1.2 General Psychology: Can you explain the growth of psychology?

Chapter 1


1.2 Explain the growth of psychology

 Growth of Psychology: Historical Perspective

Psychology as a scientific discipline is relatively new. It evolved from Philosophy, Physiology and Biology. It was considered a part of the Philosophy Department in most universities and it became an independent discipline in the 19th Century. During this time, experimental methods were developed to study the mind and behaviour.


Psychological experiments were initiated by natural scientists that is, Physicists and Physiologists who began to think of themselves as Psychologists. As a science Psychology evolved slowly because some of its basic arguments conflicted with religious beliefs for example the idea of the human mind, soul and spirit having a free will and not being governed by natural laws and principals.


Modern Psychology is dated from 1879 when the first psychology laboratory was established in Leipzig Germany by Wilhelm Wundt (1832-1920). Wundt was the first to call himself a Psychologist. He developed the first systematic approach to Psychology called Structuralism.


Growth of Psychology as a Scientific Discipline

Psychology as a new scientific discipline has had its own developmental history. This history has been characterized by successive schools of psychological thought. By schools of psychological thought we are talking of ways of thinking, looking at and studying psychology.



This was the first school of psychological thought. The person who started this school was Wilhelm Wundt (1832-1920). He did this with the assistance of his student who was called E. B. Titchener (1867-1927). Structuralism was concerned with the structure of the conscious experience or the structure of the mind. Structuralism posited that conscious experience is made up of elements just like matter is made up of atoms and molecules. Titchener broke down the elements of conscious experience into three basic elements that is, physical sensations, feelings and images.


Conscious experience can be studied by breaking down the elements of sensation and studying:

  • The quality of sensation
  • The intensity of sensation and
  • The duration of sensation

This is done through a method called analytic introspection. Introspection is a method of describing ones mental content as objectively as possible. This method can only be used by the individual who is experiencing the sensation. The method involves breaking down complex experience into elementary components for example while looking at a flower the person notes the elements that make up the lower for example size, shape, texture, smell, colour, brightness, etc. This involves perceiving of the parts of the experience in order to construct the whole.


Structuralism as a school of thought had some inherent difficulties that is:

  1. it had serious limitations because it needed people who are very alert to be trained to use analytic introspection therefore people of unsound mind, children and animals could not be used
  2. it was difficult to discover the laws that come into play to make the various elements combine into a perceptual whole for example do parts of a flower add up to the flower? What does one see in terms of colours, brightness, etc?
  3. it is difficult for individuals to study their emotional consciousness using analytic introspection
  4. there is no objectivity in analytic introspection because consciousness is a highly individual and private affair which is not open to public scrutiny.


Due to these inherent difficulties Structuralism wakened and collapsed. Its greatest contribution was to bring science to psychology and to establish psychology as a science.



This was the second school of psychological thought. It was spearheaded by William James (1842-1910) of Harvard University and John Dewey (1859-1952) of University of Chicago. This school of psychological thought was concerned with the study of the mind as it functions in adapting the organism to its surroundings. They argued that conscious experience cannot be broken down to elementary components. They argued that conscious experience should be should be studied as an ongoing process or stream They also believed that the mind can only be revealed in habits and perception.


This school of thought believed that consciousness is caused by the interaction between the organism and the environment. Their main interest was uses or functions of the mind, not its structure. The use of the mind is to help the organism to adapt to its environment. The functionalists believed that past experience teaches us to function more adaptively. Many of our functions such as lifting spoons to our mouths and turning door knobs require our full attention at first but with experience such activities become habitual or automatic through repetition.


Functionalism was concerned about problem solving behaviour and intelligence that enable the organism to adopt to the environment and survive for example food seeking behaviour, avoiding danger and reproductive behaviour. According to Functionalists, behaviour should be studied in terms of its adaptive significance. They argue that behaviour which has any adaptive significance is learned, retained and organised, and evaluated depending on experiences. In this process, the mind and body are involved, therefore all behaviour is psychophysical.


Achievements of functionalism

  1. It broadened the subject matter of psychology to include all types of people that is, children, the mentally ill, other species such as chimpanzees and dogs, etc.
  2. Functionalism developed objective methods of studying behaviour
  3. It was broader in scope than structuralism
  4. It allied psychology to related disciplines like physiology, sociology and related sciences for facts and methodological procedures
  5. The functionalists were the first to develop intelligence tests for classifying children in America.


Behaviourism or The Behaviouristic Revolt

This was the third school of psychological thought to emerge. It was started by a young psychologist known as John B. Watson (1878-1958). He attacked structuralism because he claimed that consciousness and mental contents cannot be studied scientifically. He argued that psychology should study what all reasonable people could agree on that is, behaviour.


Watson brought a new definition to psychology which was the science of behaviour. He argued that psychology should study behaviour as it is overt and observable. Psychology should describe, explain, predict and control behaviour.


Behaviourists study behaviour in terms of stimulus and responses. They believe that given a particular stimulus, we should be able to predict the response for example if we put meat near a dog, we can predict the dog will start to salivate.


Behaviourists believed in the study of the environment as they believed the environment shapes behaviour (not heredity). The study of the environment is important because it provides the stimulus and the organism produces the responses.


Watson contributed a great deal to fundamental research in the area of child psychology and applied research. He is recognised as the father of modern psychology.


Gestalt Psychology

This was a new movement which was developed in Germany in opposition to structuralism functionalism and behaviourism. The key figures in this school of thought were Max Wertheimer (1883-1943), Wolfang Köhler (1887-1967) and Kurt Koffka (1886-1941). These people favoured the study of human behaviour as a whole. They argued that people perceive in unitary wholes and not parts. These unitary wholes are called gestalts that is, forms or patterns.


These psychologists focussed their attention on certain phenomena that is, the tricks that the mind plays on itself and which could not be explained by earlier psychologists for example why do we perceive a table as a rectangular form irrespective of the angle of viewing or why we perceive a series of dots (…………….) as a straight line and not as dots following each other. This is because the mind has an innate tendency to close gaps and to perceive things in wholes and not parts.


There is a tendency to organise the perceptual field following the laws of proximity (nearness), continuity, similarity and closure. Gestalt psychology continues to influence psychology in the areas of learning, perception, child psychology, motivation and social psychology.

 Psychoanalysis (Psychoanalytic Psychology)

Psychoanalysis is the study of the unconscious mind. It was developed by Sigmund Freud (1856-1939). He was interested in the etiology (causes), development and cure of mental disorders with a psychogenic origin.


Freud developed the idea that most mental problems were caused by conflicts and emotions that lie in the unconscious mind and which the patient is unaware of. His argument was that behaviour is largely motivated by hidden forces in the unconscious mind. He argued that psychological problems in adults can be traced back to traumatic experiences of early childhood. These experiences are blocked from consciousness or repressed and preserved. The unconscious mind finds an outlet in symptoms of mental illness. In order to bring these repressed memories back to consciousness, Freud developed psychoanalysis or the talking cure. The talking cure involves one relaxing on a couch and speaking out whatever comes to their mind. There is also the interpretation of dreams. This approach is used by Psychotherapists today where they ask their clients to lie on a couch and talk about whatever is troubling them.


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