THE HISTORY OF EXPERIMENTAL PSYCHOLOGY


by Lester Long Jr. MS CPC BS CSS CADC CPS

The founding of the Experimental laboratory in Leipzig by William Wundt (1832 -1920) in 1879 was a significant and important contribution to the developing school of psychology. It was significant because it was the beginning of psychology no longer being viewed as an off shoot of philosophy and biology but a science in its own right. It was the foundation of many off sprang concepts in the field of psychology such functionalism and behaviorism. Experimental psychology presents us with a concept that the mind could be broken into elements and components. This process of experimentation was known as structuralism.

This new concept put forth a new understanding called introspection. The introspection concept pointed out that it was not caused by causal events but it was a high practice of examination of the self. The experimental laboratory became a center of study for students all over the world. It became focal point for person interested in this new science.
The practice of experimental psychology made use of highly trained associates from all over and they were often given ticking metronome as a stimulus and were asked to reflect on their experiences. The experimental laboratory provided training for 186 graduate student and about two-thirds became psychologist.

However among the students that graduated very few earned Ph.Ds. The experimental method is relevant in this day age because it has made a significant contribution to developmental psychology. Its contribution in the areas of mental functioning such as thought process, images, and feeling is a very important part of the school of Cognitive Psychology.The experimental method was also significant in its contribution to behaviorism. It was the research provided by the experimental method that played a major part in thinking of modern behaviorist. Behaviorist utilized the experimental method as scientific approach in developing and accessing behavior.

As we examine greater into the system and the work of Wundt, we see that there is a great relationship between philosophy and psychology. Many believed the work and even the laboratory itself provided an extensive philosophical and psychological system. Araugo (2012) point out that the two the main aspects of psychological analysis in Wundt’s work are logical causality and psychophysical. The experimental science of psychology was to do research in controlled conditions. McLeod (2008) explains that the approach encouraged behaviorist in later research to follow the same example in order to find their studies more scientific. McLeod further goes on to say however many psychologist such as B. F. Skinner argued that introspection was subjective and unable to be verified and observable behavior is the most reliable way to measure behavior objectively. Even though Wundt will always be seen as the founder of experimental psychology and has secured a place in science of psychology even he believed that the experimental approach was limited.

The Separation of Psychology from Philosophy and Biology

Psychology separated as a discipline from philosophy and biology took place in the later part of the 1800s.This separation came about as result for the need to analyze human behavior in a way that was measurable. Experimental psychology attempted to present a form of science that would examine behavior through a logical and mathematical process. It was important in experimental psychology to be able understand analytical thinking through a process of observation and associate that thinking to ideas and outcome. This aspect provided a way to measure behavior through a scientific process as opposed to philosophy that did not provide a meaningful measure process. Experimental psychology differed also from biology because measuring and braking down components of the mind provided a more measurable understanding of what stimulus caused what responses not just though physical changes but by observation and testing. However, since Wundt had a background in physiology the incorporation of physical issues reminded a continuous area that provided experimentalist with answers.

Nicolas and Ferrand (1999) explain that the opening of experimental laboratory marked the beginning of how human behavior forever is assessed and reassessed scientifically. They further go on to point out that the laboratory was the first to provide an examination of mind through a structural process and was the beginning of modern psychology. Cherry (2012) points out that this structural process became known as Structuralism. Because Wundt had a background in physiology, the work he and his assistants often concentrate on was in that area of study. The laboratory would study such things as reaction time, sensory process, and attention. However, the separation of psychology from philosophy Angell (N.D.) points out that there is no theoretical distinction between the two except when psychology interpreted both from a structural and functional standpoint. He goes on to point out that the problems that exist for psychology and normative sciences are an outgrowth from the central of the structure and the function of the consciousness.

