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History of Psychology and Its Theories


Accordingly, human beings study psychology to understand the peculiarities of a personality’s development, avoid making similar mistakes in handling and treating various psychological disorders, obtain valuable ideas to develop psychology as a science, and satisfy their natural curiosity and thirst for knowledge. Needless to say, studying psychology starts with the consideration of its major theories. They can not only provide considerable insights into various aspects of psychology but also reveal the dynamics of the development of scholarly thought through centuries of psychological research.

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Thus, to better understand the history of psychology it is necessary to review the major movements and schools or psychology in the order, in which they were developed by the reputable scholars in the respective epochs. The major movements to be analyzed further include voluntarism, structuralism, functionalism, behaviorism, Gestalt psychology, humanistic psychology, and the currently dominant cognitive school.

Voluntarism, Structuralism, and Other Early Approaches to Psychology

Needless to say, numerous scholars have addressed the issues of the history of psychology in their works. Voluntarism, structuralism, and some other early approaches to human psychology were among the first ideas scholars considered in their publications.

Voluntarism and Structuralism

Thus, it seems rather natural that the notions of voluntarism and structuralism were one of the first psychological movements to emerge in human society. Both psychological theories tend to explain human actions and mental processes from a voluntary point of view, while structuralism is often discussed as the continuation of voluntarism and the latter’s narrowed variety (Pear, 2007, p. 73).

Wilhelm Maximilian Wundt

Voluntarism, according to Pear (2007, p. 74), is the approach developed by Wilhelm Wundt, who argued that most human actions and choices are conditioned by goodwill and are voluntary. The major pillars on which Wundt’ ideas were built included the notion of sensation, i. e. the experience a human being get after his/her every action and the influences this sensation has upon the private process of “mental chemistry” that takes place within the human personality (Hergenhahn, 2005, p. 268).

Wundt’s work and influence on modern psychology

The influence of Wundt’s work and ideas on modern psychology is difficult to overestimate. According to Pear (2007), psychologists in the late 19th and early 20th centuries had “to study with Wundt…or at least with those who had studied with Wundt” (p. 73). In brief, Wundt acquired great authority through his ideas and is currently considered to be one of the fathers of experimental methods in psychology (Brock, 2006, p. 38; Coon, 2008, p. 45).

Edward B. Titchener

The notion of structuralism, designed by Edward Titchener is another basic idea for early developments in the psychology of a human being (Kalat, 2007, p. 20). The essence of structuralism is the attempt to study the structure of the human mind as comprised of sensations, feelings, and images, which might be united or separate in a personality (Kalat, 2007, p. 21; Coon, 2008, p. 22).

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Titchener’s work and influence on modern psychology

Titchener also had considerable influence upon the development of modern psychology as the author of one of the first attempts to explain the processes that take place in the human mind (Brock, 2006, p. 258). However, Titchener’s views are currently widely criticized for their alleged subjectivity and lack of clarity (Friedenberg, 2005, p. 73).

Franz Brentano

One more interesting theory of psychology is the idea of intentionality suggested by German specialist Franz Brentano (Benjamin, Daniel, Hebl, & Brewer, 2000, p. 96). The essence of intentionality is that every activity or a thought of a human being has an object behind it that conditions the intention of this activity. In other words, all activities and thoughts are intentional and this feature distinguishes mental activities from physical ones (Fiske, Gilbert, & Lindzey, 2010, p. 27; Dewey, 2001, p. 73).

Hermann Ebbinghaus

Great contributions to psychology on the whole and the study of memory, in particular, were made by Hermann Ebbinghaus, a German specialist that experimentally researched Aristotle’s laws of association and frequency and formulated his views on forgetting curve and memory development, which are often referred to as early behaviorism (Leonard, 2002, p. 59; Hergenhahn and Olson, 2005, pp. 11 – 12).

The Measurement of Intelligence

Francis Galton

The development of psychological theories soon resulted in the emergence of the so-called measurement of intelligence, or intelligence testing, an approach originated by Francis Galton, a British psychologist, and scientist, who designed his Anthropometric Laboratory and carried out the first experiments in it in the 1880s (Jansz, & Van Drunen, 2004, pp. 33 – 34).

Intelligence testing after Galton

Successful work by Galton in such areas of study as the inheritance of intelligence and the dependence of intelligence and brain volumes allowed other scholars to develop intelligence testing (Jansz, & Van Drunen, 2004, pp. 33 – 34). The most notable is considered to be the efforts by McKeen Cattell, Alfred Binet, and Theodore Simon, who managed to perfect and refine Galton’s ideas and develop psychological tests adopted further by numerous individuals and organizations (Jansz, & Van Drunen, 2004, pp. 33 – 34).


Characteristics of functionalist psychology

Voluntarism and structuralism soon gave rise to a theory that opposed them, i. e. functionalism that was first developed and explained by William James (Leonard, 2002, p. 76). The basic characteristics of functionalism focus on the unity of functions that a mind possesses and exercises to produce thoughts and actions of a human being (Leonard, 2002, p. 76; Friedenberg, 2005, p. 38).

