Brief History Of Psychology Towards Understanding Behaviour

Like ever other modern science, psychology has passed through different evolutional stages in the process of establishing standard approaches toward understanding human behaviour. Whatever scientific principles we adopt today for the study of psychology as a science of behaviour, dates back to the days of Greek Philosphers such as Plato, Aristotle and Socrates. In the ancient Greek period, all sciences were studied within the context of philosophy, without any distinct fields, as we know today.

In fact, until the later part of the 19th century, psychology had remained a branch of philosophy and a part in that division of philosophy called “Metaphysic”, where it was called MENTAL PHILOSOPHY. But then, neither metaphysics nor mental philosophy could offer any solution to human psychological problems

The new era in phychology was stimulated by the discoveries made in other sciences such as physics and biology. Darwin’s theory of evolution, and the study of the functions of the human and animal nervous system in physiology which deals with such problems as sensation and perception, triggered off the application of scientific methods in psychology.

The Following Are Contents Of This Article

1. Laboratory And Scientific Approach To Psychology
2. Structuralism
3. Functionalism
4. Behaviourism
5. The Gestalt School Of Thought
6. Psychoanalytic Psychology
7. The Humanistic School Of Thought
8. Psychology Of Today

Laboratory And Scientific Approach To Psychology

Intospectionism) (Wilhelm Wundt, 1832-1920)

Psychology’s history as a science began in 1879, at Leipzig in Germany. In that year, at the Leipzig University, the man who became known as the “Father of Modern Psychology”, established the first psychology laboratory. Wundt wanted to explore the mind more directly than philosophers had done from their “armchairs”. He defined his new science of psychology as the study of conscious experience. He raised questions on how sensations, images and feelings are formed. To find answers to these, Wundt combined careful measurement with introspection, or “looking inward”. He called this approach EXPERIMENTAL SELF OBSERVATION (Blumenthal, 1979).

Experimental self-observation was highly developed technique. Wundt’s subjects were made to make at least, 10,000 practice observations before they were allowed to describe their sensations in real experiment (Lieberman, 1979).

Experimental self-observation was a highly developed techique. Wundt’s subjects were made to make at least, 10,000 practice observations before they were allowed to describe their sensations in real experiment (Lieberman, 1979).

Wundt’s laboratory was wonderfully equipped with gadget’s, timers, recorders and other instruments for presenting stimuli and for measuring and recording responses. His earliest experiments concerned sensation and perception, especially, vision, hearing, taste and touch. He also later became interested in reaction time, memory, time perception, feelings, and a host of other topics. He maintained that the best way to gain information was by Observation and measurable events (stimulus experience).

Wundt postulated that the subject matter of psychology was experience, and that psychology itself was a science based on experience. According to him, the appropriate method for the study of psychology must combine the following:

1. Physiological type of experimentation.

2. Self-observation of the experiencing subject.

3. And analysis of cultural product of human minds.

He further maintained that feelings could be divided into pleasant, tense or relaxed, excited or depressed. To Wundt, psychology should study consciousness or conscious experience, which he called the combined processes of sensation, volition and feeling. Thus, with all the above development, psychology was successfully separated from the speculations of philosophical metaphysics (“armchair psychology”) and was started off on a more scientific foundation.

But despite the historical efforts made by Wundt to give psychology a scientific base, neither his introspective approach nor the amount of empirical data avaliable could afford psychology a successful generalization for the understanding of behaviour at the stage.

Contributions Of Wilhelm Wundt To Psychology

1. Wundt established the first psychology laboratory, which laid the foundation for the scientific study of behaviour and successfully liberated psychology from philosophical speculations.

2. He analysed and explained such mental processes as sensation, perception, etc., and the role in behaviour of living organisms.

3. He also explained the part played by the nervous system and other sense organs in the development of sensation and the subsequent perception that follows.

