Wilhelm Wundt founds the first formal laboratory of psychology at the University of Leipzig, Germany. / Wikimedia Commons
The historical development of the science and practice of psychology in America.
By Dr. David B. Baker and Heather Sperry
Baker: Professor of Psychology, Margaret Clark Morgan Executive Director of the Center for the History of Psychology
Sperry: Graduate Student in Counseling Psychology
University of Akron
It is always a difficult question to ask, where to begin to tell the story of the history of psychology. Some would start with ancient Greece; others would look to a demarcation in the late 19th century when the science of psychology was formally proposed and instituted. These two perspectives, and all that is in between, are appropriate for describing a history of psychology. The interested student will have no trouble finding an abundance of resources on all of these time frames and perspectives (Goodwin, 2011; Leahey, 2012; Schultz & Schultz, 2007). For the purposes of this module, we will examine the development of psychology in America and use the mid-19th century as our starting point. For the sake of convenience, we refer to this as a history of modern psychology.
The earliest records of a psychological experiment go all the way back to the Pharaoh Psamtik I of Egypt in the 7th Century B.C. / Public Domain
Psychology is an exciting field and the history of psychology offers the opportunity to make sense of how it has grown and developed. The history of psychology also provides perspective. Rather than a dry collection of names and dates, the history of psychology tells us about the important intersection of time and place that defines who we are. Consider what happens when you meet someone for the first time. The conversation usually begins with a series of questions such as, “Where did you grow up?” “How long have you lived here?” “Where did you go to school?” The importance of history in defining who we are cannot be understated. Whether you are seeing a physician, talking with a counselor, or applying for a job, everything begins with a history. The same is true for studying the history of psychology; getting a history of the field helps to make sense of where we are and how we got here.
A Prehistory of Psychology
Precursors to American psychology can be found in philosophy and physiology. Philosophers such as John Locke (1632–1704) and Thomas Reid (1710–1796) promoted empiricism, the idea that all knowledge comes from experience. The work of Locke, Reid, and others emphasized the role of the human observer and the primacy of the senses in defining how the mind comes to acquire knowledge. In American colleges and universities in the early 1800s, these principles were taught as courses on mental and moral philosophy. Most often these courses taught about the mind based on the faculties of intellect, will, and the senses (Fuchs, 2000).
Physiology and Psychophysics
Philosophical questions about the nature of mind and knowledge were matched in the 19th century by physiological investigations of the sensory systems of the human observer. German physiologist Hermann von Helmholtz (1821–1894) measured the speed of the neural impulse and explored the physiology of hearing and vision. His work indicated that our senses can deceive us and are not a mirror of the external world. Such work showed that even though the human senses were fallible, the mind could be measured using the methods of science. In all, it suggested that a science of psychology was feasible.
An important implication of Helmholtz’s work was that there is a psychological reality and a physical reality and that the two are not identical. This was not a new idea; philosophers like John Locke had written extensively on the topic, and in the 19th century, philosophical speculation about the nature of mind became subject to the rigors of science.
The question of the relationship between the mental (experiences of the senses) and the material (external reality) was investigated by a number of German researchers including Ernst Weber and Gustav Fechner. Their work was called psychophysics, and it introduced methods for measuring the relationship between physical stimuli and human perception that would serve as the basis for the new science of psychology (Fancher & Rutherford, 2011).
Wilhelm Wundt is considered one of the founding figures of modern psychology. / Public Domain
The formal development of modern psychology is usually credited to the work of German physician, physiologist, and philosopher Wilhelm Wundt (1832–1920). Wundt helped to establish the field of experimental psychology by serving as a strong promoter of the idea that psychology could be an experimental field and by providing classes, textbooks, and a laboratory for training students. In 1875, he joined the faculty at the University of Leipzig and quickly began to make plans for the creation of a program of experimental psychology. In 1879, he complemented his lectures on experimental psychology with a laboratory experience: an event that has served as the popular date for the establishment of the science of psychology.