William James

As mentioned above, the father of functionalism is considered to be William James, the developer of the theory that does not allow dividing a human mind and mental activity process into separate elements. The major difference between James’ views and ideas of the first structuralists and voluntarisms is the consideration of a mind as a unity of functions, none of which can work if separated from others (Leonard, 2002, p. 76; Jansz, & Van Drunen, 2004, p. 103).

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Hugo Münsterberg

Hugo Munsterberg was another notable representative of the functionalist school of psychology. The major achievement of this American-German scholar was that he developed the approaches of applied psychology and psychological parallelism (Hergenhahn and Olson, 2005, p. 211). The leitmotif of Munsterberg’s idea was that physical functions are paralleled by mental ones, which explains numerous mental disorders by physical causes (Matsumoto, 2001, p. 43).


The background of behaviorism

With the increasing interest of psychology in the processes of human cognition, scholars like Watson have developed the idea of behaviorism, i. e. the approach to understanding cognitive processes through the prism of clear instructions given to a person or observations this person can make (Elkins, 2009, p. 27). The main representatives of behaviorism are Ivan Pavlov, John Watson, and B. F. Skinner.

Ivan Pavlov

Ivan Pavlov was one of the pioneers of behaviorist psychology. This Russian scientist is mostly famous for the findings he managed to obtain from his experiments with dogs. As a result of his work, Pavlov coined the terms unconditioned stimulus and conditioned stimulus. The former is the factor that causes a response of a living being’s mind as it is, while the latter gives response only after repeated usage with the unconditional stimulus (Friedenberg, 2005, p. 225; Weiten, 2008, p. 233).

John B. Watson

The father of behaviorism as a psychological school is John Watson, a scholar whose radical views shocked the scientific world. Watson’s idea behind behaviorism was for psychology to stop trying to study unconscious or conscious manifestations of mental processes and focus exclusively on observing and studying the behaviors of human beings or other objects of research (Weiten, 2008, p. 8; Schneider, Bugental, & Pierson, 2001, p. 5)

B. F. Skinner

B. F. Skinner is another prominent behaviorist that managed to introduce the notion of operant conditioning into psychology as a science (Schneider, Bugental, & Pierson, 2001, p. 215). The essence of Skinner’s views lies in the two major concepts. First, “free will is an illusion” because the actions of a human being are determined by the environment. Second, every activity, or behavioral pattern, is conditioned by external factors, which gives the name to the concept of “operant conditioning” (Weiten, 2008, p. 10).

Behaviorism today

The revolutionary ideas of behaviorism, however, found no support in the scholarly world in general (American Psychological Association, 2004, p. 95). This conditioned the slow but confident decline of behavioral psychology that was substituted by the currently developing cognitive school that dominates the psychological science nowadays (Bermudez, 2005, p. 344; Leahey, 2004, p. 67; Schultz & Schultz, 2007, p. 173).

Gestalt Psychology

The Founding of Gestalt Psychology

Gestalt psychology, named so after the German word “Gestalt” meaning the shape or essence, was founded in the early 20th century by three German scholars Wolfgang Kohler, Kurt Koffka, and Max Wertheimer (Leahey, 2004, p. 56). Specialists often contrast Gestalt philosophy to the functionalist and voluntarist views by Wundt, Munsterberg, James, and other representatives of those movements.

The theory

The reason for such a counter-positioning of Gestalt psychology with earlier approaches to this science is that Gestalt psychologists focus on the essence of a whole instead of considering it as a sum of elements (Jansz, & Van Drunen, 2004, p. 122). Even if a mental activity is a sum of elements that a human brain has to apply, a human being still perceives a whole image instead of the sum of lines or circles that constitute it. Therefore, the holistic views of Gestalt psychology are supported by the peculiarities of human cognition (Elkins, 2009, p. 113).

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The Gestalt explanation of learning, productive thinking, and memory

Further on, Gestalt psychology focuses on the ideas of insight learning, productive thinking, and memory. Insight learning is the concept of findings a solution to an issue through radically rethinking the issue as a single whole and deducting the solution from it (Friedenberg, 2005, pp. 81 – 82). Productive thinking is the idea of finding an answer to a question in a non-standard way using the means that the question gives to a person (Bermudez, 2005, p. 277). Finally, memory in Gestalt psychology attributes non-existent features to objects of reality for a person to memorize them more effectively (Friedenberg, 2005, p. 435).

The impact of Gestalt Psychology

Thus, Gestalt psychology has had a considerable impact on the development of psychology as a science. The emergence of the topological and social psychologies became possible mainly to the effort in personality research taken by such Gestalt psychologists as Kohler, Levin, Wertheimer, etc (Coon, 2008, p. 286).

Early Diagnosis, Explanation, and Treatment of Mental Illness

What is mental illness?

