Psychology is the scientific study of mental processes and behaviors of individuals. Modern psychology has undergone a transformation that brought curiosity about human mental and behavioral processes into a developed scientific field of study.
Wilhelm Wundt set up the first formal laboratory that was specifically devoted to the study of experimental psychology. Wundt wanted to understand the basic processes of sensation, perception, and the velocity of mental processes. He trained the first graduate students in the field of psychology.
For the first time in history psychology become established as a separate discipline and laboratories sprouted up in universities throughout North America. The first of these universities was Johns Hopkins University in 1883. Edward Titchener, the first American psychologist, founded Cornell University in 1883. William James wrote The Principles of Psychology, which turned out to be one of the most important texts in the field of psychology. In 1892 G. Stanley Hall founded American Psychological Association. By 1900 there were more than 40 psychological laboratories in North America. Throughout the development of the science of psychology a debate culminated about the “proper subject matter, and about what “methods” should be used for the new discipline. This debate was especially vigorous between structuralism and functionalism.
Finally psychology became a laboratory science. Wundt’s laboratory focused on using scientific method, precise measurements, and statistical analysis to generate results and answers. Titchener advocated that these methods also be used in the study of consciousness. This type of study is known as introspection. Introspection is the systematic examination by individuals of their own thoughts and feelings about specific sensory experiences. Followers of this philosophy, also known as structuralism, focused on the “what” instead of the “why” and “how”.
Max Wertheimer developed an opponent to structuralism called gestalts, which focused on the organized whole as opposed to the sums of simple parts. A second opponent to structuralism is known as functionalism. This perspective focuses on mind and behavior of an organism as it relates to the organisms’ interaction with its environment.
William James also studied the consciousness as a continual interaction with the environment. He was a firm believer that the acts of functions of mental processes were of significance, and not the contents of the mind. Functionalism stated that learned habits that allowed an organism to adapt and function effectively in an environment. It also focused its research on the question, “What is the function or purpose of any behavior act?” John Dewey founded the school of functionalism. The discovery of the practical uses of mental processes led to strategic advances in education. Dewey’s theories supported a progressive education that was applied to his laboratory schools and eventually the United States. While most functionalists followed Wundt’s cold rigorous lab methods, James believed in the application of emotion, self, will, values, religion, and mystical experiences.
Current psychological perspectives grew out of the original structural and functional theories. Seven of these perspectives are biological, psychodynamic, behaviorist, humanist, cognitive, evolutionary, and cultural perspectives.
The biological perspective proposes that behavior is caused by the function and operation of the organisms genes, brain, nervous system, and the endocrine system. The psychodynamic perspective models its causes of behavior based on past experiences and motivational forces. Sigmund Freud is perhaps the most recognized psychologist in this field. He provided a theory that based behavior and development on sexual motivation, and concluded that human nature is not always rational, and that some actions are driven by subconscious motivations. Behaviorists focus their study on observable behaviors. They created the ABC’s of behavior, antecedent, behavioral response, and consequence. This implies that in order to correct a problem behavior the “A” needs to be identified and corrected in order to change the “B” and “C”. The humanistic perspective focuses on an individual’s phenomenal world and inherent capacity for making rational choices and developing to maximum potential. The cognitive perspective emphasizes a human’s thought process and its ability for knowing. Evolutionary perspective mainly targets evolutionary developments in regards to behavioral and mental adaptiveness. Finally cultural perspective focuses on cultural differences in the causes and consequences of an organism’s behavior. (Gerrig & Zimbardo pp. 1-14)
Gerrig and Zimbardo. Psychology and Life. 16th edition. Boston. 2002.