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Old Wednesday, June 01, 2011
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Default Psychology. Schools of Thought

Schools of Psychology

From the late 1800's until the 1930's, psychologists were divided about what they should study and how they should study it. Four major schools developed. These schools were

(1) Structuralism

(2) Behaviourism

(3) Gestalt psychology

(4) Psychoanalysis


Structuralism grew out of the work of James, Wundt, and their associates. These psychologists believed the chief purpose of psychology was to describe, analyse, and explain conscious experience, particularly feelings and sensations. The structuralists attempted to give a scientific analysis of conscious experience by breaking it down into its specific components or structures. For example, they identified four basic skin sensations: warmth, cold, pain, and pressure. They analysed the sensation of wetness as the combined experience of cold and smoothness.

The structuralists primarily used a method of research called introspection. In this technique, subjects were trained to observe and report as accurately as they could their mental processes, feelings, and experiences.


Behaviourism was introduced in 1913 by John B. Watson, an American psychologist. Watson and his followers believed that observable behaviour, not inner experience, was the only reliable source of information. This concentration on observable events was a reaction against the structuralists' emphasis on introspection. The behaviourists also stressed the importance of the environment in shaping an individual's behaviour. They chiefly looked for connections between observable behaviour and stimuli from the environment.

The behaviourist movement was greatly influenced by the work of the Russian physiologist Ivan P. Pavlov. In a famous study, Pavlov rang a bell each time he gave a dog some food. The dog's mouth would water when the animal smelled the food. After Pavlov repeated the procedure many times, the dog's saliva began to flow whenever the animal heard the bell, even if no food appeared. This experiment demonstrated that a reflex--such as the flow of saliva--can become associated with a stimulus other than the one that first produced it--in this case, the sound of a bell instead of the smell of food. The learning process by which a response becomes associated with a new stimulus is called conditioning.

Watson and the other behaviourists realized that human behaviour could also be changed by conditioning. In fact, Watson believed he could produce almost any response by controlling an individual's environment.

During the mid-1900's, the American psychologist B. F. Skinner gained much attention for behaviourist ideas. In his book Walden Two (1948), Skinner describes how the principles of conditioning might be applied to create an ideal planned society.

Gestalt psychology

Gestalt psychology, like behaviourism, developed as a reaction against structuralism. Gestalt psychologists believed that human beings and other animals perceive the external world as an organized pattern, not as individual sensations. For example, a film consists of thousands of individual still pictures, but we see what looks like smooth, continuous movement. The German word Gestalt means pattern, form, or shape. Unlike the behaviourists, the Gestaltists believed that behaviour should be studied as an organized pattern rather than as separate incidents of stimulus and response. The familiar saying "The whole is greater than the sum of its parts" expresses an important principle of the Gestalt movement.

Gestalt psychology was founded about 1912 by Max Wertheimer, a German psychologist. During the 1930's, Wertheimer and two colleagues took the Gestalt movement to the United States.


Psychoanalysis was founded during the late 1800's and early 1900's by the Austrian doctor Sigmund Freud. Psychoanalysis was based on the theory that behaviour is determined by powerful inner forces, most of which are buried in the unconscious mind. According to Freud and other psychoanalysts, from early childhood people repress (force out of conscious awareness) any desires or needs that are unacceptable to themselves or to society. The repressed feelings can cause personality disturbances, self-destructive behaviour, or even physical symptoms.

Freud developed several techniques to bring repressed feelings to the level of conscious awareness. In a method called free association, the patient relaxes and talks about anything that comes to mind while the therapist listens for clues to the person's inner feelings. Psychoanalysts also try to interpret dreams, which they regard as a reflection of unconscious drives and conflicts. The goal is to help the patient understand and accept repressed feelings and find ways to deal with them.

Modern psychology has incorporated many teachings of the earlier schools. For example, though many psychologists disagree with certain of Freud's ideas, most accept his concept that the unconscious plays a major role in shaping behaviour. Similarly, most psychologists agree with the behaviourists that environment influences behaviour and that they should study chiefly observable actions. However, many psychologists object to pure behaviourism. They believe that it pays too little attention to such processes as reasoning and personality development.

Stimulus-Response School

Psychology today has continued to develop in several directions. A group of extreme behaviourists called the stimulus-response school believe all behaviour is a series of responses to different stimuli. According to these psychologists, the stimulus connected with any response can eventually be identified. As a result, stimulus-response psychologists regard behaviour as predictable and potentially controllable.

Cognitive School

Another group of psychologists, who are known as the cognitive school, believe there is more to human nature than a series of stimulus-response connections. These psychologists concentrate on such mental processes as thinking, reasoning, and self-awareness. They investigate how a person gathers information about the world, processes the information, and plans responses.

Humanistic Psychology

A school called humanistic psychology developed as an alternative to behaviourism and psychoanalysis. Humanistic psychologists believe individuals are controlled by their own values and choices and not entirely by the environment, as behaviourists think, or by unconscious drives, as psychoanalysts believe. The goal of humanistic psychology is to help people function effectively and fulfil their own unique potential. The supporters of this approach include the American psychologists Abraham H. Maslow and Carl R. Rogers.

Many psychologists do not associate themselves with a particular school or theory. Instead, they select and use what seems best from a wide variety of sources. This approach is called eclecticism.
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