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Psychology as a separate discipline

Psychology itself is a comparatively new field, but its roots can be traced back to early Philosophers such as Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, who had for years, contemplated the human mind and the relationships between people and society. Hippocrates, for example, philosophized about basic human temperaments and their related traits, reasoning that physical conditions, such as yellow bile or too much blood, may cause differences in temperament (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2011). However, psychology takes these ponderings and turns them into hypotheses, scientifically testing them in an attempt to answer and understand them further. It also differs from sociology, which although similarly looks at behaviour; how it affects and is affected by the environment, because it focuses specifically on individuals or small groups, whereas sociology looks at large groups and subcultures. However, the area of social psychology does look specifically at society.

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Wilhelm Wundt, credited as the father of psychology, was a physiologist, elements of physiology still being found within today’s schools of psychological thought. He opened the first psychological laboratory in 1879 in Leipzig, Germany. He formed the Structuralist school of thought, whose underlying belief was that consciousness can be broken down into components; perception, sensation and affection (Gross, McIlveen, Coolican, Clamp and Russell,2000). The main method he used was introspection, careful observation of one’s own conscious experiences (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2011). In contrast, Functionalism, led by William James and John Dewey, was concerned more with the capability of the mind than with the process of thought (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2011). Although these two schools of thought were eventually replaced, they created interest in psychology that spread as far as the US.

Watson, in early 1900 took psychology in another direction. He questioned the validity and usefulness of Wundt’s introspection, reasoning that any results gained could never be proved or disproved. He felt that since only behaviour could be measured objectively, psychologists should concentrate on this (Gross et al, 2000). According to behaviourists, behaviour can be studied in a systematic and observable manner with no consideration of internal mental states (Cherry, 2011). Skinners theory of learning was based upon the idea that all behaviours are acquired through conditioning, the use of reinforcement (Gross, et al, 2000).

However, Bandura felt not all behaviour is a result of reinforcement, suggesting that some behaviours can be learned through observation. He also concluded that external, environmental reinforcement is not the only factor to influence learning and behaviour. Pride, satisfaction and a sense of accomplishment were described as a kind of internal reward, or intrinsic reward. He also added that observational learning demonstrates that not all learned behaviour is necessarily performed. His work still has important implications in the field of education, the importance of modelling appropriate behaviours, encouragement and building self-worth is still key in today’s classrooms (Cherry, 2011b). Bandura did not consider himself a behaviourist, preferring to call his ideas Social Learning Theory.

Around the same time, Freud’s Psychodynamic movement was developing in Europe. He proposed a major alternative to behaviourism. He wanted to return the focus of psychology to the internal workings of the mind and had controversial ways of explaining them. He argued that the unconscious is responsible for much of our thought and behaviour, outside of conscious thought and therefore, our control. He proposed a new form of psychotherapy, psychoanalysis (Gross, et al, 2000)

The humanistic approach, often called the “third force” in psychology, developed in response to what some felt were flaws in psychoanalysis and behaviourism. Both were considered to be deterministic and dehumanising, focusing on reinforcement of stimulus-response behaviour, heavily dependent on animal research and with unconscious irrational and instinctive forces determining human thought and behaviour (Saul Mcleod, 2007).

More recently, another school of thought developed in response to behaviourism, suggesting that more complex behaviours had been ignored or oversimplified, specifically conditioning. Focusing entirely on mental processes, Cognitive psychologists renamed the “mind” “cognition” and concentrate on how we attain, retain and regain information, through the processes of perception, attention, memory, problem-solving, language and thinking in general. Cognitive psychologists see people as information processors, much like computers. Although these processes can only be inferred from what a person does, these processes can be observed in the form of memory or problem solving tests etc (Gross, et al 2000).

With developments in technology such as brain imaging, Biological psychologists focus on the biological basis of behaviour; Causal factors the role of genetics and chemical, for example, the release of neurochemicals and physiological changes, for example, heart rate. They are particularly interested in the brain, how it works, the functions of the different parts and how these parts are connected. Their work is based upon findings of actually looking at the body, more specifically the brain, and observing what happens during particular mental states. This work has had a major influence on the explanation and treatment of psychological disorders (Harolambos and Rice, 2002).




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