How was psychology studied in the early twentieth century? In this lesson, you'll look at three common approaches of the early twentieth century and get a sense of the diverse routes psychologists can take as they study how the mind works.
Human behavior is varied and has many different motivations and explanations. Because of this diversity, the field of psychology developed many subfields, or different approaches to study. To begin to understand the different kinds of results each approach can yield, we'll take a look at three approaches that were common in the early twentieth century: Gestalt psychology, psychoanalysis and behaviorism.
Let's start with Gestalt, which is the German word for 'form.' Gestalt psychology was a primarily German movement that focused on how we perceive whole objects. This is a question that is still relevant today; when engineers try to build machines that can see and interpret visual images just like a human can, they run into a lot of problems trying to program the machine to recognize complex objects like faces. Humans are able to recognize faces and other complex things right away. We don't see a face as a group of shapes and colors; we just see a face.
Gestalt psychologists noticed and described the ways in which humans tend to shape ambiguous or incomplete stimuli into whole, coherent pictures. They call one of these ways emergence, or our ability to perceive a whole without first noticing its parts. Take a look at this picture; do you see the dog sniffing under the tree? Now try picking out his leg or his tail; it's very difficult to see only one piece of the dog because he's made up of disconnected lines and blots. Together, they create an impression of a dog that can only be seen as a whole. A similar concept is called reification, and it refers to the mind's ability to fill in an implied shape. When you look at figure A, you probably see a triangle even though there isn't one really there. In figure C, you see a sphere with spikes coming out even though, again, the sphere itself isn't drawn. In figures B and D, your mind fills in the rest of the missing shape to create a black worm curled around a white pole and a sea monster swimming through the water.
Gestalt psychologists were also interested in the way people tend to group the objects they see. They developed principles of grouping to describe some of these common ways; as an example, their Law of Similarity observes that people tend to group similar items together. A six by six square of dots is perceived in terms of rows rather than columns because all of the dots in a row are either black or white. Another Gestalt principle is the Law of Proximity, which observes that people tend to use how close objects are to one another to perceive a larger image. The figures to the left and right have the same number of dots, but the one to the left looks like a square and the one to the right looks like three tall rectangles because of the law of proximity.
While Gestalt psychologists were interested in questions of perception and organization, psychologists who took a psychodynamic approach were more interested in what's going on in our unconscious minds. Psychodynamic psychology got its start with Sigmund Freud, an Austrian psychologist who came to believe that his patients' problems were caused by repressed memories of childhood trauma. Freud and others who followed this model, like Carl Jung and Alfred Adler, used techniques of psychoanalysis like talk therapy and dream analysis to try to expose and explore these unconscious memories and desires. Freud may be most famous for seemingly relating everything back to sex--his famous Oedipus Complex proposed that young boys are all secretly motivated by the desire to kill their fathers and marry their mothers.
The psychodynamic approach is rarely practiced in its original form today. Many of these psychologists theories about mental health turned out to be largely unfounded--still, the idea that unconscious thoughts and childhood experiences can influence behavior has persisted. Freud's division of the mind into id, or childish impulses; superego, or moderate voice of reason; and ego, or mediator, has influenced the way we think about internal conflict. And Freud's legacy of talk therapy as a way to improve health has certainly lasted until today, though most therapists now use techniques that are not strictly aimed at uncovering hidden desires and wishes.
A third big movement in psychology in the early twentieth century was behaviorism, founded by psychologist John Watson but made most famous by B.F. Skinner. Watson and Skinner decided to do away entirely with questioning what's going on in our heads and decided to focus solely on behavior. They developed the principle of conditioning to explain how people and animals learn some behaviors instead of others. Basically, behaviorists believed that if a behavior receives reinforcements someone will continue to do it, while if it receives punishments the person will stop. Skinner and his colleagues believed that when it comes to decision-making, cognition--what we experience as thinking something over--is basically irrelevant--people will do whatever they've been indirectly conditioned to. The behaviorist approach has some disturbing implications about the existence of free will; if Skinner is correct, decision-making is really an illusion. These more extreme claims about conditioning's dominance over cognition have been largely disproven by later psychologists, but the study of learning and reinforcement is still an important part of studying behavior today.
So as you can see, psychologists have historically taken many diverse approaches to studying the mind. The Gestalt psychologists focused on studying how we perceive whole forms; Freud and others who practiced psychodynamic psychology thought the unconscious played a significant role in mental functioning; Skinner and other behaviorist psychologists thought that all behaviors are conditioned. As psychology grew as a discipline over the next half of the twentieth century, approaches multiplied even more.