4. By experiment, Wundt established the famus tri-dimension theory of feelings, which includes:

i. Pleasant and unpleasant
ii. Tense and relaxed and
iii. Excited, and depressed dimensions. Each dimension is the direct opposite of its pair and individuals manifest one of the six feelings in any mental condition.

5. Wundt also said about ideas and concepts as the outcome of direct perception, while perception is the combined form of feelings and memories.

According to him, ideas can be classified into the feelings:

a. Intensive ideas, which are related to those sounds and thoughts in which similarity and disssonance are found. Intensity in ideas is due to unity in their form.

b. Space ideas, which are those ideas connected with space and related to time.

c. Similarly, “Time ideas” are those, which are related to time.

Structuralism: E.B. Titchener (1867-1927)

It was Edward Bradford Titchener, who developed and systematized the scientific psychology established by Wundt. Tichener carried Wundt’s ideas to the Cornell University in the United States where he pioneered a psychological school of thought called structuralism, with his colleagues. Though he was Wundt’s pupil, Titchener and his co-structuralists dropped much of Wundt’s emphasis on measurement and used introspection very freely. The structuralists intended to develop a sort of “mental chemistry” by analyzing mental experiences into basic “elements” or “building blocks”.

According to Tichener, psychology is experience dependent on the experiencing person, in contradiction to other sciences, which are independent of the experiencing person. To hime, psychology is introspection or self-observation, which deals with the mind as the sum total of the mental experiences taking place in the lifetime of the individual and the mental activities associated with such experiences. He further maintained that the primary aim of experimental psychology was to analyse the structure of the mind so as to unravel the elemental processes from the tangle of consciousness. He believed that the understanding of the structure of the mind would make the understanding of its function better.

“Looking inward” or introspection, which the structuralists have chosen as their approach for understanding behaviour, still remains part of modern psychology. The study of hypnosis, mediation, drug effects, and such other topics, would not be properly understood without introspective reports by the experiencing person or subject.

Functionalism- John Dewey (1859-1952)

American Psychologists, John Dewey and Williams James pioneered the school of thought known as functionalism. While they agreed with wundt and the structuralists that psychologists should study the mind, James and Dewet broadened the scope of psychology to include animal behaviour, religious experience, abnormal behaviour and lots of other interesting topics.

The term functionalism came from James interest in how the mind functions. To him, consciousness was an ever changing stream or flow of images and sensations, and not a collection of lifeless building blocks, as the structuralists believed. Dewey and his colleagues used a range of methods, including introspection and experimentation in their study of mental life. The functionalists preferred ideas to laboratory work, and they highly valued practical information.

The functionalists were strongly influenced by Charles Darwins theory of evolution of the organisms through natural selection in the direction that favoured their survival.

The Contributions Of Functionalism To Modern Psychology

Functionalism brought about the study of animals into psychology by linking human and animal adaptation. It also encouraged the development of educational psychology. On the basis of the ideas of the functionalists, educational psychologists develop tests and researches on classroom dynamics, teaching and learning.

The functionalists also spurred the development of industrial psychology, as a specialty involving the study and improvement of work environment. All this, one may say, is a creditable contribution by the functionalists.

Behaviourism: Stimulus-Response Approach To Psychology (John B. Watson, 1878-1958)

Functionalism was later challenged by a new psychological school of thought known as “behaviourism, which was pioneered and championed by John B. Watson. Watson and his co-behaviourists objected to the definition of psychology as the study of the mind” or “conscious experience”.

The behaviouristic view in psychology was greatly influenced by the outcome of the experimental studies of the Russian Physiologist, Ivan Pavlov, on the phenomenon of conditioned reflex. The application and popularization of the conditioned reflex approach in psychology, which brought about the behaviouristic school of thought, is credited to three notable and distinguished American Psychologists; John B. Watson (1878-1958), Edward L. Thorndike (1874-1949) and B.F. Skinner (1904-1990).