The response to the new science was immediate and global. Wundt attracted students from around the world to study the new experimental psychology and work in his lab. Students were trained to offer detailed self-reports of their reactions to various stimuli, a procedure known as introspection. The goal was to identify the elements of consciousness. In addition to the study of sensation and perception, research was done on mental chronometry, more commonly known as reaction time. The work of Wundt and his students demonstrated that the mind could be measured and the nature of consciousness could be revealed through scientific means. It was an exciting proposition, and one that found great interest in America. After the opening of Wundt’s lab in 1879, it took just four years for the first psychology laboratory to open in the United States (Benjamin, 2007).
Scientific Psychology Comes to the United States
Wundt’s version of psychology arrived in America most visibly through the work of Edward Bradford Titchener (1867–1927). A student of Wundt’s, Titchener brought to America a brand of experimental psychology referred to as “structuralism.” Structuralists were interested in the contents of the mind—what the mind is. For Titchener, the general adult mind was the proper focus for the new psychology, and he excluded from study those with mental deficiencies, children, and animals (Evans, 1972; Titchener, 1909).
Experimental psychology spread rather rapidly throughout North America. By 1900, there were more than 40 laboratories in the United States and Canada (Benjamin, 2000). Psychology in America also organized early with the establishment of the American Psychological Association (APA) in 1892. Titchener felt that this new organization did not adequately represent the interests of experimental psychology, so, in 1904, he organized a group of colleagues to create what is now known as the Society of Experimental Psychologists (Goodwin, 1985). The group met annually to discuss research in experimental psychology. Reflecting the times, women researchers were not invited (or welcome). It is interesting to note that Titchener’s first doctoral student was a woman, Margaret Floy Washburn (1871–1939). Despite many barriers, in 1894, Washburn became the first woman in America to earn a Ph.D. in psychology and, in 1921, only the second woman to be elected president of the American Psychological Association (Scarborough & Furumoto, 1987).
Striking a balance between the science and practice of psychology continues to this day. In 1988, the American Psychological Society (now known as the Association for Psychological Science) was founded with the central mission of advancing psychological science.
Toward a Functional Psychology
William James was one of the leading figures in a new perspective on psychology called functionalism. / Public Domain
While Titchener and his followers adhered to a structural psychology, others in America were pursuing different approaches. William James, G. Stanley Hall, and James McKeen Cattell were among a group that became identified with “functionalism.” Influenced by Darwin’s evolutionary theory, functionalists were interested in the activities of the mind—what the mind does. An interest in functionalism opened the way for the study of a wide range of approaches, including animal and comparative psychology (Benjamin, 2007).
William James (1842–1910) is regarded as writing perhaps the most influential and important book in the field of psychology, Principles of Psychology,published in 1890. Opposed to the reductionist ideas of Titchener, James proposed that consciousness is ongoing and continuous; it cannot be isolated and reduced to elements. For James, consciousness helped us adapt to our environment in such ways as allowing us to make choices and have personal responsibility over those choices.
At Harvard, James occupied a position of authority and respect in psychology and philosophy. Through his teaching and writing, he influenced psychology for generations. One of his students, Mary Whiton Calkins (1863–1930), faced many of the challenges that confronted Margaret Floy Washburn and other women interested in pursuing graduate education in psychology. With much persistence, Calkins was able to study with James at Harvard. She eventually completed all the requirements for the doctoral degree, but Harvard refused to grant her a diploma because she was a woman. Despite these challenges, Calkins went on to become an accomplished researcher and the first woman elected president of the American Psychological Association in 1905 (Scarborough & Furumoto, 1987).
G. Stanley Hall (1844–1924) made substantial and lasting contributions to the establishment of psychology in the United States. At Johns Hopkins University, he founded the first psychological laboratory in America in 1883. In 1887, he created the first journal of psychology in America, American Journal of Psychology. In 1892, he founded the American Psychological Association (APA); in 1909, he invited and hosted Freud at Clark University (the only time Freud visited America). Influenced by evolutionary theory, Hall was interested in the process of adaptation and human development. Using surveys and questionnaires to study children, Hall wrote extensively on child development and education. While graduate education in psychology was restricted for women in Hall’s time, it was all but non-existent for African Americans. In another first, Hall mentored Francis Cecil Sumner (1895–1954) who, in 1920, became the first African American to earn a Ph.D. in psychology in America (Guthrie, 2003).
