History of Psychology Research Paper

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Psychology occupies a middle position among the sciences, between methodological orientations derived in part from the physical and biological sciences and a subject matter extending into the social and human sciences. The struggle to create a science of both subjectivity and Behavior and the effort to develop professional practices utilizing that science’s results provide interesting examples for the reach, and also the limits, of scientific ideals in modern life. This research paper presents a brief account of the social and cultural relations of psychological thought and practice from the eighteenth through the twentieth centuries.

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1. Routes To Institutionalization, 1700–1914

From the earliest times philosophical arguments about the nature of humans and of human knowledge have included claims about mental states and psychological processes. Protestant scholastics first used the term ‘psychology’ in discussions of the relation of soul and body in the sixteenth century. Christian Wolff’s systematic accounts of ‘rational’ and ‘empirical’ psychology published in 1732 and 1734, respectively, marked out a distinct subject of scholarship, with journals and practitioners, a subject matter and intended methods of study. But that subject generally remained a teaching and research field within philosophy and pedagogy. The introduction of so-called ‘physiological’ psychology in the middle third of the nineteenth century and the institutionalization of laboratory instruction on the model of the natural sciences soon thereafter had a major impact on the development of the discipline. However, experimental psychology never succeeded in dominating the field entirely. The institutionalization of psychology took different forms in different parts of Europe and the USA.

1.1 Britain And France

Britain was the home of the statistical research practices pioneered by Francis Galton. These practices targeted not psychological processes assumed to be essentially similar in all individuals, but rather distributions of performances among individuals. In Essay on Human Faculty (1883) and other works, Galton attempted to show that both physical and mental capabilities are quantitatively distributed in the same way, and that both are therefore inherited to the same—large—extent. In a 1904 paper, Charles Spearman took the approach a step further by distinguishing between ‘general intelligence,’ or ‘g,’ a factor underlying all performances in a test series and presumed to be hereditary, and so-called ‘s’ factors accounting for differential performance on specific tests, presumed to be teachable. By the second third of the twentieth century, this emphasis on individual differences expressed in statistical terms had become a predominant research mode in both academic and applied psychology in the English-speaking world. Even so, as late as the 1920s there were only six university chairs for psychology in England. Psychological practitioners of various kinds far outnumbered academics in the membership of the British Psychological Association at the time of its founding in 1901.

In France, philosophers Hippolyte Taine and Theodule Ribot shared a coherent vision of the field as a synthesis of medical and philosophical approaches. However, Ribot’s university course in psychology, first offered at the Sorbonne in 1885, was located in the Faculty of Letters rather than the Faculty of Sciences, while the laboratory demonstrations took place in the Faculty of Medicine. Despite this fragmented situation, he encouraged younger scholars, such as the physician Pierre Janet and the biologist Alfred Binet, to adopt a natural scientific approach.

When he became director of the first psychological laboratory in France, located in the Sorbonne’s Faculty of Sciences, in 1890, Binet attempted to establish an explicitly biological science of higher mental processes, which he called ‘individual psychology.’ In 1894 he founded France’s first scientific psychological journal, L’Annee Psychologique. A commission from the Ministry of Education led to his publication, with Theodore Simon, of the first intelligence tests in 1905. The tests’ purpose was not to measure intelligence directly—Binet doubted that this was possible—but rather to establish practical criteria for separating ‘subnormal’ from normal children, in order to provide the former with special education. But schoolteachers opposed the use of the tests in France, and here, as in England, extensive academic institutionalization of psychology did not follow.

1.2 Germany And The USA

Germany is generally regarded as the homeland of scientific psychology. In response to Immanuel Kant’s claim that mental events, lacking the attribute of space, could not be measured, Johann Heinrich Herbart presented a program for the measurement of sensations in 1816. In 1860, physicist and philosopher Gustav Theodor Fechner realized the program, with modifications, in his psychophysics—the measurement of relations between external stimuli and justnoticeable differences in sensation. Working in part with Fechner’s techniques and in part with methods derived from laboratory physiology, Wilhelm Wundt established the first continuously operating laboratory for ‘physiological psychology,’ as he called it, in Leipzig in 1879. Other approaches widely received at the time included the ‘medical psychology’ of Rudolph Hermann Lotze, Franz Brentano’s descriptive Psychology from an Empirical Standpoint (1874) and the Volkerpsychologie launched in 1860 by Moritz Lazarus and Haim Steinthal, which took an ethnological, linguistic, and historical approach. Other experimenters, such as Georg Elias Muller and Carl Stumpf, worked parallel to Wundt, but pursued quite different research programs.