Learning provides the central theme of the behaviouristic psychologists. Thus, they try to focus on the influence and effects of environmental conditions (stimuli) on the acquisition, modification and existinction or elimination of given habits and behaviour patterns, both adaptive and maladaptive response patterns of living organisms.

According to the learning on the basis of which behaviour patterns are formed follow the principles of:

1. Respondent (classical) and Operant Conditioning: The former being a process whereby a neutral stimulus and a natural one are continuosly paired up in such a way that the neutral stimulus starts evoking a similar response to that of the neutral one. While Operant conditioning is the use of reinforcement (reward or punishment) to control behaviour from outside the organism.

2. Reinforcement; which is the strengthening of a new response or behaviour pattern by repeatedly associating it with reward or punishment (reinforcement).

3. Generalization and discrimination: This means the tendency for a particular learned behaviour pattern (conditioned response) to one stimulus to become associated with other similar stimuli and making a distinction between similar stimuli and giving the correct or appropriate response to each.

4. Modeling, shaping and learned drives: By this principle, the behaviourists are of the view that behaviour patterns or responses are established and modified through demonstration of the required response patterns by parents or other role models, and the systematic reinforcement (reward) of the appropriate steps made by the learner (subject) toward imitating the required behaviour patterns.

The behaviourists’ view about motivation is that the various motives of everyday life of a living organism come through the process of learning in the bid to meet or satisfy the basic primary drives like hunger, thirst, relaxation, etc.

According to the behaviourists therefore, such subjective experiences and expressions as introspection, consciousness, sensation, etc; could not provide scientific information for the study of behaviour. Only the study of directly observable behaviours and the environmental conditions that ead to them could be used to formulate reliable scientific principles for understanding human behaviour.

The behaviouristic approach is responsible for much of what we know today about learning, memory, conditioning and the effective use of reward and punishment in effecting a change in behaviour. A very direct descendant of behaviouristic thought is the type of psychotherapy known as “BEHAVIOUR MODIFICATION”, in which psychological principles like conditioning, are used to treat problems such as over eating, phobia and childhood misbehaviour.

The Gestalt School Of Thought

The German word “gestalt”, (Gehstalt) means pattern or whole. This psychological school of thought came as an opposition to some of the ideas held by the other schools of though -Structuralism, functionalism and behaviourism. The person associated with the Gestalt school of thought was a German psychologist, Max Wertheimer (1880-1943).

He and his co-gestaltists were opposed to analyzing behaviour and other psychological events into small pieces such as “elementary sensation” or stimuli and responses. They prefer to study psychological experiences as a whole or as a complete unit, as they occur. Their slogan was, “the whole exceeds the sum of its parts”. Other notable Gestaltists are Wolfgag, Kohler (1887-1967) and (Kurt Koffka (1886-1941).

The contributions of the Gestaltists have had some considerable influence in psychology, especially in the area of perception. Many personality theorists consider it important to study and understand human personality as a whole, instead of studying the person’s thinking, emotions, intelligence, learning or motivations, in isolation.

Psychoanalytic Psychology (Sigmund Freud, 1856-1941)

As the study of psychology was becoming more and more objective, scientific and experimental in approach, another school of thought, based on clinical insight, emerged in Austria. While attending to some patients in Vienna, An Austrian physician, Sigmund Freud, developed a theory of personality, which was quite distinct from the laboratory-based theories of his predecessors and contemporaries.

Freud believed that human mental life was like an iceberg of which only about 10% part of it is exposed to view. According to him, there was a vast area of unconscious thoughts, impulses and desires, which continue to influence our behaviours and also help in shaping our personality. Freud concluded that such unconscious thoughts and experiences are often of sexual or aggressive nature. But since thet are libidinal instincts (raw, pleasure-seeking instincts), which do not conform to social realities and approved principles of life, they are denied expression, and therefore repressed to the unconscious.

