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Reflection on the History & Systems of Psychology Essay

Pre-modern, modern and postmodern frames of reference have all helped shape important, contemporary psychological theories and issues. In this paper I will attempt, in a reflective manner, to walk through and revisit the areas we covered in course, the end aim being to gain a measure of insight into where the field of psychology stands today, particularly with regard to oppressive forms of ethnocentric monoculturalism.

In terms of pre-modern perspectives, in the course we first discussed historical issues concerning the mind-body problem. I stated the nature of the relationship between body and mind and whether they are one and the same or two distinct substances, which is the center of the debate between monists and dualist. Descartes, the most well known dualist, argued for a separation of mind from soul and body. Also an interactionist, Descartes held the mind influenced the body as much as the body impacted the mind (Goodwin, 2009). Plato, his predecessor from antiquity, was also a dualist and an interactionist arguably, and believed the body and soul/mind were temporarily at one during life; each came from a completely different place, the body from the material world and the soul from the world of ideas. At the moment of death, the body withered away in time and space, the soul or mind returning to the world of forms and there realizing universal truths (Wozniak, 1992).

Delving deeper into pre-modern views of the mind-body problem I touched upon Spinoza. Spinoza, a contemporary of Descartes, dismissed Descartes’ two-substance view in favor of what is called double-aspect theory (Wozniak, 1992). Double-aspect theories hold the view that the mental and the physical realms are varying aspects of the same substance. For Spinoza, that single substance is God, perceived as the universal essence or nature of everything in existence. In Spinoza’s view, there is no partition of mind and body, therefore. Instead they are of a single substance, in a pre-established coordination, reflecting the divine essence. In reflection, I continue to side with Spinoza and double-aspect theory in terms of pre-modern perspectives. I do believe that there is a pre-established coordination between mind and body that is reflective of the divine creation. “I am therefore I think” is my continued response to Descartes.

In terms of modern perspectives in the course we examined the origins of psychology as a subject discipline. During the course I stated that psychology first appeared as a subject discipline in 1879 when Wilhelm Wundt started a psychology lab in Germany at the University of Leipzig. The laboratory devoted itself to the analysis of conscious thought in its basic elements and structures, which was uncovered through a process of introspection (Gross, 1996). What differentiated this ‘new psychology’ at the time from philosophy was its use of measurement and control as well as its emphasis on the scientific method to study mental processes relevant to human consciousness. Due to his influence on Edward B. Titchener, Wundt’s frame of reference arguably helped give birth to structuralism.

Indeed Wundt’s disciple, Titchener, is credited with developing and labeling structuralism in an 1898 paper called “The Postulates of a Structural Psychology (Goodwin, 2009). In the paper he compared and contrasted structuralism with functionalism, which he claimed infested most US universities, save Cornell where he was cultivating what would come to be called the “the Cornell school of psychology.” Notwithstanding, Goodwin (2009) has stated that Titchener and the Cornell view of psychology was extremely narrow largely because of its insistence on introspection and due to Titchener’s attitude that his way was the only way, a position that often does not bode well in academia. In this vein and perhaps arrogantly so, Titchener, likened structuralism to anatomy, its purpose being analysis he surmised — whereas functionalism he likened to physiology, stating that functionalists examine how the mind is able to adapt one to his or her said environment, which to Titchener was a waste of time without a deep understanding of structure.

As one needs to know the ins and outs of human anatomy before being able to fully delve into physiology, so thus was the functionalist at a loss, in his view, without the ability to outline the structures of human consciousness via a highly difficult process of systematic, experimental introspection as stipulated by him in almost cult like exclusivity, which spawned criticism. Accordingly, his movement never gained the momentum it needed to win American hearts and minds, falling into the dustbin of history in favor of functionalism. Nevertheless, in spite of Titchener’s unpopularity in the US, his enduring contribution is that he helped create a place for the lab and experimental psychology in all colleges and universities with programs in psychology.

While functionalists were also interested in looking at mental processes such as consciousness in so far as assessing human behavior in terms of how it aided people in adapting to ever-changing environments, they did not, unlike followers of Titchener, emphasize introspection (Goodwin, 2009). Psychologist James R. Angell, a follower of John Dewey, the founder of functionalism in America, became its most outspoken spokesperson, criticizing Titchener and drawing a sharp contrast to him in a 1907 popular paper called “The Province of Functional Psychology.” It was a damning response to Titchener’s 1898 paper. For Angell, the structuralist was interested in the “what?” of conscious thought, whereas the functionalist psychologist wished to know the “how?” and “why?” of it, asking what is consciousness for? (Goodwin, 2009).

This way of viewing psychology in terms of its practical applications, became an important influence in modern times, because it led to the study of topics such as developmental and abnormal psychology, in addition to examining the individual differences of mind, (which Titchener and the Cornell school remarkably had no interest in). When asking how psychology can be used to solve everyday problems in a practical way, we are taking from the functionalists and their movement. Perhaps the most prominent movement in the field of modern 20th century psychology was behaviorism. Behaviorism began essentially due to the work of Ivan Pavlov.

Pavlov who did not consider himself a psychologist, but, rather a physiologist interested in the process of digestion in dogs, was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1904 (the year B. F. Skinner was born) in Physiology and Medicine. In the course of his research, Pavlov observed that the dogs would often start salivating before any food being given to them, when they would see the food or the food’s container, or when they heard the footsteps of the lab assistant who was on his way to feed them. His observations led to the study to what we now call classical conditioning (Gross, 1996).

