener’s psychology, which became known as structuralism, closely follows the atomistic portion of Wundt’s psychology by studying the elemental structures of consciousness. However, instead of explaining them by hypothetical mental processes as Wundt had, Titchener focused on research that was purely descriptive. His books on experimental psychology (Titchener, 1901-1905) became very influential in the training of the first generation of American psychologists.
Other groups in America entirely broke away from the teachings of Wundt. Many of these groups used ideas developed by Charles Darwin (1809-1882) to formulate theories to explain variations between members of a species. Darwin’s theory of evolution that linked humans with the rest of the animal kingdom began the idea of comparative psychology, and the idea of interpolating human behavior from the study of animals. Another important contribution by Darwin to the emerging American psychology was that of natural selection. Specifically, how the implication of the selection of characteristics that were most valuable to the organism could be used to examine the adaptive significance of consciousness.
Functionalism Under the influences of Darwin, many American psychologists began examining consciousness to understand how it helps the organism function, rather than its structures. One American psychologist who believed in the adaptive significance of consciousness was William James (1842-1910). James believed that mental processes had evolved in a similar manner to other traits, and his interest was in understanding the role consciousness played in helping an organism adapt to its environment. James’s emphasis on understanding the functions of consciousness led to the founding of a new system of psychology known as functionalism, which is mainly an American system of psychology. Most of James’s ideas were examined in The Principles of Psychology (1890), which is one of the most important works in the history of psychology.
Behaviorism The third type of psychology that evolved during this time period contested with both structuralism and functionalism. Behaviorism, as the new system was called, was revolutionary in both the nature of material it studied, as well as the methods used in study. The founder of this branch of psychology was John B. Watson (1878-1958) who believed that psychology would never fully develop until “it need no longer delude itself unto thinking that it is making mental states the object of observation.” Watson called for a radical change in the focus of psychology: studying behavior instead of consciousness. Because consciousness was not directly observable, it was difficult to measure and therefore had no place in the domain of science. Behavior represented actions that were subject to direct observation, and psychology could then be based on discovering the causes of behavior and the investigation of relations between stimuli and response.
Watson also tried to minimize the importance of studying heredity that had been placed into the field of psychology by functionalism. He denied the existence of instints, or inherited traits. This viewpoint led him to decide that a person’s achievements are limited solely by the restrictions placed by the environment on the person’s abilities. This radical change gave psychology a means to improve the human condition in particular, and society in general, and made Watson a popular figure in American culture.
Watson’s scientific psychology could not have an imprecise means of experimentation, such as introspection, so Watson encouraged a number of new techniques: