A Very Brief History of Psychology
At the birth of psychology, not unlike today, non-scientific approaches were much more popular and influential, and were exemplified by the NEC-riddled psychodynamic (or Psychoanalytic) Psychology of the Austrian medical doctor, Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) (photo). Freud’s legacy in psychology is a profoundly ambivalent one in that he, more than anyone else in history, popularized the “study of the mind” and its treatments. But the very popularity of his theories also had a powerfully negative effect on the development of scientific psychology. It was as if scientists thought, “Why research something that may not even be scientific?” — referring to Freud’s metaphysical concept of the “mind” or “psyche.” Freud used introspection (literally, looking within oneself) as his primary means of studying how the “mind” worked, and he placed great significance on people’s unreliable self reports and memories of how they thought, felt, and acted, emphasizing odd fantasies and dreams (which Freud called “the window to the soul”). While these are undoubtedly fascinating methods of investigation, they are clearly unscientific and, not surprisingly, they have not led to many valid insights into human psychological phenomena nor useful treatments for psychological disorders.
From his studies, Freud, his followers, and subsequent like-minded theorists — called Neo-Freudians — developed general hypotheses about human psychology which have proven very valuable (e.g., that early experiences can greatly influence a person’s later psychological development, and that psychopathology is much more common than was previously thought). They also postulated specific hypotheses about how the “mind” worked (e.g., the constant debilitating battle among NECs like the repressed unconscious id, the personal conscious ego, and the conscience-like super-ego), which psychodynamic psychologists and psychiatrists believed were the keys to both understanding human psychology and treating psychopathology.
Unfortunately for the field of psychology and its patients and clients, those specific theories and treatments have not proven valuable in the long run. Thus, psychodynamic psychology is now widely recognized as having been a long, convoluted detour on the path to psychological understanding and treatment. It was based on non-empirical constructs, and such theories and constructs have simply not proven helpful, nor have they led to successful therapies. (One might even say that the only real question is whether psychodynamic theory and therapy caused more problems than it solved, or vice versa; and it is a close call, either way.)
Thankfully, there were more scientifically oriented researchers who picked up the baton from Darwin and Wundt, and pursued the slow-but-sure path to real knowledge about psychology. Although breakthroughs into the “black box” of the brain had to await many decades of research, early psychologists who contributed greatly to a psychology based on reason and scientific evidence were William James (1842-1910), John Dewey (1859-1952), and perhaps the four greatest early contributors to scientific psychology in history: the Russian medical researcher, Ivan Pavlov (1849-1936), the American “Father of Behaviorism”, John B. Watson (1878-1958), the preeminent theorist-technologist, B. F. Skinner (1904-1990), and the theorist and researcher whose work led most directly to the aforementioned breakthroughs of the late 1900’s, Canadian psychologist D. O. Hebb (1904-1985), whose book The Organization of Behavior: A Neuropsychological Theory proved seminal to future scientific understandings of the human brain and its functions.
The research-based theories of Pavlov, Watson, and Skinner dealt with the “black box” problem in a much more scientific way. Since they couldn’t study the brain directly, they concentrated on studying everything that went into the brain (i.e., stimuli), and everything that came out of the brain (i.e., responses), and developed testable hypotheses about what must be going on in between (i.e., inside the brain) that would explain human psychology. This Stimulus-Response Psychology (S-R) couldn’t have been more different from Psychodynamic Psychology, and the opposing sides exhibited great disdain for each other, with advocates of psychodynamic approaches saying S-R Psychologists studied everything but the all-important “mind!”