Freud maintained that such repressed urges and raw instinctual desires find expressions and outlet through dreams, conflicts and slips of the tonque. He opined that abnormal behaviours and other forms of mal-adjustment are traceable to such repressed desires and experiences, and that they are responsible for those creative nature of man such as music, art, etc., through sublimation and compensation.

Another notable idea of Freud was that all thoughts, emotions, and actions, are pre-determined (nothing is an accident). His emphasis on the importance of childhood experience in later personality developement (“the child is father to the man”), and his method of psychotherapy, known as psychoanalysis, are all important contributions which have had great impacts on psychological thoughts and practice.

Freud also said that personality is composed of the Id, the Ego and Super Ego. The Id is the original system of personality and the source of energy for the other two systems. It is guided by pleasure principles. The Ego is primarily conscious and operates according to reality principles. The Super Ego refers to our moral values and the societal ideals and consciousness of what is good and just. It is commonly referred to as the individual’s conscience.

Another idea of Freud is the psychosexual development principle. According to him, personality development follows five successful stages, each of them characterized by a dominant mode of achieving libidinal (sexual) pleasure. These stages include:

1. Oral stage: This is the first two years of life in which the mouth serves as the principal erogenous source of seeking libidinal pleasure through sucking.

2. Anal stage: According to Freu, from age 2 to 3, the membranes of the anal region provide the main source of pleasurable stimulation.

3. Phallic stage: This starts from age 3 to 6, when self-manipulation or fiddling with the genitals provide the major source of deriving libidinal sensation and satisfaction.

4. Latency stage: This starts from age 6 to 12 years, and the individual attaches more importance to acquisition of skills and other developmental activities instead of seeking sexual pleasure.

5. Genital stage: This is the stage after puberty or adolescence. It is characterized by deepest feelings of seeking libidinal pleasure by heterosexual relations, i.e. relationship with the opposite sex.

According to Sigmund Freud, balanced personality development of the individual depends on how each of the above stages was satisfied.

The Main Contributions Of Sigmund Freud Include The Following;

1. The development of psychoanalytic technique. This technique which involved free association and dream analysis, enables psychologists become acquainted with both conscious and unconscious aspects of the mental life of the individual. The data obtained through free association and dream analysis led to the establishment of the following:

a. The dynamic role of unconscious motives and ego defence processes.
b. The importance of sexual factors in human behaviour and mental disorders.

2. Freud also demonstrated that certain abnormal mental phenomena such as the repression of traumatic experiences and irrational fears occurred as a result of attempts to cope with difficult problems and situations of life and were simply exaggerations of normal ego defence mechanisms. This led to the dispelling of much of the mystery and fear associated with mental disorder and helping of the mental patients to regain their human dignity.


The psychoanalytic model of psychology has been criticized on the following grounds:

1. Over emphasis on the sex drive.

2. Its pessimism and negative view about basic human nature.

3. The critics of the psychoanalytic school of thought said that there was an undue exaggeration of the role of the unconscious processes in determining human behaviours and personality.

4. The humanistic psychologists particularly criticized the psychoanalytic view for failing to recognize the human motives toward personal growth and fulfillment.

5. The psychoanalysts were said to have neglected the cultural differences in shaping behaviour.

6. Moreover, they lacked scientific evidence to support many of their assumptions about human nature, and that Stigmund Freud based on his findings on abnormal patients he was treating in his clinic. This made his conclusion about human nature faulty.

However, these criticisms not withstanding, the contributions of psychoanalytic psychologists are fundamental to our understanding of nature and personality development.

Although Sigmund Freud’s influence has faded in recent times, his ideas and contributions are still manifest in modern psychological thoughts and practices. For example, some types of psychotherapy continue to emphasis psychodynamics (the internal changes of personality) much as Freud himself did. Even some of his critics have modified his ideas and type of psychotherapy to suit their own view and practice. Some of them have even unwittingly become neo-Freudian, both in theory and practice.