Prior to the separation of psychology from philosophy the basic belief in Europe was that psychology as a science would never take place. This was just not the thinking of some but of many persons in the academic field. However what we know about psychology today began as attempts the present arguments against psychology as a scientific process as those who believed in its value scientifically fought to overcome those arguments. Psychology separated from philosophy but there is still an overlapping relationship basically because both advocate the ability to observe and the association of ideas. However, Green (2000) explains that psychology limits philosophy because psychology establishes boundaries which provide a range for philosophy. He goes on to point out that the narrower the range of a person understanding of life from a psychological standpoint, the narrower the original range of his or her philosophy. He also points out that the separation of the two disciplines eventually made British philosophy a thing of the past. The basic reason for the separation was to bring human behavior into way of understanding not just that people respond but why they respond. McLeod (2008) explains that Wundt’s primary objective was to record and analyze sensations and thoughts by the same means as a chemist do when assessing compounds of chemicals.The separation between philosophy and psychology also came about as result of Wundt’s belief that the consciousness could be broken down into various aspects without compromising the whole. This new science was given the name “Structuralism”. The name came from Edward Titchener, a loyal assistant to Wundt who later went off to establish a new school of psychology known as “Functionalism”.

What is Structuralism?

Structuralism promoted the concept that the mind  could be broken down into components or elements and through both research and study causal relations can found. The process based in both biology and philosophy it was believed that structuralism could arrive at a greater understanding of the relationship between stimulus and response. Structuralist believed that elements of consciousness could be understood by understanding physical condition. Benjamin (2007) explains that the structuralist method of grouping and finding patterns could be accomplished through quantified laboratory observation. Wundt’s laboratory experiments consisted of categorically broking down the whole to their basic conscious elements. An example of the way this would take place is a subject would asked to identify an object such as an apple or orange and relates to the observer their basic perceptions of was invoked by the object. The subject would then describe such things as it was crisp, cold or sweet. Structuralism for the most part is dead. Primary because it was proven to be bias in its conclusions and was not able to give a logical explanation why stimulus given to one person it causes a certain reaction or response given to another a different one. Its death took place pretty much with Wundt but the concept of experimentation lives on. The concept of sensory and perception assessment is also very much alive.

Functionalism

Functionalism was an off shoot of structuralism. Edward Tichener presented this theory as an alternative to structuralism. Functionalism examines behavioral psychological processing by studying sensory processing related to the input and output of causal relationships. The primary area of difference between structuralism and functionalism was that structuralism promulgated that the breaking down of the conscious into basic elements and there exist similarities in individual organism. Structuralism sought to find mental content as opposed to mental functioning. Functionist believed that looking at the adaptation of environment was the determining factors in assessing human behavior.

According to the Functionist theory society is an organism that is influenced by the environment. Social institutions worked together like organism to reproduce and maintain societies. Functionist theory advocated that social institutions exist because they promote integration and stability. The functionist theory sought to find and understand individual responses in changing environments. The questions asked by functionist are “How does an individual respond to environmental changes? Is adaptions possible?

One of the major criticisms of functionalism was that it did not take it to account social changes which take place. It was considered too conservative in desired outcomes. McLeod (2008) explains functuralism placed a great deal of emphasizes on consequences and the causes of human behavior. It brought together the relationship of psychology and its union with physiology. He goes on to point out that objective testing was of great concern for functionist and they believed that through the observation of animal behavior would help us more understand human behavior. Some of the leading proponents of Functionalism were William James, John Dewey, and James Rowland.

The Experimental Method Moves to France and North American

Nicolas and Sanitiso (2012) point out that upon the election of Theodule Ribot (1839-1916) as the chair of Experimental and Comparative Psychology at the College de France brought about a liberation and France officially became part of psychology era. This new title caused a lot of debate but finally a compromised was reached. It was pointed out that name “Experimental and Comparative Psychology” was an attempt to show that it was broad in perspective and comprehensive in psychological study. Psychophysics investigation was left to the Germanys and Americans and as a result French psychologist and the development of its psychological efforts were seen as lagging behind in this new field of psychology. The major reason for this was the French had no laboratory. They thus provided no means to test theories or provide experimentation.

Henry Bennis (1830-1921) saw this as a problem and recommended that an experimental laboratory be developed. As a result of receiving the approval of Ribot, the Laboratory of Physiological Psychology was opened and Bennis was named Director.Nicholas and Murrray (1999) explained under the leadership of Bennis, this new laboratory was founded and began its first experiments at Sorbonne in Paris, France. Unfortunately, this new laboratory had to depend on the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes educational institution resulting in the laboratory having an uphill battle. The Ecole Pratique des Hautes educational institution was opposed to any aspects of experimental psychology.