In Wundt’s and other German laboratories, in contrast to the situation in the UK or France, experimenter and subject were generally equal in status and often changed roles. German experimenters employed mechanical apparatus to control stimulus presentation, but they supplemented their data charts with extended records of their subjects’ self-observations. In this way they engaged in an instrument-aided version of the self-discovery traditional to members of the German educated middle classes. Thanks to journals such as the Zeitschrift fur Psychologie und Physiologie der Sinnesorgane, founded in 1890, as well as the Society for Experimental Psychology, founded in 1904 with Muller as first chairman, the ‘new psychology’ was on firm ground in Germany by 1905. But there was no agreement on the subject matter and methods of the discipline.

One reason for this was what Kurt Danziger (1990) has called the ‘positivist repudiation’ of Wundt by experimenters, including Muller, Hermann Ebbinghaus and Oswald Kulpe. Though Wundt denied that experimental methods were sufficient to study the higher mental processes, these scientists extended apparatus-driven experimental techniques from sensation and perception to memory and thinking. Wundt opposed premature efforts to apply laboratory techniques in real-world situations, but William Stern, Karl Marbe, and others assessed the veracity of witnesses’ testimony in court and tested the performances of schoolchildren at different times of day or the skills of industrial workers. In addition, an explicitly humanistic philosophical tradition persisted, with competing conceptions of the subject matter, method, and practical uses of psychology.

At the turn of the century, neo-Kantians and other philosophers attacked the intrusion of ‘psychologism’ into their field; in 1912, over 110 German teachers of philosophy signed a public statement opposing the appointment of psychologists to professorships in philosophy. But this protest failed, because state officials were not convinced that the discipline had any obvious link to professional or civil service training. Until the Nazi era, experimenting psychologists in Germany maintained their own laboratories, journals, and association, but generally continued to compete for chairs in philosophy.

Wundt’s US students transferred the new experimental psychology from Germany to the USA in the 1880s and 1890s, but the positivistic concepts they employed to justify using such tools were quite different from Wundt’s. The sheer size of the country as well as the decentralized structure of the emerging US university supported rapid institutionalization. By 1910 there were more psychological laboratories in the USA than universities in Germany. The founding of the American Psychological Association in 1892 predated that of corresponding European societies. Despite this rapid growth, the new discipline exhibited some continuity with the past. Instruction in psychology had long been part of the required philosophy courses taught by college presidents such as James McCosh at Princeton. These courses and their teachers encouraged an orientation toward moral issues and concentration on useful knowledge rather than the emphasis on empirical foundations for philosophy of mind prevalent in Germany.

Also formative of the discipline in the USA was the work of Darwin and Spencer. Evolutionary thinking reinforced the emphasis on biological functions vs. mental faculties, and also encouraged comparison of adult humans with children and animals. Such views supported evolutionary theories of cognition like those of James Mark Baldwin, and also granted psychologists so inclined the authority to present themselves as agents of human betterment. Education and child study thus came to be of central concern to US psychology; here John Dewey, G. Stanley Hall, and Edward Thorndike were the opinion leaders, though they advanced different research and reform programs.

William James combined science and reform in his own way. Himself an evolutionist in certain respects, he created, with Dewey and James Rowland Angell, a distinctly American functional psychology. Though committed to psychology as a natural science, he criticized the tendency to substitute psychologists’ conceptions of reality for their subjects’ reported experiences in his classic text, The Principles of Psychology (1890). He favored a more expansive conception of the subject matter of psychology, but his later efforts to study the experiences of psychics and mystics with the same objectivity as those of ‘normal’ adults was not widely accepted. Instead, an emphasis on social usefulness that presupposed an engineering model of science became central to the establishment of psychology in the USA.

