20th Century Schools of Psychology (OLI)

Distinguish between the contributions of philosophy, the physical sciences, and the four 20th century schools of psychology to the field of psychology.
-from OLI textbook-




Early Schools of Psychology: Still Active and Advanced Beyond Early Ideas

From Flat World Knowledge: Adapted from Introduction to Psychology, v1.0. CC-BY-NC-SA.

School of PsychologyDescriptionEarliest PeriodHistorically Important People
Psychodynamic PsychologyFocuses on the role of our unconscious thoughts, feelings, and memories and our early childhood experiences in determining behavior. Modern psychodynamic psychology has built on Freud's original ideas, and it has also influenced modern neuroscience.Very late 19th to Early 20th CenturySigmund Freud, Erik Erikson
BehaviorismBased on the premise that it is not possible to objectively study the mind. Therefore, psychologists should limit their attention to the study of behavior itself. Contemporary behaviorism is an active field increasingly integrated with cognitive-neuroscience.Early 20th CenturyIvan Pavlov, John B. Watson, B. F. Skinner
Cognitive DevelopmentStudies the growth of thought and language processes in infants and children. Emphasizes the idea that children are not incompetent adults but think creatively and effectively based on their limited experience in the world. Modern cognitive psychology owes a great deal to these early cognitive development researchers.1920sJean Piaget, Lev Vygotsky
Humanistic PsychologyEmphasizes the development of a healthy, effectively functioning person. Rejects the idea that clinical psychology and other applied areas should focus only on disorders and problems. This school developed ideas of self-actualization, personal responsibility, and human potential. Contemporary positive psychology has been strongly influence by humanistic psychology.1950sAbraham Maslow, Carl Rogers

Psychodynamics: The Foundation of Clinical Psychology

Perhaps the school of psychology that is most familiar to the general public is the psychodynamic approach to understanding behavior, which was championed by Sigmund Freud (1856–1939) and his followers.
Psychodynamic psychology is an approach to understanding human behavior that focuses on the role of unconscious thoughts, feelings, and memories. Freud developed his theories about behavior through extensive analysis of the patients that he treated in his private clinical practice. Freud believed that many of the problems that his patients experienced, including anxiety, depression, and sexual dysfunction, were the result of the effects of painful childhood experiences that the person could no longer remember.

Freud’s ideas were extended by other psychologists whom he influenced including Erik Erikson (1902–1994). These and others who follow the psychodynamic approach believe that it is possible to help the patient if the unconscious drives can be remembered, particularly through a deep and thorough exploration of the person’s early sexual experiences and current sexual desires. These explorations are revealed through talk therapy and dream analysis, in a process called psychoanalysis.
Sigmund Freud and the other psychodynamic psychologists believed that many of our thoughts and emotions are unconscious. Psychotherapy was designed to help patients recover and confront their “lost” memories.

The founders of the school of psychodynamics were primarily practitioners who worked with individuals to help them understand and confront their psychological symptoms. Although they did not conduct much research on their ideas, and although later, more sophisticated tests of their theories have not always supported their proposals, psychodynamics has nevertheless had substantial impact on the perspective of clinical psychology and, indeed, on thinking about human behavior more generally. The importance of the unconscious in human behavior, the idea that early childhood experiences are critical, and the concept of therapy as a way of improving human lives are all ideas that are derived from the psychodynamic approach and that remain central to psychology.

Behaviorism: How We Learn

Although they differed in approach, both structuralism and functionalism were essentially studies of the mind. The psychologists associated with the school of behaviorism, on the other hand, were reacting in part to the difficulties psychologists encountered when they tried to use introspection to understand behavior. Behaviorism is a school of psychology that is based on the premise that it is not possible to objectively study the mind, and therefore that psychologists should limit their attention to the study of behavior itself. Behaviorists believe that the human mind is a “black box” into which stimuli are sent and from which responses are received. They argue that there is no point in trying to determine what happens in the box because we can successfully predict behavior without knowing what happens inside the mind. Furthermore, behaviorists believe that it is possible to develop laws of learning that can explain all behaviors.