In the early stages of the laboratory experimental projects were very modest but Bennis wanted to create one similar to the Germans and the Americans. Nicholas and Murray further point out that Bennis felt very strongly and excited about the possibilities of the Laboratory and went about seeking a separate budget for his various instruments and equipment. But unlike Wundt, Bennis had no assistance and in addition was still teaching at Nancy University. Bennis decided that in order to fulfill his dream of fully establishing the laboratory, he would have to take a leave of absence from the University. He did so between 1891 through 1892. During this same period Alfred Binet left Jean Martin Charcot and the Salpertritee hospital. In addition Jean Philipee (1862-1931) decided to become an assistant to Bennis and was its first volunteer in 1891. Nichol and Murray point out that at one point Benet met Bennie and asked if he could work at the Laboratory and he was invited.

Nicolas and Sanitioso (2012) explain that between the years of 1892 and 1904, Alfred Binet (1857-1911) brought forth original work at the experimental laboratory. .His work provided very important research for the University of Sorbonne in Paris. Binet had graduated with an educational degree in law and practiced in this field until it got boring and the experimental method of psychology became of interest. He began to study psychology and became very curious about the scientific method. Nicolas and Sanitoso explain that Binet had a particular interest in the pathological method. He was motived about this method because the aspects of experimentation. This method of experimentation was introduced to him by Theodule Ribot who is considered the Father of French Psychology. They argued that the pathological method is a basic component of biology and it is not as many people believed that of philosophy. Those believe in this theory and concept of experimentation (morbid derangement of organism) as well as prodigies assess that this psychological order is experimental in nature. One of the revolutionary aspect of this process was that the pathological scientific method promulgates that psychologist in order to get a better understanding of the experimental outcomes, the psychologist needed to be in communication with physiologist, physicians, and alienist.

Binet eventually took control of Laboratory at Sorbonne after Henry Bennis. He and his associates felt that the laboratory should take a different direction. They believed that the experiments should not be like the ones in Germany that limited them narrow sets of rooms. The experiments that Binet presented were investigations that did not use or be conducted by sophisticated devices such as the original experimental process. He believed in a working area highly organized where all documents are categorized from wherever they might originate.Green (2009) explains the during the latter part of the 1800s, an American Stanley Hall who had worked with William James who was among the first to assist at the Leipzig laboratory returned to the United States. Upon his return he went about his own goal of establishing a laboratory at John Hopkins University. There seems to be however no documents or accounts of experiments published. Green goes on to point out that this laboratory at John Hopkins was the first in North America. However as time went on other laboratories were established in North America.

In 1888 Stanley Hall became the President of a new University Clark. This university was located in Worcester, MA. As a result of Hall accepting his new position, he brought many of students with him one of whom was named E.C. Stanford. Hall immediately appointed him to the head of the laboratory at Clark University. Green insists that by the 1890s laboratories began to establish everywhere. One of the biggest problem however was most of the literature written on the experimental process was not in English. Stanford decided that he would publish his Journal in a five-part series of articles. These new series of articles became the beacon of course study as it was appropriately named Laboratory Course Physiological Psychology. These articles were published in Hall’s new founded American Journal of Psychology in 1891-1893. These articles became the most read courses and many newspaper given them great acknowledgement. The interesting thing about this course was that 169 experiments were contended.

Experimental Psychology was not limited to gender. One of leading contributors to method was Mary Whiton Calkins. She at one time had been a student of William James and established the first experimental laboratory at Wellesley College in 1891. She gave a full description of courses she taught and the topics she used in the article “Experimental Psychology at Wellesley University.One of the years that became extremely important experimental psychology was 1893. A student of Hall’s, Joseph Jastrow recreated a public psychology laboratory at Worlds Columbus Exposition in Chicago. One of the significant strength that was demonstrated by the Chicago Exposition was researcher from all over the United States as well as North America attended. Many people from other countries attended as well as and it was seen as a great victory for the American experimental process. Jastrow would even experiment on visitors and charge a fee for his services. Green (2009) points out that Varigny demonstrated that even though he was a Frenchman, he had a great interest in the laboratories built-in North America
The Canadian’s got into the act when James Mark Baldwin opened up the laboratory in Canada. Green (2009) points out that the University provided him with a grant to buy equipment. In addition, students were encouraged in an article of the American Journal of Psychology.