Disagreements on the scope and methods of psychology in the USA paralleled those in Germany. A group of experimentalists led by Edward Bradford Titchener, which began to meet separately from the APA in 1904, did not oppose applied work per se, but insisted on rigorous method both within and outside the lab. In contrast, activists like Hall, who pioneered the use of questionnaires in the USA, were less concerned with laboratory-style rigor than with translating moral issues into scientific ones.

In this atmosphere, intelligence testing became more popular in the USA than in France. Henry H. Goddard, director of a training school for so-called ‘feeble-minded’ children, propagated the tests as instruments of human betterment. Lewis M. Terman revised the Binet–Simon scale for use in US schools in 1915, and thus linked ‘mental age’ to school class years. This move proved well suited to US schools as sorters of a socially and ethnically diverse population.

1.3 Common Features Of The ‘New’ Psychology

Despite these multiple routes to institutionalization and differences in approach, certain common features of the ‘new’ psychology can be identified. One of these common features was a reliance on measuring instruments to establish objectivity and acquire scientific standing. With their apparatus for the controlled presentation of stimuli and measuring reaction times, experimental psychologists reconstituted the object to which their efforts were addressed. What had been mental and moral capacities became psychical functions; and the sensing, perceiving, conscious mind became an instrument that functioned, or failed to function, in a measurably ‘normal’ way.

A second common feature of the ‘new’ psychology was the use of physiological analogies based in turn on mechanical physics and technology. The term ‘inhibition,’ for example, blended organic and machine metaphors and applied them to both human action and to society. Soon after scientists and engineers applied the idea of energy conservation to human labor in order to create a science of work intended to make the ‘human motor’ run more efficiently, Emil Kraepelin and others extended the effort to ‘mental work’; Hugo Munsterberg gave the result the name ‘psychotechnics.’

A third common feature of the ‘new’ psychology was a studied vagueness about the mind–body relationship. Many psychologists asserted some version of psychophysical parallelism or claimed a functional relationship of mind and brain, but few were very precise about the nature of that relationship. A fourth common feature was the contested use of the term ‘experimental’ itself. Until late in the century, the term psychologie experimentale referred in both France and Germany to seances. The experimentalists actively opposed spiritualism and attempted to expose quack practitioners, but James, Pierre Janet, and others studied altered mental states in psychics and mystics.

This broader view was not widely accepted, due to a fifth common feature of the ‘new’ psychology—a tendency to restrict its subject matter to topics that could be addressed by the natural scientific methods and apparatus then available, such as psychophysics, sensory psychology, attention span, and retention. One result was an uneasy tension between efforts to preserve the notion of a volitional, active mind and the actual stuff of experimental research—measurable reactions to external stimuli. Another result was the exclusion of social or ‘crowd’ psychology; measuring instrument experimental methodology was plainly not applicable to group Behavior.

A sixth common feature of the new psychological science was its gendered dimension. The head–heart dichotomy and the worship of the (female) ‘beautiful soul’ persisted through the nineteenth century; but its role in the ‘new’ psychology was ambivalent. The generalized, ‘normal’ adult mind that the experimentalists usually claimed to be their subject matter was at least implicitly the common property of both sexes, but the vocabulary and practices of objective science carried unmistakably masculine symbolism.

2. The Era Of Competing Schools, 1910–45

The struggle for intellectual dominance in early twentieth-century psychology has been depicted since the 1930s as a battle of competing ‘schools.’ This view has its uses, but it conveys the false impression that all schools competed on an equal basis everywhere. Behaviorism captured both expert and popular attention in the USA in the 1920s, but the new approach was hardly taken seriously in other countries until after 1945. The ‘reflexology’ of Russian physiologists Ivan Pavlov and V. M. Bekhterev did not become a dominant approach in psychology even in the USSR until the 1940s. Gestalt psychology and other initiatives from Germany were received with interest but also with skepticism in other countries. Psychoanalysis had established itself as an international movement by the 1920s, but acquired few academic adherents at the time.

