Unit 1 Psychology’s History and Approaches



Psychology traces its roots back to Greek philosophers’ reflections on human nature. Psychologists’ initial focus on mental life was replaced in the 1920s by the study of observable behavior. As the science of behavior and mental processes, psychology has its origins in many disciplines and countries.

Psychology’s most enduring issue concerns the relative contributions of biology and experience. Today, psychologists recognize that nurture works on what nature endows. The biopsychosocial approach incorporates biological, psychological, and social-cultural levels of analysis. Although different perspectives on human nature have their own purposes and questions, they are complementary and together provide a fuller understanding of mind and behavior.
Some psychologists conduct basic or applied research; others provide professional services, including assessing and treating troubled people. With its perspectives ranging from the biological to the social, and settings from the clinic to the laboratory, psychology has become a meeting place for many disciplines.


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What Is Psychology?


Early philosophers, such as Aristotle, theorized about learning and memory, motivation and emotion, perception and personality. Their thinking about thinking continued until Wundt established the first psychological laboratory in 1879 in Leipzig, Germany. He sought to measure the fastest and simplest mental processes. His student Edward Titchener introduced structuralism, which also used introspection—self-examination of one’s own emotional states and mental processes—to search for the basic elements of the mind. However, self-reports proved somewhat unreliable, varying from person to person and from situation to situation. Under the influence of evolutionary theorist Charles Darwin, William James thought it more fruitful to study how consciousness serves a purpose. Thus, functionalism focused on how mental and behavioral processes enable the organism to adapt, survive, and flourish. James also wrote a textbook for the new discipline of psychology. He mentored Mary Whiton Calkins, the first female president of the American Psychological Association. Margaret Floy Washburn was the second female president of APA. Although Washburn’s Ph.D. thesis was published in Wilhelm Wundt’s journal, her gender meant she was barred from joining the organization of experimental psychologists (who explore behavior and thinking with experiments), despite its being founded by Titchener, her own graduate adviser.


Psychology developed from the more established fields of philosophy and biology. Its pioneers included Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov, Austrian personality theorist Sigmund Freud, and Swiss biologist Jean Piaget. Until the 1920s, psychology was defined as the science of mental life. Wundt’s basic research tool was introspection. From the 1920s through the 1960s, American psychologists, led by John Watson and later by B. F. Skinner, both behaviorists, dismissed introspection and redefined psychology as the science of observable behavior. In responding to Freudian psychology and behaviorism, humanistic psychology emphasized our growth potential and the importance of meeting our needs for love and acceptance. In the 1960s, psychology began to recapture its initial interest in mental processes. Cognitive psychology and cognitive neuroscience explore scientifically the ways we perceive, process, and remember information. Today, psychology
is defined as the scientific study of behavior and mental processes. Behavior is anything an organism does. Mental processes are the internal subjective experiences we infer from behavior, for example, perceptions, thoughts, and feelings. Psychology is growing and globalizing.


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Contemporary Psychology


Psychology’s biggest and most persistent debate concerns the nature-nurture issue: the controversy over the relative contributions of genes and experience to the development of psychological traits and behavior. Included in the history of this debate is Charles Darwin’s concept of natural selection, which states that among the range of inherited trait variations, those contributing to reproduction and survival will most likely be passed on to succeeding generations. Evolution has become an important principle for twenty-first-century psychology. Today, contemporary science recognizes that nurture works on what nature endows. Our species is biologically endowed with an enormous capacity to learn and adapt. Moreover, every psychological event is simultaneously a biological event.


The different systems that make up the complex human system suggest different levels of analysis: biological, psychological, and social-cultural. Together, these levels form an integrated biopsychosocial approach.


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Psychology’s varied perspectives therefore complement each other. Someone working from the:


biological perspective studies how the body and brain work to create emotions, memories, and
sensory experiences.

evolutionary perspective considers how the natural selection of traits promoted the survival of genes.

psychodynamic perspective views behavior as springing from unconscious drives and conflicts.

behavioral perspective examines how observable responses are acquired and changed.

cognitive perspective studies how we encode, process, store, and retrieve information.

humanistic perspective, a historically significant perspective, is interested in how we achieve

social-cultural perspective examines how behavior and thinking vary across situations and


The cluster of subfields we call psychology has less unity than most other sciences. There is even a branch of psychology devoted to studying the measurement of our abilities, attitudes, and traits: psychometrics.

Some psychologists conduct basic research. For example, biological psychologists explore the link between brain and behavior, developmental psychologists study our changing abilities from womb to tomb, educational psychologists study influences on teaching and learning, personality psychologists investigate our persistent traits, and social psychologists explore how we view and
affect one another.

Other psychologists conduct applied research. For example, industrial-organizational psychologists study behavior in the workplace and suggest ways of boosting morale and performance, and human factors psychologists focus on the interaction of people, machines, and physical environments.

Psychology is also a helping profession. Counseling psychology assists people with problems in living and in achieving greater well-being. Clinical psychology involves mental health professionals who study, assess, and treat people with psychological disorders. Psychiatry sometimes involves medical treatments as well as psychological therapy.


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Psychology relates to many disciplines, by connecting with fields ranging from mathematics to philosophy and by aiding those disciplines.


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*Work Cited:  All summary notes come from *Myers Pyschology for AP, Lecture Guides (2011 Worth Publishers)