James McKeen Cattell (1860–1944) received his Ph.D. with Wundt but quickly turned his interests to the assessment of individual differences. Influenced by the work of Darwin’s cousin, Frances Galton, Cattell believed that mental abilities such as intelligence were inherited and could be measured using mental tests. Like Galton, he believed society was better served by identifying those with superior intelligence and supported efforts to encourage them to reproduce. Such beliefs were associated with eugenics (the promotion of selective breeding) and fueled early debates about the contributions of heredity and environment in defining who we are. At Columbia University, Cattell developed a department of psychology that became world famous also promoting psychological science through advocacy and as a publisher of scientific journals and reference works (Fancher, 1987; Sokal, 1980).
The Growth of Psychology
Throughout the first half of the 20th century, psychology continued to grow and flourish in America. It was large enough to accommodate varying points of view on the nature of mind and behavior. Gestalt psychology is a good example. The Gestalt movement began in Germany with the work of Max Wertheimer (1880–1943). Opposed to the reductionist approach of Wundt’s laboratory psychology, Wertheimer and his colleagues Kurt Koffka (1886–1941), Wolfgang Kohler (1887–1967), and Kurt Lewin (1890–1947) believed that studying the whole of any experience was richer than studying individual aspects of that experience. The saying “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts” is a Gestalt perspective. Consider that a melody is an additional element beyond the collection of notes that comprise it. The Gestalt psychologists proposed that the mind often processes information simultaneously rather than sequentially. For instance, when you look at a photograph, you see a whole image, not just a collection of pixels of color. Using Gestalt principles, Wertheimer and his colleagues also explored the nature of learning and thinking. Most of the German Gestalt psychologists were Jewish and were forced to flee the Nazi regime due to the threats posed on both academic and personal freedoms. In America, they were able to introduce a new audience to the Gestalt perspective, demonstrating how it could be applied to perception and learning (Wertheimer, 1938). In many ways, the work of the Gestalt psychologists served as a precursor to the rise of cognitive psychology in America (Benjamin, 2007).
Behaviorism emerged early in the 20th century and became a major force in American psychology. Championed by psychologists such as John B. Watson (1878–1958) and B. F. Skinner (1904–1990), behaviorism rejected any reference to mind and viewed overt and observable behavior as the proper subject matter of psychology. Through the scientific study of behavior, it was hoped that laws of learning could be derived that would promote the prediction and control of behavior. Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov (1849–1936) influenced early behaviorism in America. His work on conditioned learning, popularly referred to as classical conditioning, provided support for the notion that learning and behavior were controlled by events in the environment and could be explained with no reference to mind or consciousness (Fancher, 1987).
For decades, behaviorism dominated American psychology. By the 1960s, psychologists began to recognize that behaviorism was unable to fully explain human behavior because it neglected mental processes. The turn toward a cognitive psychology was not new. In the 1930s, British psychologist Frederic C. Bartlett (1886–1969) explored the idea of the constructive mind, recognizing that people use their past experiences to construct frameworks in which to understand new experiences. Some of the major pioneers in American cognitive psychology include Jerome Bruner (1915–), Roger Brown (1925–1997), and George Miller (1920–2012). In the 1950s, Bruner conducted pioneering studies on cognitive aspects of sensation and perception. Brown conducted original research on language and memory, coined the term “flashbulb memory,” and figured out how to study the tip-of-the-tongue phenomenon (Benjamin, 2007). Miller’s research on working memory is legendary. His 1956 paper “The Magic Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on Our Capacity for Processing Information”is one of the most highly cited papers in psychology. A popular interpretation of Miller’s research was that the number of bits of information an average human can hold in working memory is 7 ± 2. Around the same time, the study of computer science was growing and was used as an analogy to explore and understand how the mind works. The work of Miller and others in the 1950s and 1960s has inspired tremendous interest in cognition and neuroscience, both of which dominate much of contemporary American psychology.
Applied Psychology in America
In America, there has always been an interest in the application of psychology to everyday life. Mental testing is an important example. Modern intelligence tests were developed by the French psychologist Alfred Binet (1857–1911). His goal was to develop a test that would identify schoolchildren in need of educational support. His test, which included tasks of reasoning and problem solving, was introduced in the United States by Henry Goddard (1866–1957) and later standardized by Lewis Terman (1877–1956) at Stanford University. The assessment and meaning of intelligence has fueled debates in American psychology and society for nearly 100 years. Much of this is captured in the nature-nurture debate that raises questions about the relative contributions of heredity and environment in determining intelligence (Fancher, 1987).