In German-speaking Europe, the ‘crisis of psychology’ announced by Vienna professor Karl Buhler in a 1927 book reflected continuing disagreement about subject matter and methods. The most widely received view internationally was that of Gestalt psychology, developed by Max Wertheimer, Wolfgang Kohler, and Kurt Koffka. They claimed, among other things, that immediately perceived structures (Gestalten) and relationships rather than isolated sensations are the primary constituents of consciousness, and employed holistic vocabulary to ground a rigorously natural-scientific world view. Felix Krueger, head of the Leipzig school of ‘holistic psychology’ (Ganzheitspsychologie), emphasized the role of feeling in perception and espoused Neo-Romantic cultural conservatism. William Stern’s personalism focused on the individual as a ‘psychophysical whole’ in a way consistent with political liberalism.

The situation of psychology as a profession in Germany was equally contested. The challenge of philosopher Eduard Spranger’s ‘humanistic’ psychology, as well as alternative professional practices such as handwriting analysis advocated by Ludwig Klages and typological personality diagnostics such as that of Ernst Kretschmer, raised the pressure to develop modern research instruments congruent with German cultural tradition. In Austria, the work of the Vienna Psychological Institute formed a bridge between old and new, theory and practice, Europe and America. Karl Buhler’s department of general psychology conducted basic cognition research in the tradition of Brentano. At the same time, in rooms located at the city’s adoption center, the institute’s department of child and youth psychology, led by Charlotte Buhler, created performance measures for assessing the Behavioral development of infants modeled on those of Arnold Gesell at Yale. In addition, Rockefeller Foundation funding supported the sociographic and survey research of the institute’s Research Center for Economic Psychology under Paul Lazarsfeld in the late 1920s and early 1930s. All this put the Vienna institute, along with those in Jena and Hamburg, in the forefront of the transition to practice-oriented basic research in German-speaking psychology.

In the USA, multiple versions of Behaviorism competed for attention in the 1920s. As proclaimed by John B. Watson in 1913, radical Behaviorism excluded consciousness altogether from psychological science in favor of ‘prediction and control’ of Behavior; in his later writings Watson advocated Pavlovian conditioning as a form of social engineering. Far more significant within the discipline at the time were the social science and child development programs generously funded by the Laura Spellman Rockefeller Foundation. The workers in these programs were not doctrinaire Behaviorists, but they believed that measuring children’s growth and IQ test scores over time would produce scientific norms of human development, and hoped to utilize this knowledge to rationalize society. Critics of Behaviorism called on Gestalt psychology for support, while Harvard professor Gordon Allport and other prominent psychologists advocated a person-centered conception of psychology.

The 1930s were dominated by competing versions of neo-Behaviorism. Edward Tolman tried to integrate purposive motivation and cognitive processes into Behavior theory, going so far as to claim that white rats framed ‘hypotheses’ as to which maze route would yield an expected food reward. Clark Hull developed an elaborate model for learning theory based on what he took to be Newton’s physics, and tried to expand the model from the habit hierarchies of classical conditioning to personality theory. Finally, B. F. Skinner developed operant conditioning in the 1930s, producing careful measurements of the relative likelihood of simple Behaviors such as rats or pigeons pressing a bar to obtain pellet, of food under rigorously controlled conditions and suspending all efforts to explain such Behavior.

A prominent non-Behaviorist effort to bring systematic theorizing into psychology was that of Berlin emigre Kurt Lewin. Lewin advocated experimental study of ideal-typical Behavioral situations, exemplified in his Iowa studies of ‘democratic’ and ‘authoritarian’ leadership in children’s groups. Lewin and his US competitors shared an admiration for classical physics and a willingness to draw upon philosophy of science, especially operationism and logical positivism, to legitimate their positions. They differed in their basic conceptual foundations and also in the physics they chose to emulate. The competition was resolved only by the rapid fragmentation of the discipline in the 1950s.

In Britain and France psychology remained relatively weakly institutionalized in this period in comparison with Germany and the USA. Yet precisely this situation enabled a wide range of alternatives to US Behaviorism to flourish. In the UK, Cyril Burt, originally a London school official and later professor at University College, London, adapted and expanded Charles Spearman’s concept of general and specific intelligence in studies of educational performance, delinquency, and so-called ‘backward’ children. He then developed a mathematical basis for factorial approaches to intelligence and personality testing. Controversy over accusations that he manipulated or even invented some of his twin research and other data did not emerge until after his death. During the same period, Cambridge professor Frederick Bartlett published the pioneering study Remembering (1932), in which he established the role of learned schemata in retention and laid the foundations for considering memory as a process of active reconstruction rather than rote recall.