Criticisms of the Experimental Method

The 1920s saw experimental psychology come under intense criticism by those who believed that the process design was unable to take into account the independence of experiences of cultures, economics, and history. They believed by neglecting mental process and one could not get the full picture of behavior. Critics believed that the process of experimentation in the psychological processing was inaccurate in representing human nature and that in lead too much support to the social order. Experimental psychology came under criticism because the method tried to predict individual behavior by subjective observation as well as though the embellishment of similar circumstances expecting similar responses. Other reasons for the eventual fall of the structuralist process are because of the flaws in Wundt’s methodology due to the lack of reliability and agreement. One thing that is very important to realize is that concrete data is often difficult in psychology.

To ensure that all has been done to ensure much accuracy possible there was a need for multiple observers who could agree independently on phenomenon. Critics pointed out that the biggest problem with Wundt’s experiments is that all his observers were his students which no doubt provided bias and inadequate outcomes.Researchers today go to great lengths to make sure that research is impartial. In addition, agreements are made prior to the research as well as those areas to be researched. This is done so that all parties making the observations can come to objective conclusions. In modern-day research of sensory and perceptual phenomena things such as vision, touch, smell and taste all stimuli that bring about responses; efforts are made to include objective parties and that agreement is research among those participating.

Summary

Experimental psychology was considered an intellectual achievement in the 1800s.In its time it may even been considered revolutionary because its concepts promulgated that if the mind can be broken down into components researchers could learn more about its responses. Experimental psychology was unlike philosophy saw life as ideas that are summed process of  logical conclusions. Experimental psychology provided scientist with a way to deduct psychology concepts, develop theories and develop a process by which those theories could be tested.There were many individuals that made major contributions; individuals such Ernst Weber who presented the idea that the differences in sensory judgment are not absolute but relative. Another person that is a great contributor is Gustav Fechner has been credited for publishing the works of experimental psychology. Oswald Kulpe, an assistant to Wundt, who founded Wurzburg School of Germany.
There will always be a place in the psyche of psychology for the experimental method. The fall of this discipline, has not over the years, stopped scientist from engaging in experiments to understand the human race better. Laboratories still exist as a necessary and regular process for proving and disproving theories.

References:

Acaujo, S. (2012), Why did Wundt abandon his early theory of the unconscious? Towards a new interpretation of Wundt’s psychological project. History of Psychology, 15, (1) 38-49.
Benjamin, L. (2007), A brief history of modern psychology. Oxford, Blackwell Publishing.
Cherry, K. (2012), Structuralism and Functionalism: Early schools of thought. Retrieved May 21, 2013 from http://psychology.about.com/od/historyofpsychology/a/structuralism.htm
Green, C. D. (2000), Darwinian theory, functionalism, and the first American Psychological Revolution. American Psychologist, 64, (2), 75-83.
Nicolas, S and Ferrand, L. (1999), Wundt’s laboratory at Leipzig in 1891. History of Psychology, 2,(3), Aug 1999, 194-203.
Nicolas, S., & Murray, D. J. (1999). Theodule Ribot (1839-1916), founder of French psychology: A biographical introduction. History of Psychology, 2, 161-169.
Nicolas, S. and Sanitioso, R. B. (2012), Alfred Binet and Experimental Psychology at the Sorbonne Laboratory. History of Psychology, 15, (4), 328-363.
McLeod, S. (2008), Wilhelm Wundt. Retrieved May 6, 2013 from http://www.simplypsychology.org/whatispsychology.html.

Please post comments at lesterclong@yahoo.com

Advertisements

About lester long Jr.

Lester Long Jr. has a Master of Science degree in Psychology from Walden University, a Certificate in Professional Counseling from Capella University. He has a BS in Public Administration and Political Science from Western Michigan University. He is also Certified in Clinical Supervision and an Alcohol and Drug Counselor through the International Certification & Reciprocity Consortium. He is Certified as a Peer Specialist in the State of Georgia. Mr. Long is also a former member of the Kalamazoo County Board of Commissioners in Kalamazoo County, Michigan.. Please leave any comments for Lester Long at lesterclong@yahoo.com.
This entry was posted in Social Learning. Bookmark the permalink.