Psychology in the Early Years

It is generally agreed that Wilhelm Wundt (1832–1920) founded psychology in 1879 when he established the first “psychological” laboratory at the University of Leipzig in Germany. Wundt started out as a professor of physiology before setting out to study the human mind using a method called introspection. In this approach, specially trained individuals attempted to look inside their own minds and describe what went on in response to events they were exposed to, such as lights and sounds.

What's wrong with this method? Although introspection as a research method survived for a few decades and was briefly popular in the United States, it was far too subjective. The introspectors often reported conflicting information and there was no way to verify what any of them said.

While it is no longer used as a research technique, introspection has survived in a different form. In some versions of psychotherapy, clients or patients are asked to report their innermost thoughts and feelings, which you will learn more about in Chapter 20.

American psychologist William James (1842–1910) also used introspection in writing his Principles of Psychology (1890) — a highly influential text that marked the beginning of modern psychology. James went into great detail in describing his thoughts and feelings and relating them to psychological processes such as perceiving, emotionality, and memory. Though subjective, many of James's observations held up reasonably well when later verified by scientific research.

James firmly believed that psychology should be the “study of mental life.” He also proposed — in accord with the views of Charles Darwin (1809–1882) on physical evolution — that the human mind as it is today evolved as a result of successive adaptations by our distant ancestors. This view, which was called functionalism, would soon fall into disfavor, but it resurfaced in the later twentieth century as an increasingly popular line of theory and research now known as evolutionary psychology. Evolutionary psychology and other biological approaches to understanding behavior will be discussed in Chapter 3.

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