Origins of psychology

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  • Created on: 21-05-20 23:45

Wundt and Introspection

The emergence of Psychology as a distinct area of study occurred at the time when Wilhelm Wundt opened the Institute for Experimental Psychology at the University of Leipzig in Germany in 1879. This was the first experimental laboratory dedicated to Psychology. Wundt was the first person to call himself a psychologist, studying only those aspects of behaviour that could be strictly controlled under experimental conditions

Wundt's aim was to record thoughts and sensations and analyse their component parts. Wundt argued that conscious mental states could be scientifically studied using introspection. Introspection, from the Latin meaning ‘looking into’, was a form of experimental self-observation which involved training people to analyse the content of their own private thoughts during controlled conditions, such as presenting all participants with the same stimulus.

Wundt introduced the scientific method to investigate introspection which involved strictly controlled conditions and the same standardised instructions were used so each participant was tested in the same way, thus allowing the methods used to be replicated.

Although Wundt’s early attempt to study the mind would be seen today as naïve, his work was significant as it marked the separation of modern scientific psychology from its broader philosophical roots.

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Evaluations - Strengths:

Wundt’s methods are still useful in scientific psychology: One strength of Wundt's work is that some aspects of Wundt’s methods would be classed as scientific today. For instance he recorded the introspections within a controlled laboratory environment. He also standardised his procedures so that all participants received the same information and were tested in the same way. This is a strength because Wundt’s research can be considered a forerunner to the later scientific approaches in psychology that were to come.

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Evaluations - Limitations:

Wundt’s methods were unscientific: A limitation of Wundt’s work however is that other aspects of this research would be considered unscientific today. Wundt relied on participants self-reporting of their ‘private’ mental processes. Such data is subjective and participants may not have wanted to reveal some of the thoughts they were having. Participants would also not have had exactly the same thoughts every time, so establishing general principles would not have been possible. This makes some aspects of Wundt’s research unscientific because general laws are necessary to predict future behaviour, due to them being one of the aims of science. 

Wundt’s methods were unreliable: A limitation of Wundt’s methods is that they were unreliable. This is because Wundt’s use of introspection relied primarily on ‘non-observable’ responses. Although participants could report on their conscious experiences, the processes themselves (e.g. memory, perception) were considered to be unobservable constructions. In addition, introspective ‘experimental’ results were not reliably repeated by other researchers in other laboratories due to the subjective nature of the research. This is a limitation because Wundt’s approach ultimately failed because of the lack of reliability of his methods. 

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The Emergence of Psychology as a Science

1)Empiricism: Around the turn of the 20th century, Sigmund Freud, an Austrian doctor, was developing his ideas about the unconscious mind. His work formed the basis of the psychodynamic approach. Like Wundt and many later psychologists, Freud adopted a form of empiricism; a key element of science which dictates that all knowledge is gained from sensory experience. Drawing on clinical evidence from his work with patients, Freud became convinced that some areas of the human mind were inaccessible and could only be reached with the help of an analyst. 

2) Study of observable and objectively measurable behaviours: Wundt’s early work encouraged later researchers to follow the same experimental approach and be more scientific. Pioneers of the behavioural approach such John B. Watson (1913) deemed the nature of private introspection and Freud’s focus on the unmeasurable unconscious as being unscientific and instead favoured the investigation of externally observable and objectively measurable behaviours. 

3) Use of Laboratory experiments: B. F. Skinner (1953) continued in the behaviourist tradition by using laboratory experiments and often used animals such as rats and pigeons which were placed into strictly controlled ‘Skinner boxes’ and rigorously observed using objective measurements

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The Emergence of Psychology as a Science

4) Operationalisation: The advent of computers in the 1960s started a trend towards a cognitive approach and the return to a focus on internal thought processes. However, unlike the less reliable methods used by Wundt, this discipline borrows the scientific methods preferred by the behaviourists such as operationalising thoughts and measuring these internal processes under controlled conditions.

5) Experimental data - Brain scans: Recently developments in biology have facilitated the discipline of the biological approach. The scientific focus of this discipline is on measuring physiological processes within the brain and body. Brain scans have enabled the objective imaging of brain structures and brain activity and the use of drugs enables an investigation into deterministic cause and effect patterns regarding biochemicals and thoughts and behaviour.

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Research in Modern Psychology is scientific: A strength of the emergence of psychology as a science is that research in modern psychology can claim to be scientific. Psychology has the same aims as the natural sciences – to describe, understand, predict and control behaviour. The learning approaches, cognitive approach and biological approach all rely on the use of scientific methods – for example, lab studies to investigate theories in a controlled and unbiased way. This is a strength because throughout the 20th century and beyond psychology has established itself as a scientific discipline.

Not all approaches within Psychology use objective methods: A limitation of the emergence of psychology as a science is that not all approaches within psychology use objective methods. The humanistic approach is anti-scientific and does not attempt to formulate general laws of behaviour. It is concerned only with documenting unique subjective experience. The psychodynamic approach makes use of the case study method. This is based on interview techniques which are open to bias and no attempt is made to gather a representative sample of the population. For this reason, some approaches in Psychology, many claim that a scientific approach to the study of human thought and experience is not possible, nor is it desirable, as there are important differences between the subject matter of psychology and the natural sciences.

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