New Psychology: Definition, History & Wilhelm Wundt

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  • 0:04 New Psychology
  • 1:05 Historical Roots
  • 1:58 Wilhelm Wundt
  • 2:57 Wundt's Theories
  • 4:55 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Natalie Boyd

Natalie is a teacher and holds an MA in English Education and is in progress on her PhD in psychology.

Psychology is a science, but it wasn't always that way. In this lesson, we'll look at the new psychology movement that married the philosophy of the human mind with the scientific method and one of its founders, Wilhelm Wundt.

New Psychology

Have you ever thought about how you think, perceive, and feel? How does it differ from other people? These are just some of the questions that are asked by psychologists, scientists who study the human mind.

But psychologists were not always scientists. New psychology was a movement of the late 19th century, which turned psychology into a science instead of a philosophy. It focused on mental structures and the way they are organized in the mind. For example, let's say that you decide you want to be the next Picasso. You want to paint colorful pieces of art, but first you must be able to perceive color.

Perceiving color and painting both involve mental processes, but perception of color is lower in the hierarchy of mental processes than painting is. That is, creating a piece of art requires more varied and complex processes than simply perceiving color.

To understand new psychology better, let's look at the history of the movement and one of its founders, Wilhelm Wundt.

Historical Roots

Imagine that you could jump into a time machine and go back to the 18th century. Back then, a lot would be different. No running water, no cell phones, and psychology was a philosophy instead of a science. What does that mean? Psychology before the 19th century was about ideas and suppositions. It was about how human minds work but was based on the principles of philosophy, such as reason and argument.

But in the mid to late 1800s, a group of scholars decided to apply the principles of the physical sciences to the study of the human mind. That is, they made psychology a science. They believed that psychologists, like natural scientists, should form hypotheses, observe and record data, and come to conclusions based on that. One of these scholars, Wilhelm Wundt, had a huge impact on both new psychology specifically and psychology as a whole.

Wilhelm Wundt

Wundt did something revolutionary in the 19th century: he formed the first experimental psychology lab in the world. In his lab, he gathered tools and budding scientists together to do experiments on how the mind worked. Most of Wundt's research was based on two observational tools. Introspection involved having a subject talk about what he was experiencing as he was doing something, like giving a running account of his thoughts as he put together a puzzle. Introspection has a lot of technical issues and is not used very much today. For this reason, many people like to criticize Wundt's practice.

However, these critics forget the second observational tool that Wundt's research was based on: reaction time, or how long it takes to react to stimuli. For example, if someone throws a ball at you, how long does it take you to move so that the ball doesn't hit you? Or if you're asked a question, how long does it take you to come up with a response? Reaction time is still widely used today and is an important tool in understanding the complexity of mental processes.

Wundt's Theories

Let's go back to your dream of being the next Picasso. Painting is a very complex task: you have to think about what you're going to paint, imagine how you want it to look, plan the style of the painting, figure out what tools and processes you need to paint the piece... And all that's before you even begin to paint!

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