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Emergence of Psychology as a Science

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Emergence of Psychology as a Science

Psychology is a relatively new discipline officially pioneered in the 1870s by Willhelm Wundt. It was originally a branch of philosophy that evolved into a fully-fledged science in its own right. This involved the hard work of many brilliant minds and has resulted in a field that contributes to varied human tasks: from taking care of our mental health to creating successful marketing. Let’s take a look at how this journey unfolded.

Emergence of Psychology As Science StudySmarter

Timeline of the emergence of psychology as a science, Tyler Smith - StudySmarter Originals.

Psychology in philosophy

Psychology began as a branch of philosophy. We can see the influence of philosophy on psychology in the way that modern psychologists often theorise about certain hypotheses before conducting an experiment. We can also see its roots in how some concepts considered true are mostly or completely based on theory as they cannot fully be scientifically studied (for example, the Multi-Store Model of memory).

The first psychologist

The first person to consider themselves a psychologist was Wilhelm Wundt, who opened the first psychology laboratory in 1879 in Leipzig and developed the first experimental technique to be considered scientific: introspection.

This, as you would expect, had a huge impact on the course of psychology. Wundt demonstrated what other philosophers before him couldn’t: that this confusing entity of ‘the mind’ could be studied scientifically. This was the catalyst for the emergence of psychology as a science, setting a precedent for many psychologists to follow in his footsteps. That is why Wundt is widely considered the father of psychology.

Wundt trained many students to become psychologists. Among them was Edward Titchener, the founder of an early approach known as Structuralism. Structuralist psychologists believed that the brain was made up of many parts, similar to the way that chemists break down chemicals into their smaller components. Titchener is just one example of the many psychologists directly influenced by Wundt’s work.

Scientific terms

In order to truly establish psychology as a science, it had to have scientific means of experimentation, and terms that could be standardised across the science.

TermDefinition
ScienceA systematic and objective approach to observing and experimenting on the physical and natural world.
EmpiricismA form of knowledge based on what we know and what we see on a tested experiment. There are no innate ideas.
InferenceAfter observations, we can make conclusions about the mind and about behaviours resulting from stimuli.
ObjectivityPreventing bias or personal feelings from influencing what we are studying and the results from those studies.
ControlResearch is conducted in conditions that reduce outside factors/outliers influencing the results.
ReplicableThe same results are found with repeated experiments (reliable and valid).
PredictableWe can make general laws about behaviours in specific situations.
Hypothesis testingPredictions are either demonstrably proven or disproven.

Early approaches: Behaviourism

One of the earliest approaches to psychology as a science was Behaviorism, which is still practised today. Behavioural psychologists believe that we can study behaviour objectively and scientifically and that all behaviour is acquired and maintained through conditioning.

Behaviourist psychologists didn’t agree with the scientific validity of introspection. Therefore, they studied human behaviour using the same techniques as other scientific disciplines.

In Behaviourism, there are two main types of conditioning: classical and operant.

Classical conditioning

First studied by Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov, classical conditioning is when an individual becomes conditioned to perform a certain behaviour when presented with stimuli that have been associated with that behaviour.

A child may cry when they see a dog because they were previously frightened by a dog’s bark. The child now associates dogs with the fear response of crying.

Pavlov discovered this conditioning when he was studying dogs' digestion. He noticed that when the dogs saw the white lab coats of the lab assistants they began to salivate, even when the assistants didn’t have food for them, because they had associated the assistants with their natural response to receiving food (salivating).

Ivan Pavlov Psychology Science StudySmarterIvan Pavlov, Wikimedia Commons.

Operant conditioning

Studied in the well-known experiments by BF Skinner, operant conditioning is the process in which an individual is conditioned to maintain or cease performing a behaviour by positive and negative reinforcement. Skinner found that animals such as rats and pigeons can be conditioned to perform certain behaviours such as pressing levers and pecking if they experience either a reward or punishment that encourages them to repeat the desired behaviour.

We can also observe this effect in humans.

For example, if a child cleans their room, their mother may reward them with sweets, which would encourage them to continue this desired behaviour. Similarly, if the mother punished the child by taking away a toy if they refused to do homework, this would also have the desired effect as it would make the child more likely to do their homework to avoid punishment.

Behaviourism’s influence on psychology as a science

Behaviourism took Wundt’s scientific approach to study psychology further. Behaviour is explicit and can be recorded and studied more objectively than thoughts, which meant that the Behaviourist focus on purely studying outward behavior was considered more scientific. This helped psychology to become more established as a science.

Social learning theory

After the behaviourist approach, which dominated the first half of the 1900s, Bandura introduced the concept of Social Learning Theory. Similar to behaviourism, Bandura believed our behaviour was a direct result of stimuli. However, he introduced the concept of mental processes and social interactions (observational learning) as also having a role in behaviours, which was dismissed in the behaviouralist approach as unscientific.