The first behaviorist was the American psychologist John B. Watson (1878–1958). Watson was influenced in large part by the work of the Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov (1849–1936), who had discovered that dogs would salivate at the sound of a tone that had previously been associated with the presentation of food. Watson and other behaviorists began to use these ideas to explain how events that people and animals experienced in their environment (stimuli) could produce specific behaviors (responses). For instance, in Pavlov’s research the stimulus (either the food or, after learning, the tone) would produce the response of salivation in the dogs.

In his research Watson found that systematically exposing a child to fearful stimuli in the presence of objects that did not themselves elicit fear could lead the child to respond with a fearful behavior to the presence of the stimulus. In the best known of his studies, an 8-month-old boy named Little Albert was used as the subject. Here is a summary of the findings:

The baby was placed in the middle of a room; a white laboratory rat was placed near him and he was allowed to play with it. The child showed no fear of the rat. In later trials, the researchers made a loud sound behind Albert’s back by striking a steel bar with a hammer whenever the baby touched the rat. The child cried when he heard the noise. After several such pairings of the two stimuli, the child was again shown the rat. Now, however, he cried and tried to move away from the rat. In line with the behaviorist approach, Little Albert had learned to associate the white rat with the loud noise, resulting in crying.

The most famous behaviorist was Burrhus Frederick (B. F.) Skinner (1904–1990), who expanded the principles of behaviorism and also brought them to the attention of the public at large. Skinner used the ideas of stimulus and response, along with the application of rewards or reinforcements, to train pigeons and other animals. He used the general principles of behaviorism to develop theories about how best to teach children and how to create societies that were peaceful and productive. Skinner even developed a method for studying thoughts and feelings using the behaviorist approach.
B. F. Skinner was a member of the behaviorist school of psychology. He argued that free will is an illusion and that all behavior is determined by environmental factors.

The behaviorists made substantial contributions to psychology by identifying the principles of learning. Although the behaviorists were incorrect in their beliefs that it was not possible to measure thoughts and feelings, their ideas provided new ideas that helped further our understanding regarding the nature-nurture and mind-body debates. The ideas of behaviorism are fundamental to psychology and have been developed to help us better understand the role of prior experiences in a variety of areas of psychology.

Cognitive Development: The Brain and How it Thinks

During the first half of the twentieth century, evidence emerged that learning was not as simple as it was described by the behaviorists. Several psychologists studied how people think, learn and remember. And this approach became known as cognitive psychology, a field of psychology that studies mental processes, including perception, thinking, memory, and judgment. The German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus (1850–1909) showed how memory could be studied and understood using basic scientific principles. The English psychologist Frederick Bartlett also looked at memory but focused more on how our memories can be distorted by our beliefs and expectations.

The two individuals from this time who arguably made the strongest impact on contemporary cognitive psychology were two great students of child development: the Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget (1896–1980) and the Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky (1896–1934).

Jean Piaget was a prolific writer, a brilliant systematizer, and a creative observer of children. Using interviews and situations he contrived, he studied the thinking and reasoning of children from their earliest days into adolescence. He is best known for his theory that tracks the development of children’s thinking into a series of four major stages, each with several substages. Within each stage, Piaget pointed to behaviors and responses to questions that revealed how the developing child understands the world. One of Piaget’s critical insights was that children are not deficient adults, so when they do something or make a judgement that, in an adult, might seem to be a mistake, we should not assume that it is a mistake from the child’s perspective. Instead, the child may be using the knowledge and reasoning that are completely appropriate at his or her particular age to make sense of the world. For example, Piaget found that children often believe that other people know or can see whatever they know or can see. So, if you show a young child a scene containing several dolls, where a particular doll is visible to the child but blocked from your view by a dollhouse, the child will simply assume that you can see the blocked doll. Why? Because he or she can see it. Piaget called this thinking egocentrism, by which he meant that the child’s thinking is centered in his or her own view of the world (not that the child is selfish). If an adult made this error, we would find it odd. But it is quite natural for the child, because prior to about 4 years of age, children do not understand that different minds (theirs and yours) can know different things. Egocentric thinking is normal and healthy for a two year old (though not for a 20-year-old).

