History and Approaches to Psychology for AP Psychology

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Updated on Mar 4, 2011

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History and Approaches to Psychology Review Questions for AP Psychology

Roots of Psychology

Roots of psychology can be traced to philosophy and physiology/biology over 2000 years ago in ancient Greece. As a result of examining organisms, physician/philosopher/physiologist Hippocrates thought the mind or soul resided in the brain, but was not composed of physical substance (mind-body dualism). Philosopher Plato (circa 350 B.C.), who also believed in dualism, used self-examination of inner ideas and experiences to conclude that who we are and what we know are innate (inborn). On the other hand, Plato's student Aristotle believed that the mind/soul results from our anatomy and physiological processes (monism), that reality is best studied by observation, and that who we are and what we know are acquired from experience. About 2000 years later (circa 1650), similar ideas persisted with René Descartes and John Locke. Descartes defended mind-body dualism (Cogito ergo sum—"I think, therefore I am") and that what we know is innate. On the other hand, empirical philosopher Locke believed that mind and body interact symmetrically (monism), knowledge comes from observation, and what we know comes from experience since we are born without knowledge, "a blank slate" (tabula rasa). The debate about the extent to which our behavior is inborn or learned through experience is called the naturenurture controversy.

Schools of Psychology

By the late 1800s, psychology was beginning to emerge as a separate scientific discipline. Biologist Charles Darwin applied the law of natural selection to human beings, forwarding the idea that human behavior and thinking are subject to scientific inquiry. Physiologists Ernst Weber and Gustav Fechner showed how physical events are related to sensation and perception. Hermann von Helmholtz measured the speed at which nerve impulses travel. Should their studies be considered under the heading of biology or psychology?


Schools of psychology aren't schools the way we think of them, but early perspectives or approaches.

Wilhelm Wundt is generally credited as the founder of scientific psychology because in 1879 he set up a laboratory in Leipzig, Germany, specifically for research in psychology, dedicated to the scientific study of the immediate conscious experiences of sensation. Using careful methodology, he trained his associates and observers to objectively analyze their sensory experiences systematically through introspection (inward looking). He required that results be replicated, which means tested repeatedly under different conditions to produce similar results.

Wundt focused on the structure of the mind and identification of the basic elements of consciousness (sensations, feelings, and images) using trained introspection. G. Stanley Hall set up a psychology lab employing introspection at Johns Hopkins University, helped found the American Psychological Association, and became its first president. Edward Titchener brought introspection to his own lab at Cornell University, analyzed consciousness into its basic elements, and investigated how these elements are related. Wundt, Hall, and Titchener were members of the School of Structuralism.

Margaret Floy Washburn was Titchener's first graduate student and the first woman to complete her Ph.D. in psychology.


American psychologist William James thought the structuralists were asking the wrong questions. James was interested in the function or purpose of behavioral acts. He viewed humans as more actively involved in processing their sensations and actions. James and other psychologists, such as James Cattell and John Dewey, who studied mental testing, child development, and educational practices, exemplified the School of Functionalism. Functionalists focused on the application of psychological findings to practical situations and the function of mental operations in adapting to the environment (stream of consciousness) using a variety of techniques. Their goal was to explain behavior. Functionalism paved the way for behaviorism and applied subfields of psychology.

Mary Whiton Calkins, who studied psychology under James at Harvard, became the first woman president of the American Psychological Association. She viewed her psychology of selves as a reconciliation between structural and functional psychology.

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