The first mental health ward

Since Wilhelm Wundt, psychology has had close links to the medical field. Prominent early psychologists such as Wundt and Pavlov were also doctors and physiologists. This also makes psychology more significant as a science, as its findings can be used in a medical setting to make big tangible differences in the lives of many people.

In the UK, a group of Quakers (a Christian denomination) led by William Tuke established the first human mental health treatment centre. This centre was called The York Retreat and focused on rehabilitation rather than medical treatment.

The first brain scans

In modern psychology, brain scans are one of the most objective and scientific methods we have to study the activity of our brains, which can have biological applications as well as psychological ones. However, it has taken centuries to develop and perfect this approach.

Human circulation balance

The first ever neuroimaging technique was created by Angelo Mosso in the 1880s. This was known as ‘human circulation balance’, and was a non-invasive technique that measured how blood distributes around the body when an individual experiences certain mental or emotional stimuli.

Pneumoencephalography

The next advancement in brain scanning technology was pneumoencephalography, a practice in which cerebrospinal fluid was drained from the brain and replaced with air to make areas of the brain appear more clearly on an X-ray. Although effective, this technique was highly unsafe for patients and is no longer practiced.

Cerebral angiography

In 1927, Nobel prize-winning professor Egas Moniz developed a technique of brain imaging that allowed researchers to see blood vessels in the brain with much higher accuracy than ever before, by injecting bromides into the bloodstream. It was eventually swapped to iodides, which proved successful in providing neuroimagery.

This technique allows psychologists to see if there are abnormalities in certain brain areas, which may be causing some psychological symptoms. This technique is mostly used by neurosurgeons and has been refined over the years to reduce any detrimental effects from the procedure.

Modern brain scans

In modern times we mostly use MRI, FMRI and CT scans for brain imaging. These are highly scientific as they are objective and highly accurate. These are good examples of how far the field of psychology has developed as a scientific discipline. Psychologists have gone from simply thinking about thoughts, to being able to produce high-quality imaging of brain areas in order to understand and treat some of the most complicated psychological disorders.

The use of brain scans shows us that as technology advances, psychology has accessed more scientific methods of research to produce more accurate and significant studies.


The emergence of psychology as a science - Key takeaways

  • Psychology began as a branch of philosophy.
  • The first psychological lab was first established at the University of Leipzig in 1879.
  • An early approach to psychology, behaviourism, contributed to psychology’s reputation as a science, as it focussed on studying explicit behaviour that was easier to study objectively and therefore less susceptible to bias.
  • Brain scans, first developed in the 1880s, have also developed rapidly into a highly scientific technique, showing that as technology has advanced, psychology has also become more scientific.

Frequently Asked Questions about Emergence of Psychology as a Science

Formerly a branch of philosophy, psychology emerged as a science due to the establishment of the first psychological laboratory, which led to the development of many more scientific approaches to psychology, such as behaviorism. With the assistance of rapidly developing technology, since 1879 psychology has been evolving to become the credible scientific discipline it is today.

Wilhelm Wundt opened the first psychological laboratory, studying the mind scientifically for the first time. He trained many students including the father of structuralism, Edward Titchener, which also had an effect on the field’s scientific advancement.

Psychology is considered scientific due to its controlled and standardised research methods, highly scientific technologies, and the peer-reviewed, replicable and valid research that it produces.

Wilhelm Wundt is widely considered the father of psychology, due to him opening the very first psychological laboratory and being the first person to consider himself a psychologist.

Final Emergence of Psychology as a Science Quiz

Question

What field did psychology emerge from?

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Answer

Philosophy

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Question

When did Wilhelm Wundt establish the first psychological laboratory?


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Answer

1879

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Question

Who discovered classical conditioning?


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Answer

 Ivan Pavlov


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Question

What is classical conditioning?


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Answer

Classical conditioning is when an individual becomes conditioned to perform a certain behaviour when presented with stimuli that have been associated with behaviour.

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Question

 What is operant conditioning?


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Answer

Operant conditioning is the process in which an individual is conditioned to maintain or cease performing a behaviour by positive and negative reinforcement.

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Question

How did behaviorism advance the field of psychology as a science?


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Answer

Behaviour is explicit and can be recorded and studied more objectively than thoughts.

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Question

Who created the ‘human circulation balance’ technique of brain imaging?


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Answer

Angelo Mosso

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Question

How have brain scans advanced the field of psychology?


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Answer

Because now psychologists can observe and study the brain more accurately.

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Question

In which model of memory can we still see the influences of philosophy on psychological theory?


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Answer

The multi store model of memory, as it is mostly based on hypothesis and theory rather than explicit data.


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Question

What did structuralist psychologists believe?


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Answer

Structuralist psychologists believed that the brain was made up of many parts, similar to the way that chemists break down chemicals into their smaller components.

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Question

Who developed structuralism?


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Answer

Ivan Pavlov

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Question

Who developed cerebral angriography?


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Answer

 Angelo Mosso

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Question

What are the modern brain scans that we use today?


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Answer

MRI, fMRI and CT scans.

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