History of 20th Century Psychology: Major Developments & Contributions

Instructor: Sudha Aravindan

Sudha is currently an Information Technology Specialist and a EdD student at the University of Delaware.

In this lesson, we'll journey through the origins of psychology from ancient times through the 20th century. You will learn about Descartes's and Freud's role in shaping modern psychology and the major contributions of 20th-century psychology.

Early concepts of Psychology

In this lesson, we'll take an interesting journey through the history of psychology, from the earliest recorded times to major contributions made during the 20th-century. One of the earliest works that imply the understanding of the role of the brain in mental processes is found in the Edwin Smith Papyrus, which is the world's oldest surgical document. It dates back to about 1550 B.C.E. This document describes aphasia, a condition where a person experiences loss of understanding and expression of speech due to brain damage. This is one of the earliest understandings of cognitive psychology as it recognizes the brain as an important component in the study of behavior and mental processes.

In ancient Greece, the great philosopher Plato (428 BC to 348 BC) played an important role in the development of Western philosophy. He theorized that the brain is in control of the mind. Later, his student Aristotle (384 BC to 322 BC) provided a deeper understanding of the mind by putting forth the theory that the mind has two intellects: a possible intellect, where all kinds of ideas are stored, and the agent intellect that combines concepts from the possible intellect to form concrete thoughts.

Early Western Psychology

Until about the middle of the 19th-century, psychology was widely considered to be a branch of philosophy in the Western world. Rene Descartes (1596-1650) was an influential philosopher whose works include 'Discourse on the Method and Principles of Philosophy'. He wrote the famous phrase 'I think, therefore I am', or in the original Latin 'I doubt, therefore I think, therefore I am', and introduced the concept of duality. Descartes argued that the mind and body are two separate entities that interact to form the complete human being.

In the mid-1800's, Wilhelm Wundt, a German physiologist, published a book in 1874, Principles of Physiological Psychology. There, he described the connections between physiology (biology of living organisms) and psychology (human behavior and thought). He also opened the very first experimental psychology lab in 1879 at the University of Leipzig, thus creating a separate discipline for the study of psychology. In 1883, Stanley Hall, a student of Wundt, started the first lab for experimental psychology in the United States at Johns Hopkins University.

An Austrian neurologist Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), known as the founder of psychoanalysis, proposed the theory that psychological forces that act on the three levels of awareness - preconscious, conscious, and unconscious - had an important influence on personality and behavior.

Psychology as Behaviorism

In 1911, Edward Thorndike studied behaviors in cats to help understand their learning abilities. He found that cats learn from their own experience and not from observing and learning how other cats escape from a box. In 1913, John B. Watson, considered the father of behaviorism, published the paper 'Psychology as the Behaviorist Views It' from where comes this famous quote:

'Give me a dozen healthy infants, well-formed, and my own specified world to bring them up in, and I'll guarantee to take any one at random and train him to become any type of specialist I might select.'

Behaviorism was the dominant school of psychology from about 1920s to the mid-1950s. The prevailing belief was that all human behaviors are the result of the environment; anyone can be trained to behave in any way depending on the right experience.

Cognitive Psychology

Piaget (1896-1980), a Swiss psychologist, introduced the theory of cognitive development. The theory explains how the brain processes information and makes interpretations that help in acquiring new knowledge.

Cognitive Psychology has two branches:

(1) The Social Cognitive Theory states that people gain knowledge through observing others through social interactions.

(2) The Cognitive Behavioral Theory, which suggests that a person's cognition or thought processes facilitate or hinder the process of learning through responses, feelings, and actions to life events.

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