Applied psychology was not limited to mental testing. What psychologists were learning in their laboratories was applied in many settings including the military, business, industry, and education. The early 20th century was witness to rapid advances in applied psychology. Hugo Munsterberg (1863–1916) of Harvard University made contributions to such areas as employee selection, eyewitness testimony, and psychotherapy. Walter D. Scott (1869–1955) and Harry Hollingworth (1880–1956) produced original work on the psychology of advertising and marketing. Lillian Gilbreth (1878–1972) was a pioneer in industrial psychology and engineering psychology. Working with her husband, Frank, they promoted the use of time and motion studies to improve efficiency in industry. Lillian also brought the efficiency movement to the home, designing kitchens and appliances including the pop-up trashcan and refrigerator door shelving. Their psychology of efficiency also found plenty of applications at home with their 12 children. The experience served as the inspiration for the movie Cheaper by the Dozen (Benjamin, 2007).
Clinical psychology was also an early application of experimental psychology in America. Lightner Witmer (1867–1956) received his Ph.D. in experimental psychology with Wilhelm Wundt and returned to the University of Pennsylvania, where he opened a psychological clinic in 1896. Witmer believed that because psychology dealt with the study of sensation and perception, it should be of value in treating children with learning and behavioral problems. He is credited as the founder of both clinical and school psychology (Benjamin & Baker, 2004).
Psychology as a Profession
Although this is what most people see in their mind’s eye when asked to envision a “psychologist” the APA recognizes as many as 58 different divisions of psychology. / Photo by Bliusa, Creative Commons
As the roles of psychologists and the needs of the public continued to change, it was necessary for psychology to begin to define itself as a profession. Without standards for training and practice, anyone could use the title psychologist and offer services to the public. As early as 1917, applied psychologists organized to create standards for education, training, and licensure. By the 1930s, these efforts led to the creation of the American Association for Applied Psychology (AAAP). While the American Psychological Association (APA) represented the interests of academic psychologists, AAAP served those in education, industry, consulting, and clinical work.
The advent of WWII changed everything. The psychiatric casualties of war were staggering, and there were simply not enough mental health professionals to meet the need. Recognizing the shortage, the federal government urged the AAAP and APA to work together to meet the mental health needs of the nation. The result was the merging of the AAAP and the APA and a focus on the training of professional psychologists. Through the provisions of National Mental Health Act of 1946, funding was made available that allowed the APA, the Veterans Administration, and the Public Health Service to work together to develop training programs that would produce clinical psychologists. These efforts led to the convening of the Boulder Conference on Graduate Education in Clinical Psychology in 1949 in Boulder, Colorado. The meeting launched doctoral training in psychology and gave us the scientist-practitioner model of training. Similar meetings also helped launch doctoral training programs in counseling and school psychology. Throughout the second half of the 20th century, alternatives to Boulder have been debated. In 1973, the Vail Conference on Professional Training in Psychology proposed the scholar-practitioner model and the Psy.D. degree (Doctor of Psychology). It is a training model that emphasizes clinical training and practice that has become more common (Cautin & Baker, in press).
Psychology and Society
Given that psychology deals with the human condition, it is not surprising that psychologists would involve themselves in social issues. For more than a century, psychology and psychologists have been agents of social action and change. Using the methods and tools of science, psychologists have challenged assumptions, stereotypes, and stigma. Founded in 1936, the Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues (SPSSI) has supported research and action on a wide range of social issues. Individually, there have been many psychologists whose efforts have promoted social change. Helen Thompson Woolley (1874–1947) and Leta S. Hollingworth (1886–1939) were pioneers in research on the psychology of sex differences. Working in the early 20th century, when women’s rights were marginalized, Thompson examined the assumption that women were overemotional compared to men and found that emotion did not influence women’s decisions any more than it did men’s. Hollingworth found that menstruation did not negatively impact women’s cognitive or motor abilities. Such work combatted harmful stereotypes and showed that psychological research could contribute to social change (Scarborough & Furumoto, 1987).