In France, psychology remained divided between medicine and philosophy; there was no separate degree until 1947. One result was that alongside the strictly experimental work of Henri Pieron, Binet’s successor as director of the Psychological Laboratory at the Sorbonne, philosophers and sociologists considered psychological issues in broader and less positivistic ways. One example was the debate over Lucien Levy- Bruhl’s concept of ‘primitive’ mentality, which contributed to the emergence of the ‘mentalities’ concept of the Annales school in history. In French-speaking Switzerland, biologist and philosopher Jean Piaget, building in part upon Eduard Claparede’s functional psychology, began his pioneering studies of cognitive development in children.

2.1 Dynamics Of Professionalization To 1945

The turning point for the public visibility of professional psychology in the USA came with the mass use of intelligence tests in the US Army during World War II. The route of application ran here not from the ‘normal’ to the ‘pathological,’ but rather from socially marginal populations—the so-called ‘feeble-minded’ and schoolchildren—to ‘normal’ adults. The interaction of applied psychology and the professional officer corps reshaped both the aims of intelligence testing, the test instrument itself, and ultimately conceptions of the objects being assessed. Intelligence became not intellectual or problem-solving capacity alone, but a sum of skills and (presumably hereditary) aptitudes for certain kinds of learning.

‘Binet testing,’ as it was then called, fueled the professionalization of psychology in both the USA and UK during the 1920s. Quantitative assessment and classification instruments spread rapidly in both basic research and professional practice, primarily because the products thus created supported the functions required by administrators, initially in schools and later also in industry and social service agencies. During this period the field became more open to women; but a gender hierarchy emerged, with industrial psychology remaining male-dominated, while female ‘Binet testers’ and social workers took on more people-oriented functions. During World War II, fields of application included the employment of social psychology in morale research and applied human relations, incorporation of psychophysics and experimental psychology into studies of human-ma- chine interactions, and diagnostic testing in clinical psychology, as well as the use of intelligence and personality testing in personnel management. All this led in turn to significant basic research programs in the postwar period.

The professionalization of psychology in Germany took a rather different course. During World War I, efforts focused on the adaptation of techniques from psychophysics to develop sound-ranging devices, and to test the visual discrimination ability of drivers and pilots. More important after the Nazi takeover of power were the rapid growth of military psychology as a result of German rearmament, and the resulting shift from psychotechnical skills testing to ‘intuitive’ character diagnosis. The primary purpose here was elite officer selection, rather than sorting large numbers of average recruits. Paper-and-pencil and skills tests were secondary to the extended observation of officer candidates in simulated command situations. The personality characteristics sought had considerable affinities to the traditional virtues of the Prussian officer—the will to command and the ability to inspire troop loyalty. In contrast, diagnostic efforts based on Nazi ‘race psychology’ could not be translated into professional practice.

In the USA, too, personality diagnostics ultimately became a road to professionalization. However, in contrast to Germany, quantitative methods based on techniques of factor analysis developed by L. L. Thurstone and others predominated, despite competition from ‘projective’ tests such as the Rorschach in the 1930s and 1940s. The history acquired a gendered dimension in the construction of ‘female’ and ‘male’ traits in early personality research.

3. The Postwar Era: ‘Americanization’ And The Alternatives

In the USA, the postwar years saw explosive expansion and differentiation in both the scientific and professional realms. The establishment of a divisional structure within the APA in 1947—already negotiated during the war—reflected this process. Despite the optimism of the time, it proved difficult to subsume all aspects of psychology’s protean identity within single university departments or graduate programs. Fragmentation was most obvious in the different research practices institutionalized in experimental, social, and personality psychology.

Cognition returned to the laboratory in this period, supported in part by reliance on methodological conventions patterned on those of the Behaviorists, such as rigorous separation of independent and dependent variables, in part by computer-centered models of mental processes. In contrast to the statistical inference techniques and the corresponding computational models of mind that came to be preferred in cognition research, the preferred research tools in educational psychology were the correlational methods pioneered by Galton. A comparable methodological split distinguished neo-Behavioristic learning theory from experimental social psychology and personality theory. Nonetheless, experimental studies of social influence on perception by Solomon Asch and of prejudice by Gordon Allport, as well as T. W. Adorno and colleagues’ The Authoritarian Personality study (1950) captured the imagination of many in the field. The popularity of such studies reflected a widespread tendency of the period to psychologize, and thus individualize, social problems. Meanwhile, developmental psychology took the work of Piaget as a touchstone for numerous studies closely related to the practical needs of schools for age-related developmental norms.