The Humanistic School Of Thought

A later development in the study of psychology is the school of thought known as “HUMANISM”, which is sometimes referred to as the third force in psychology, (Psychoanalytic psychology and behaviourism being the other two forces).

Though the root of the humanistic ideas can be traced to the influence of the outstanding contributions of such renowned psychologists as William James, Gordon Allport, and even back to the history of psychology and philosophy, as an importanct “third force” in contemporary psychology, this school of thought emerged between 1950s and 1960s to challenge what was considered as the over simplication of the human nature by the behaviouristic model and the pessimistic picture of human nature portrayed by the psychoanalytic model.

As a new approach of understanding human nature in the middle of the last century, the humanistic school of thought was pioneered and popularized by those in the medical profession, particularly, Carl Rogers and Abraham Maslow, who disagreed with the view of their professional colleague, Sigmund Freud, the pioneer and Champion of the psychoanalytic school of thought.

The humanistic psychologists are noted for their positive view about human nature and their ideas about the inner resources or potentialities of human beings, which crave for development and fulfilments (self-actualization). Thus, the fundamental principles which the humanists hold in common can be summarized as follows:

1. Self as a unifying theme: The concept of self-consciousness featured in the early writings of William James. It is also analogous to the psychoanalytic concept of the “ego”. However, the humanistic viewpoint extends the self-concept to include the individual’s sense of identity and relation to the world and tendencies toward self-evaluation and self-fulfillment.

Based on his pioneering research into the nature of the psychotherapeutic process, Carl Rogers developed a very systematic formulation of the self-concept among his contemporaries. On the basis of series of propositions expressing such systematic views, the humanistic psychologists used the self-concept as a unifying theme to emphasize the importance of individuality. Under normal circumstance, according to the humanistic psychologists, the individual behaves in rational and constructive and creative ways, which lead toward personal growth and self-actualization.

On the other hand, under perceived threat to the self, the individual resorts to such defence measure as narrowing and rigidification of perception and behaviour and other self-defence mechanisms.

2. Positive view of Human Nature: Unlike the psycholoanalytic psychologists, particularly, Stigmund Freud, who had negative view of human nature, the humanistic model had a much more positive view of human nature and individual’s potentials. The humanistic psychologists view such negative personalisty traits as “selfishness, aggression, cruelty, etc., as pathological behaviours resulting from the denial, frustration or distortion of human basic nature.

In opposition to the views of the behaviourists, the humanistic psychologists posited that human beings are not passive automatums that just need to be solely motivated by the environment, but active participants in life with some measure of freedom for shaping both their personal destiny and that of their social group. As Maslow (1963) put it, it is essential that we develop a “good society” as well as a good person”, because the actualization of human potentialities on mass basis is possible only under favourable social conditions.

One of the most outstanding contributions of the humanistic approach to psychology is Abraham Maslow’s identification of the human need for self-actualization. Self-actualizatin is the need to develop one’s potential fully, to lead a rich and fulfilled life, and to become the best person one can afford to become if given the right opportunity. According to the humanists, every one is naturally endowed with these potentials and it is the responsibility of the human society and any system, to help the individuals within them to realize and fulfill their respective potentials.

Psychology Of Today

There had been an explosive growth of different approaches to psychology in recent past. Prominent among such approaches that warrant mentioning is cognitive psychology; which studies such internal processes as thinking, consciousness, language, problem-solving, creativity and other such convert processes that were neglected for many years after the rise of behaviourism as a school of thought is psychology.

Today, however, most of the traditional schools of thought in psychology, have given way to a blend if ideas. Although specific schools still exist in psychology, many psychologists today can be described as “ECLECTIC” (drawing from many sources) in their approach. Even pure behaviourism has evolved into cognitive behaviourism for many psychologists.

The most accepted and preferred principles in psychology today are those that have withstood the harsh test of time and empirical analysis and observations. Thus, science and intuition, creativity and insight, personal experience and observations, have all found their place in modern psychology, but in more scientific and objective approach than before.

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