Mamie Phipps Clark and Kenneth Clark studied the negative impacts of segregated education on African-American children. / Penn State Special Collection, Creative Commons
Among the first generation of African American psychologists, Mamie Phipps Clark (1917–1983) and her husband Kenneth Clark (1914–2005) studied the psychology of race and demonstrated the ways in which school segregation negatively impacted the self-esteem of African American children. Their research was influential in the 1954 Supreme Court ruling in the case of Brown v. Board of Education,which ended school segregation (Guthrie, 2003). In psychology, greater advocacy for issues impacting the African American community were advanced by the creation of the Association of Black Psychologists (ABPsi) in 1968.
In 1957, psychologist Evelyn Hooker (1907–1996) published the paper “The Adjustment of the Male Overt Homosexual,” reporting on her research that showed no significant differences in psychological adjustment between homosexual and heterosexual men. Her research helped to de-pathologize homosexuality and contributed to the decision by the American Psychiatric Association to remove homosexuality from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders in 1973 (Garnets & Kimmel, 2003).
Growth and expansion have been a constant in American psychology. In the latter part of the 20th century, areas such as social, developmental, and personality psychology made major contributions to our understanding of what it means to be human. Today neuroscience is enjoying tremendous interest and growth.
As mentioned at the beginning of the module, it is a challenge to cover all the history of psychology in such a short space. Errors of omission and commission are likely in such a selective review. The history of psychology helps to set a stage upon which the story of psychology can be told. This brief summary provides some glimpse into the depth and rich content offered by the history of psychology. The learning modules in the Noba psychology collection are all elaborations on the foundation created by our shared past. It is hoped that you will be able to see these connections and have a greater understanding and appreciation for both the unity and diversity of the field of psychology.
- Benjamin, L. T. (2007). A brief history of modern psychology. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing.
- Benjamin, L. T. (2000). The psychology laboratory at the turn of the 20th century. American Psychologist, 55, 318–321.
- Benjamin, L. T., & Baker, D. B. (2004). From séance to science: A history of the profession of psychology in America. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth/Thomson Learning.
- Cautin, R., & Baker, D. B. (in press). A history of education and training in professional psychology. In B. Johnson & N. Kaslow (Eds.), Oxford handbook of education and training in professional psychology. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
- Evans, R. B. (1972). E. B. Titchener and his lost system. Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences, 8, 168–180.
- Fancher, R. E. (1987). The intelligence men: Makers of the IQ controversy. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company.
- Fancher, R. E., & Rutherford, A. (2011). Pioneers of psychology: A history (4th ed.). New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company.
- Fuchs, A. H. (2000). Contributions of American mental philosophers to psychology in the United States. History of Psychology, 3, 3–19.
- Garnets, L., & Kimmel, D. C. (2003). What a light it shed: The life of Evelyn Hooker. In L. Garnets & D. C. Kimmel (Eds.), Psychological perspectives on gay, lesbian, and bisexual experiences (2nd ed., pp. 31–49). New York, NY: Columbia University Press.
- Goodwin, C. J. (2011). A history of modern psychology (4th ed.). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.
- Goodwin, C. J. (1985). On the origins of Titchener’s experimentalists. Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences, 21, 383–389.
- Guthrie, R. V. (2003). Even the rat was white: A historical view of psychology (2nd ed.). Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon.
- Leahey, T. H. (2012). A history of psychology: From antiquity to modernity (7th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education.
- Scarborough, E. & Furumoto, L. (1987). The untold lives: The first generation of American women psychologists. New York, NY: Columbia University Press.
- Shultz, D. P., & Schultz, S. E. (2007). A history of modern psychology (9th ed.). Stanford, CT: Cengage Learning.
- Sokal, M. M. (1980). Science and James McKeen Cattell. Science, 209, 43–52.
- Titchener, E. B. (1909). A text-book of psychology. New York, NY: Macmillan.
- Wertheimer, M. (1938). Gestalt theory. In W. D. Ellis (Ed.), A source book of Gestalt psychology (1-11). New York, NY: Harcourt.
Originally published by NOBA (Diener Education Fund) under the terms of a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International license.