History of Psychology

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The History of Psychology

by Helen Dwyer


Nature and Nurture

The “nature-nurture debate” concerns a fundamental question about psychology: To what extent is the human mind a product of nature, or biology, and to what extent is it a result of nurture, or experience? People have pondered this issue ever since they began to think about the mind.


Early history

The debate can be traced at least as far back as the fourth century B.C. to the Greek philosopher Aristotle, who compared the mind to a blank slate to be written on by impressions from the senses. This view persisted through the Middle Ages.

In the 16th century an English schoolmaster Richard Mulcaster (about 1513–1611) introduced the terms “nature” and “nurture” to refer to the poles of the debate. He suggested that both biology and experience were important in a child’s development.


The pendulum swings

With the publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species in 1859, biology began to play a broader role in the nature-nurture debate. The English scientist Francis Galton (1822–1911) applied the principles of evolution to people. He focused on the question of which force, nature or nurture, was responsible for generating differences between individuals.

Galton reasoned that there were only two sources that could generate differences between people: different biological features inherited from parents and different environmental forces, including peoples’ experiences and learning. He further reasoned that researchers could investigate the influence of heredity by looking at how traits ran in families. He argued that superior mental capacity could be inherited.


At the same time, another school of psychology was emerging — behaviourism. The father of behaviourism — U.S. psychologist John B.Watson (1878–1958) — put the emphasis on experience. Behaviorism sought to explain behavior in terms of two laws of learning: classical conditioning and operant conditioning.

Physiologist Ivan Pavlov (1849–1936) discovered classical conditioning by accident. He was studying dogs’ digestive processes when he noticed something peculiar: While he was in the process of delivering food to the dogs, they would begin to salivate even before the food had arrived. He discovered that, by ringing a bell just before feeding time, he could condition the dogs to salivate when they heard the sound. They had formed a link between the sound and the food.

Psychologist E. L. Thorndike (1874–1949) contributed to a different theory of learning called operant conditioning. He suggested that animals tended to repeat actions that produced a positive result. Behaviors that were rewarded were repeated, while behaviors that were punished were not. Psychologist B. F. Skinner (1904–1990) extended Thorndike’s work. In Skinner’s experiments animals were rewarded for engaging in certain behaviors that the researcher was trying to encourage.

These theories emphasized experience as the source of behavior. They suggested that biology’s contribution was merely an innate sense of what was rewarding.


The decline of behaviorism

Opponents of behaviorist theory believed that animals were more than blank slates. They thought that if they could show that animals formed some associations more easily than others, it would suggest that more was innate than merely the ability to learn associations.


Biological Approaches and Politics

Scientist John Garcia (born 1917) and his colleagues conducted a series of experiments with rats in the mid-1960s. Garcia gave his rats a little tube to drink from, which dispensed a solution with a distinctive flavor that the rats had never tasted before. Whenever the rats drank from the tube, a light came on, and there was a little “click” sound. Each time this happened, the rats were exposed to X-rays that made them temporarily ill.

If the behaviourists were correct, the rats should have come to associate all three conditions — the light, the click, and the taste of the solution — with feeling sick. They should have learned to avoid all three. Instead, the rats learned to avoid the solution, but not the light or the click, suggesting that they associated being sick with the novel taste, not with the light or the sound.

This was exactly what Garcia expected to find. Rats in their natural environments need to learn which foods are good to eat and which are poisonous. To do this, they learn to avoid any new food that makes them sick.



At around the same time Keller and Marian Breland published a paper entitled “The Misbehavior of Organisms,” giving numerous examples of experiments in which the organisms being studied did not behave as behaviourist theory predicted.

In the 1950s and 1960s evidence against behaviourism continued to accumulate. Wolfgang Köhler (1887–1967) showed that chimpanzees did not need their behavior reinforced or rewarded to solve some problems. Instead, they could use “insight,” working out the solution by careful perception of the problem.

Harry Harlow (1905–1981) separated newborn monkeys from their natural mothers and provided them with an artificial “mother” made from hard, uncomfortable wire but equipped with a feeding tube and nipple. Despite being rewarded by this “mother,” the monkeys did not become attached to it. In contrast, a doll made of soft, fluffy material proved rewarding because it was comforting to touch and hold.


The cognitive revolution

In the late 1950s the linguist Noam Chomsky claimed that humans had a language “organ”: a distinct part of the brain specifically for learning language. According to Chomsky, the ability to learn a language was innate. Chomsky also argued that there are certain properties that all languages have in common. The similarities were a result of the innate language organ (the areas of the brain that produced speech) that all people shared. This organ was only capable of learning languages with certain grammatical rules, so all world’s languages were constructed from the same set of possible rules.

Cognitive psychologists try to understand which structures in the brain enable people to learn about the world around them. For example, the work of linguist Noam Chomsky showed that people are born with the capacity to learn language, but that their environment is responsible for the specific language that they learn.

