In a practical sense, all people are students of psychology, since understanding why we think, feel, and act as we do is an integral part of developing into successful adults. But for over 99% of the history of humankind, there was no real science of human psychology; thus, valid insights into the true causes for human nature were rare. From the first time millions of years ago that a humanoid thought, “Why did I [or someone else] do that?” or “…think that?” or “…feel that way?” — humans have tried to understand themselves and others, but up until the late 19th and 20th centuries, there were very poor investigative tools and theories to do so accurately.
All that changed with two historic events; the publication of Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species in England in 1859 (which firmly placed humans within the animal kingdom, and opened human study to the more sophisticated scientific techniques already developed for investigating non-humans), and the founding of the first laboratory for the systematic study of human psychology by William Wundt (photo), the “Father of Scientific Psychology,” in Leipzig, Germany in 1879. Our understanding of humans has simply not been the same since.
Despite these two great breakthroughs, it has only been within the last half of the 20th century that truly scientific psychology has taken hold. The previous thousands of years of “unscientific psychology” were marked by what some now call “black box psychology.” That is, even after we knew that psychological phenomena were centered in the brain (while ancient texts had located all important psychological functions in the heart), due to powerful technical, social, ethical, and legal constraints we were unable to “see inside” to study the brain directly.
It was as if the key object of psychological research was locked away in an inaccessible, unviewable, “black box.” Thus, the study of psychology branched into two general research approaches; proto-scientific (using the objective empirical means then available to slowly build credible evidence of the brain’s functions and dysfunctions), and non-scientific (using primarily subjective means to form hypotheses about the causes and effects of human psychological phenomena).
This distinction between scientific and unscientific psychology is vital to our PSH lessons. A valid and useful understanding of human psychology is primarily a function of the quality of our knowledge, which is in turn primarily a function of the quality of the evidence we have, which in turn is primarily a function of the quality of the methodology used to gather that evidence. There are millions of wrong answers out there, and relatively few right answers!
To repeat for emphasis, when it comes to answering key questions about human psychology, the best methods yield the best evidence of the natural principles and laws that govern human psychology. That best evidence — properly analyzed, interpreted, and formed into theories — produces the best knowledge and understanding of why humans think, feel, and behave as we do.