History of Psychology

History of Psychology

Psychology is the scientific study of behavior and the factors that influence it. “Behavior” is used very broadly to refer to both the actions we can directly observe and to inner processes such as thoughts, feelings, images, and physiological reactions.

A thorough history of psychology’s rich past can be found on Wikipedia.

The field began as an attempt to answer philosophical questions about human nature using methods borrowed from physics, physiology, and other sciences. The first psychology laboratory was set up by physiologist Wilhelm Wundt in Lipsig, Germany to scientifically study how people sense and perceive the world around them. This led a debate over what psychology should be and how it should be studied.

There were two camps: structuralists and functionalists.

1. Structuralists believed that consciousness was made up of basic elements that combined in different ways to produce different perceptions (like hydrogen and oxygen combine to form water). They wanted to discover the form, or basic elements, of mental experience, and favored examining mental experience through introspection, which involves reporting on one’s own conscious thoughts and feelings. Structuralists emphasized accurate measurement and replicability in their studies, but structuralism eventually fell into disfavor because it was a subjective way to study consciousness, and couldn't be used to study children and animals. It eventually gave way to functionalism. Famous structuralists included Wundt and Edward Titchener (Wundt’s student who set up the first psychology lab in the U.S.).

2. Functionalists cared less about what made up mental experiences and more about how mental experiences or processes were adaptive, or functional, for people. They thought that psychology should study the functions – the whys – of consciousness, rather than its structure – the whats. They believed that consciousness, and behavior in general, helped people and animals adjust to their environments. To functionalists, understanding the mind meant understanding what the mind accomplished. The most famous functionalist was William James.

German scientists later developed a new school of thought known as Gestalt psychology, which was concerned with how the elements of experience are organized into wholes. Instead of trying to break consciousness down into its basic elements like structuralists, they saw perceptions and other mental processes as organized so that the whole is not only greater than, but also quite different from the sum of its parts, arguing that this tendency to perceive wholes is built into our nervous system.

Today’s psychologists study both the structure and functions of behavior. For example, those who study infant-caregiver attachment behavior might examine the structure of the attachment (e.g. the feelings and behaviors that arise in response to separations), and the functions of attachment (how those feelings and behaviors keep an infant close to the caregiver).

A psychologist's theoretical orientation determines what he or she says about those structures and functions.

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