Chomsky’s work marked the start of the cognitive revolution. Cognitive psychologists viewed the mind as a machine that took in information from the world, processed it, and then generated behavior. Chomsky had also argued that there were innate learning mechanisms in people’s heads that enabled them to learn about the world. Thus cognitive psychologists sought to describe other innate learning mechanisms.



With the cognitive revolution, nativism once again became respectable. In 1975 Edward O.Wilson published a book entitled Sociobiology.In it Wilson proposed that the social behavior of all animals, including people, was based on genetics. Others also tried to use biology as a way of understanding human psychology. In 1979 Donald Symons published The Evolution of Human Sexuality, a look at how evolution by natural selection might have shaped human sexual behavior.

In his book The Language Instinct (1994), psychologist Steven Pinker referred to the language organ as an instinct, calling attention to the way in which natural selection built information-processing systems that enabled people to learn new ideas. Accumulating more and more information-processing systems through natural selection made people increasingly flexible.


Untangling the debate

After ample research, it now seems likely that there is no absolute answer to the nature-nurture debate. Every aspect of an individual is thought to be the product of both genes and the environment. It is also thought to be impossible to divide a person’s traits into “environmental” and “genetic” components because every organism’s genes interact with the environment in a complex way to build that organism.



After spending hours digesting the history of psychology, I find that this part of research only showed how ridiculous Behaviourism was and really resonates with Anthony Burgess' satire of Behaviourist psychology in A Clockwork Orange. It doesn't really feed much into inspiration for my project. On the upper side, I understand where not to look for information and divert my path in an early stage.



Behaviourism arose partly as a backlash against introspection, insisting on measuring only things that could be directly observed in the physical world, a fundamental requirement of sciences such as chemistry and physics.

Before Behaviourism psychologists had talked about both people’s behaviour and the contents of their minds. The behaviourists, however, argued that the mind could not be studied scientifically. They argued that psychology should only concern itself with the way in which events in the world caused changes in animal (including human) behaviour.

In the sciences, however, experiments must be repeatable. If a scientist describes the procedure for an experiment, another scientist must be able to perform it and obtain the same results. The behaviourists believed that for psychology to be a true science, it could not depend on any one person’s subjective impressions; discussion of mind was meaningless because mental processes cannot be reliably observed.

Behaviourism had its roots in several developments around the beginning of the 20th century. Among the most important of them were the conditioning experiments conducted by Ivan Pavlov (1849–1936). Pavlov studied the digestive process in dogs and was particularly interested in the production of saliva, which is an involuntary reflex action. Pavlov soon noticed that his dogs began to salivate even before they were given food. The sight of the lab attendants who brought food to the dogs was enough to trigger this response. To test this reaction formally, he rang a bell just before the food was presented. After a while he found that he could make the dogs salivate merely by ringing the bell without giving them any food. He also found that additional repetitions of the bell-food connection strengthened the effect, while many repetitions of the bell without food made the effect diminish and eventually go away.


E. L. Thorndike

E. L. Thorndike (1874–1949) was interested in finding out whether dogs and cats could learn by observation. He placed the animals in cages called puzzle boxes that they could open from inside by pressing a lever. He found that when an animal simply observed another animal, or a person, pressing the lever to open the cage, no learning took place. Even when he guided the animal’s paw onto the lever, the animal did not learn. But sooner or later the animal would step on the lever by accident, and after this happened many times, the animal eventually learned that stepping on the lever opened the cage and would do so immediately after it was put inside.

Thorndike deduced that a behaviour that produces a positive result is likely to be repeated. This behaviour seemed to be independent of conscious thought.


The rise of Behaviourism

Darwin’s theory of natural selection and an acceptance of the idea that people had evolved from lower animals led to a belief in a continuity between people and animals. If there was indeed continuity between people and animals, then “mind” might also have to be taken into account in any attempt to explain animal behaviour.

Early in the 20th century John B. Watson studied learning in rats. The ideas of Darwinism, coupled with the introspective approach to the study of the mind, demanded that he explain his results in terms of conscious thought by the animals, which he found unacceptable. Watson concluded that for psychology to be a true science, it must study only an organism’s observable behaviour. We can, he said, observe only a stimulus (an event that takes place before an organism does something) and the response (the behaviour that follows). The stimulus could be a signal or some internal event. The response would have to be an observable action.


Watson’s principles

Watson proposed some basic principles of behaviouristic psychology. The first principle was that psychologists could measure only what happens outside the organism. Introspection and any concept of “mind” were irrelevant. Second, the purpose of psychological research is the prediction and control of behaviour. Third, there is no difference between people and animals, except a difference in degree (for example, level of intelligence). Fourth, the behaviour of people results entirely from physiological reactions and is not attributable to any nonphysical force.