During the same years that Piaget was interviewing children and trying to chart the course of development, Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky was struck by the rich social influences that influenced and even guided cognitive development. Like Piaget, Vygotsky observed children playing with one another, and he saw how children guide each other to learn social rules and, through those, to improve self-regulation of behavior and thoughts.

Vygotsky’s best known contribution was his analysis of the interactions of children and parents that lead to the development of more and more sophisticated thinking. He suggested that the effective parent or teacher is one who helps the child reach beyond his or her current level of thinking by creating supports, which Vygotsky’s followers called scaffolding. For example, if a teacher wants the child to learn the difference between a square and a triangle, she might allow the child to play with cardboard cutouts of the shapes, and help the child count the number of sides and angles on each. This assisted exploration is a scaffold—a set of supports for the child who is actively doing something—that can help the child do things and explore in ways that would not be likely or even possible alone.

Both Piaget and Vygotsky emphasized the mental development of the child and gave later psychologists a rich set of theoretical ideas as well as observable phenomena to serve as a foundation for the science of the mind that blossomed in the middle and late 20th century and is the core of 21st century psychology.

Humanistic Psychology: A New Approach

By the 1950s, a clear contrast existed between psychologists who favored behaviorism which focused exclusively on behavior that is shaped by the environment and those who favored psychodynamic psychology which focused on mental unconscious processes to explain behavior. Many of the psychodynamic therapists became disillusioned with the results of their therapy and began to propose new ways of thinking about behavior in that unlike animals, human behavior was not innately uncivilized as Freud, James and Skinner believed. Humanism developed on the beliefs that humans are inherently good, have free will to make decisions, and are motivated to seek and improve themselves to their highest potential. Instead of focusing on what went wrong with people’s lives as did the psychodynamic psychologists, humanists asked interesting questions about what made a person “good.” Thus, a new approach to psychology emerged called humanism, an early school of psychology which emphasized that each person is inherently good and motivated to learn and improve to become a healthy, effectively functioning individual. Abraham Maslow and Carl Rogers are credited for developing the humanistic approach in which they asked questions about what made a person good.

Abraham Maslow (1908–1970) developed the theory of self-motivation in which we all have a basic, broad need to develop our special unique human potential, which he called the drive for self-actualization. He proposed that, in order for us to achieve self-actualization, several basic needs beginning with physiological needs of hunger, thirst, and maintenance of other internal states of the body must first be met. As the lower-level needs are satisfied, our internal motivation strives to achieve higher-ordered needs such as safety, belonging and love needs and self-esteem needs until we ultimately achieve self-actualization. Maslow’s theory of hierarchy of needs represents our internal motivation to strive for self-actualization. Achieving self-actualization meant that one has achieved their unique and special human potential to be able to lead a positive and fulfilling life.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs


Carl Rogers (1902–1987), originally a psychodynamic therapist, developed a new therapy approach which he called client-centered therapy. This therapy approach viewed the person, not as a patient, but rather as a client with more equal status with the therapist. He believed that the client as well as every person should be respected and valued for his or her unique and special abilities and potential, and that the person had the ability to make conscious decisions and free will to achieve one’s highest potential.

While the humanistic school of psychology has been criticized for its lack of rigorous experimental investigation as being more of a philosophical approach, it has influenced current thinking on personality theories and psychotherapy methods. Furthermore, the foundations of the early school of humanism evolved into the contemporary perspective of positive psychology, the scientific study of optimal human functioning.

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