Apart from mere theories and explanations of human behaviors, psychological types, and cognitive peculiarities, the science of psychology deals with such practically important notions as mental illness, its definition, and treatment ways. Thus, a mental illness can be defined as a condition of disorder in one or several areas of an individual’s mental activities, which is associated with a high probability of distress and negatively colored emotional state (Leahey, 2004, p. 371).

An early explanation of mental illness

However, at the dawn of the development of psychology as a science, the definitions of mental illnesses differed substantially from the currently acceptable ones and each other. Scholars like Benjamin, Daniel, Hebl, and Brewer (2000, p. 31) and Kalat (2007, p. 86) argue that there are supernatural, biological, psychological, and simple medical explanations and definitions of the term “mental illness” (Leahey, 2004, p. 371).

Various explanations

The earliest explanations of mental illnesses were mainly supernatural as people considered them to be either divine punishments or effects of magic on the mentally ill people (Matsumoto, 2001, p. 112). The next stage of mental illness research was the biological definition of this issue, which found its reflection in calling mental illnesses “diseases of brain” or organically conditioned disorders (Jansz, & Van Drunen, 2004, p. 98). Finally, the merge of the 19th and 20th centuries was marked by scholarly ideas of the psychological nature of mental illnesses manifested in the unusual causes of the emergence and, respectively, special ways of treatment of these disorders.

The psychological approach to the treatment of mental illness

Accordingly, the psychological explanation of a mental illness gave rise to the psychological approach to treating it. The essence of this approach is in “talking about one’s mental illness” as a way of treating it at its early stages (Elkins, 2009, p. 41). Sigmund Freud is thus considered to be one of the pioneers of the psychological method of mental illness treatment (Weiten, 2008, p. 7).

Psychoanalysis and Its Early Alternatives

Sigmund Freud

The method employed by Sigmund Freud is referred to as psychoanalysis. It focuses on talking about the patient’s conscious and unconscious ideas, fears, and experiences, and trying to define the causes of an illness, mainly labeled hysteria, through examining such layers of the patient’s personality as Id, Ego, and Superego (Jansz, & Van Drunen, 2004, p. 105).

Early alternatives: Carl Jung and Alfred Adler

The ideas and views by Freud were modified and developed by other psychologists, among which Carl Jung and Alfred Adler are the most famous ones. Elkins (2009) argues that Jung and Adler were the two followers of Freud, but still they had their views on psychology and the idea o psychoanalysis (p. 47). Carl Jung was famous for developing the analytical psychology out of Freud’s idea of psychoanalysis, while Adler focused mainly on the personal peculiarities of a person, which led him to the vision of individual psychology as a separate school of this science (Friedenberg, 2005, p. 82; Schneider, Bugental, & Pierson, 2001, p. 14).

Humanistic Psychology

Abram Maslow

One more notable movement in psychology is the humanistic school that originated in the 1960s and whose fathers were Abram Maslow, Carl Rogers, and other famous psychologists. Schneider, Bugental, & Pierson (2001) argue that Maslow formulated the basics of humanistic psychology using both behaviorism and psychoanalysis in combination (p. 81). The major focus of humanistic psychology according to Maslow, as noted by Weiten (2008), is to understand the individual’s behavior through his/her personal experiences and sensations (p. 509).

Carl Rogers

Carl Rogers was one of Maslow’s supporters and activists of humanistic psychology. As argued by Weiten (2008), Rogers saw “the internal frame of reference of the individual himself” as the only point from which a study of a person’s mind can be carried out (p. 509). Based on this, the use of synthesis of behaviorism and psychoanalysis basics can be easily explained for humanistic psychology.

Evaluation of Humanistic Psychology: Criticism and contributions

The development of humanistic psychology has always been associated with criticisms of this psychological school. The major argument against humanistic psychology is that it promotes the values of selfishness and egoism, while society aims at cooperation and understanding (Dewey, 2001, p. 14). However, supporters of humanistic psychology counter this criticism by arguing that self-realization promoted by their movement does not mean the protest against the basic social value in any way and that humanistic psychology studies the socialization of people, not their separate development (Weiten, 2008, pp. 509 – 510).

Cognitive Psychology

Cognitive psychology is one of the youngest movements in science as the term itself was created only in 1965, in Neisser’s work “Cognitive psychology” (Weiten, 2008, p. 390). The basics of this area of psychology can be found in Gestalt school as well as behaviorism, and scholars like Wundt, Kohler, and Koffka among others, can be called the famous developers of what is today known as cognitive psychology, i. e. the study of learning processes, memory, speaking abilities, and other cognitive functions of a human being (Schneider, Bugental, & Pierson, 2001, p. 216)

Contemporary Psychology

Finally, modern psychology is characterized by the domination of cognitivism and a somewhat smaller extent of the development of humanistic psychology (Fiske, Gilbert, & Lindzey, 2010, pp. 176 – 177). All other schools and movements in the science of psychology also develop but their applicability in modern society is gradually decreasing. The focus on the cognitive functions of human beings can be explained by the growing need for increased information processing capacities that the age of information presents to mankind.


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