The conditioned reflex

Watson went on to attempt to explain complex human behaviour entirely in terms of the conditioned reflex. He began by rejecting the idea that many common human activities are guided by “instinct.” An instinct is a behaviour that is hard-wired into the organism and present from birth. Higher animals seem to operate on a mix of hard-wired and learned behaviours.

After observing human infants Watson decided that only a few basic behaviours, such as grasping, sucking, and random movements of the limbs, were built into every infant. More complex behaviours such as smiling grew out of conditioning, Watson claimed.


Albert and the Rat

Emotions, Watson said, also resulted from conditioning early in life. During experiments he found that newborn babies showed only a few emotional responses: They would exhibit fear when they heard a loud sound, felt pain, or experienced a loss of support; rage when their limbs were restrained; and pleasure when they were stroked or fed. All these responses, he thought, would have evolved as survival mechanisms. As life went on, other stimuli became associated with these experiences. For example, the mother’s stroking and feeding would condition the child to “love” its female parent.


Skills and conditioning

According to Watson, even the simplest physical skills are the result of early conditioning. A newborn is constantly bombarded by stimuli, both from the sights and sounds of the surrounding world and from internal events such as hunger and digestion. At the same time, the baby makes all sorts of random movements, and certain movements become conditioned to follow certain stimuli. Eventually, the movements that produce no reward fade away, through extinction of the conditioned response. As the child grows, increasingly complex behaviours are conditioned, building up from the simpler ones.



Watson believed that even human language was just a series of conditioned muscular responses in the lungs, larynx, throat, tongue, and lips. Eventually, the patterns associated with one word become connected to those of another, and words flow in their proper order. Meanwhile, words and phrases are conditioned responses to objects in the environment.

Thinking, Watson said, was a sequence of stimulus-response events in which the result of one connection acted as the stimulus for the next. Use of language was the result of conditioning that associated objects with words; thought was just a flow of unspoken words.


The teaching machine

The next major step forward in Behaviourism resulted from the work of B. F. Skinner. Skinner introduced programmed instruction in a “teaching machine”: a box with a window called a “frame” in which a small amount of information was displayed. After absorbing the information, his students were shown a question written in such a way that they almost always got the right answer. The satisfaction of giving the correct answer, Skinner said, served as a reinforcement to help students remember the material.

Skinner advocated a society in which conditioning was used to prevent and correct antisocial behaviour. His ideas were widely applied to education. Teachers were taught that students needed grades and other incentives to perform to their maximum potential and that material should be carefully sequenced to condition related ideas to each other. Undesired behaviour in the classroom was to be corrected by reinforcing positive behaviour and eliminating the stimuli that triggered negative behaviour.

Behaviourism was widely criticized on both emotional and logical grounds. For one thing, behaviourists conducted most of their experiments on laboratory animals, and critics said it was unacceptable to assume that the results they obtained applied automatically to the more complex nervous systems of people.

Like Watson, Skinner believed that language was built entirely of conditioned responses connecting words to objects and actions. Critics argued that individual differences in language learning meant there was also a genetic inherited component: that people learned language because they were prepared to form certain associations and not prepared for others. In other words, the organism itself was a part of the stimulus-response sequence, and thus not all behaviour was determined simply by learning.


Behaviourism today

Today, most psychologists recognize that Behaviourism opened a small window onto the human mind. Its first major contribution to psychology was methodology, or its way of doing science. The second was therapy, or a way of treating psychological problems.


Behavioural conditioning and modification

The behaviourists’ focus on the relationship between events and behaviour led them to explore whether undesirable behaviours could be changed. For instance, one of the goals of doctors in a psychiatric ward is to help the patients lead a normal life, and this often starts with basic tasks that address the patient’s problems. In several cases these goals have been achieved by rewarding normal, healthy behaviours with tokens. In token systems patients receive immediate rewards for appropriate behaviours. Research showed that the introduction of a token economy had real, positive effects on the behaviour of patients who had spent many years in the hospital. Token economies have also been used effectively to improve behaviour in both mainstream and special needs schools.

Behavioural methods have been shown to be effective in treating a wide range of problems, such as fear of spiders or anxiety about public speaking. The methods used to treat such phobias usually depend on the principle of a conditioned reflex. The patient is gradually exposed to mild versions of the thing feared, often accompanied by pleasurable stimuli. People with agoraphobia might begin by sitting on the front porch. Later they might move to the end of the front walk, and so on, until they can tolerate crowded public places.

Other researchers developed a more extreme approach called “aversion therapy.” This approach attempted to correct bad habits by associating them with unpleasant stimuli, such as loud sounds and unpleasant smells. These techniques have been applied to alcohol and drug addiction and to obsessive-compulsive behaviour.


The behaviourist legacy

The most significant contribution the behaviourists made to modern psychology is the one that is hardest to see. They insisted that psychology should be a science. Scientists perform carefully controlled experiments, and so should psychologists.



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