By the 1970s, the sheer numbers of psychologists (over 70,000, over 100,000 by the end of the century) had reached levels that could not have been imagined 50 years earlier. The growth was worldwide, but more than two-thirds of the total were Americans. The openness of both discipline and profession to women continues; today more than half the doctorates in the field go to women. Gender divisions also continue, with women being most numerous in developmental and educational psychology and men in experimental, industrial, and personnel psychology. Nonetheless, the broad institutional anchorage of psychology in the USA was more than sufficient to assure that the research and professional practices instituted there would spread throughout the world, and that alternative viewpoints coming from Asia, Africa, or Latin America would generally be marginalized.

The most important exceptions to the overall trend were the impact of Piaget in developmental psychology, and the reception of work by British psychologists Hans Eysenck and Raymond Catell in personality testing and diagnostics. In cognition research, the work of Bartlett and the achievements of Soviet researchers such as Alexander Luria were mobilized to lend respectability and theoretical sophistication to the resurgent field in the USA. Nonetheless, the allpervasive influence of computer metaphors and the associated information-processing models were plainly of Anglo-American origin.

The history of the psychological profession after 1945 continued to be affected by contingent local circumstances. The rise of clinical psychology in the USA was originally driven by the need to deal with large numbers of mentally ill veterans after World War II. The new field ultimately brought forth its own basic research in both clinical and academic settings, which led to the emergence of scientific communities based on methodological norms quite different from those of experimental or developmental psychologists. In addition, an eclectic, so-called ‘humanistic’ psychology movement arose in opposition to both behaviorism and psychoanalysis, and became widely popular in psychotherapy, social work, and the emerging field of counseling psychology.

In Europe, the rise of clinical psychology came approximately 10 years later than in the USA. There, in contrast to the USA, the supremacy of personality diagnostics and its quantitative tools had already been established in basic research before the professionalization of the clinical field. Another important difference was that clinical training in academic settings in Europe was based far more on cognitive and Behavioral techniques than on psychoanalysis. Barriers to the academic institutionalization of psychoanalytic research and training were surmounted only in exceptional cases.

What had been a predominantly European field at the beginning of the twentieth century has become deeply dependent on US research styles and professional practices. US predominance has been con- tested by dissident local-language movements, most notably in France and Germany. Most significant, however, is the contrast between US predominance worldwide and the insecure standing of trained psychologists in the USA itself. Vagueness and confusion in the use of the term ‘psychologist’ in public discussion have been remarkably consistent over time; the term itself lacks legal protection in any case. The fact that the popularity of self-help books does not depend on whether their authors are psychologists or not indicates that even in the USA, where most of the world’s psychologists live and work, trained academics and professionals can hardly claim hegemony over psychological discourse in the public sphere to the degree that physical scientists can in their fields.

4. Conclusion

Given this situation, it might well be asked why such a shakily legitimated field has acquired such an important role in the twentieth-century. Roger Smith (1998) suggests that the discipline drew its authority from and simultaneously gave voice to a culture and society in which everyone ‘became her or his own psychologist’ (p. 577). Nikolas Rose (1996) argues that psychological practices make possible particular kinds of social authority, assembled at first ad hoc, then grafted onto all activities aimed at simplifying the administration of modern life by producing calculable individuals and manageable social relations, from law and penal administration to education and parenting. No single science or profession has monopolized the codification and certification of these activities.

The predominance of Behaviorism in the USA in the middle third of the twentieth century was an episode in a much larger story. However, it is a characteristic episode, for both the discourse of prediction and control and its associated practices have persisted, even as the so-called cognitive revolution reintroduced mentalistic vocabularies. One reason for this appears to be that not only the members of the discipline and profession called psychology, but the modern culture and society in which they function, require and may even desire both technocratic discourse and the instruments that embody and enact it.


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