The first attempt to apply Pavlov’s findings on conditioning to humans was made by John B. Watson in a dubious and arguably unethical experiment on a small boy named Albert, showing that the fear of rats can be deliberately induced (Watson and Rayer, 1920). The experiment served to popularize a new behavioral approach to psychology that would within a decade become the dominant force in America, Watson its founder, propagator and publicist (Goodwin, 2008).

To the modernist Watson (1913), psychology is an objective natural science, its theoretical goal the prediction and control of behavior. Wundt and Titchener’s view on introspection has no place in its methods, nor is consciousness addressed or studied. There is no marked borderline between people and animals. Due to Watson’s input and influence cats, dogs, rats, and pigeons became the major source of psychological data. As ‘psychological’ now meant ‘behavior’ rather than ‘consciousness,’ animals that were easier to study and whose environments could be more readily controlled could replace people as experimental subjects (Gross, 1966).

B. F. Skinner, also a behaviorist and modernist, went steps further than Pavlov and Watson, casting behavior in a more interactive light. He made a distinction between respondent and operant behavior and argued that most animal and human behavior is not brought about in the way Pavlov and Watson indicated and surmised. Skinner, like Edward Thorndike before him, was interested in how animals operate on their environment and how this operant behavior brings about particular consequences that can determine the likelihood of that behavior being repeated. In experiments he used a variation of Thordike’s puzzle-box, a Skinner box, which was made for a rat or a pigeon to do things in, rather than escape from. Fundamentally, Skinner saw the learner as much more actively involved than did Pavlov or Watson, for whom behavior was due to stimuli, unconditioned stimuli before learning and conditioned stimuli after learning.

In addition to behaviorism, modern views of psychology took twists and turns. As a reaction to both Titchener’s structuralism and Watson’s behaviorism, the Gestalt psychologists of the 1920s and 1930s in Germany and Austria were primarily concerned with perception and held that perceptions could not be deconstructed in the way that Wundt and Titchener wanted to do with thought, and that behaviorists had sought for with behavior. Their belief could be succinctly stated as follows: ‘the whole is greater than the sum of its parts’ (Gross, 1996, p.3). The whole is essentially destroyed when you break down perception and behavior into parts, the Gestalt psychologists held.

There are organizing principles of perceptual organization which were voiced by Gestalt’s founder Max Wertheimer. These principles are frequently highlighted in units on perception in general psychology textbooks and are as follows: the principle of proximity, the principle of similarity, the principle of continuation. All of the organizing principles have in common what is called the law of simplicity or what Gestaltists term Prägnanz. This refers to the tendency for perceptions to mirror reality as closely as possible (Goodwin, 2009).

In the course I gave an example of gestalt thinking, which in reflection I would like to return to as it clearly remains in mind. I used the example of a bus stopping at a bus stop in one’s neighborhood. On a given day the bus stops at the same corner the person is accustomed to, and is recognized to be that bus. The person gets on, but has made a mistake. She did not realize that there was a route change that morning and the bus she took was numbered differently. What gives? Is it only a matter of not paying attention?

In Gestalt inspired, top-down conceptually driven processing, we begin with one’s prior knowledge, motivations, expectations and beliefs. In the bus example, the inability to see and decipher or register a different number on the bus and get on it, means it was recognized it to be the customary bus due to top-down processing (Danner, 2009). If one were to notice the different bus number, however, that would entail bottom-up processing, because such processing is data driven. The different number is perceived in terms of information in the sensory input, in conjunction with top-down processing, revealing to the person that it is not the customary bus.

Perhaps after realizing her mistake, the person in the example will be more careful next time, thereby exercising more bottom-up processing. If Austria was home to some of Gestalt’s most prominent members and adherents, it was also home to Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis. Freudian psychoanalytic theory was the first to state the significance of innate drives and define abnormal and normal behavior in relationship to the role of the unconscious mind. Its importance is that the theory of personality popularized contextualizing human behavior in terms of the id, ego, and superego, notating development in five psychosexual stages. Each stage was marked by shifts in what Freud believed were the underlying modes of gratification: oral, anal, phallic, latency and genital (Glassman, 2000).

In reflection, I continue to find merit in Freud’s concept of stages for sure. I would still prefer to call them development stages, however, and not necessarily put a sexual meaning on them, as Freud and his supporters have done and continue to do. There is no need to detail the well-known limitations and criticisms of Freudian theory, which according to Glassman (2000) are its falsifiability, the great deal of emphasis put on case studies, and its cultural bias towards women. Regardless of such naysaying, his supporters would passionately argue for and be adamant about such a sexual narrative of the human person, which if not fodder, certainly has entertainment value. In fact, Freudian theory is fascinating to me largely due to the dramatic (almost cinematic) conflicts and challenges that mark each psychosexual stage. Perhaps the most well-known of these is the Oedipal conflict (which occurs in the so-called phallic stage). It was interesting to read that some analysts called the female variant, the Electra conflict, but Freud himself did not use the term (see Freud 1924).

Perhaps the most attractive modern theory of personality, in my view, would belong to Carl Rogers. In Carl Roger’s theory, a person is the source of his or her basic needs such as food and water. He or she is also the source of a growth motive which he called an actualizing tendency, which is an innate drive that is reflective of the desire to grow, to develop and to develop one’s capabilities (Glassman, 2000). It is the actualizing tendency that stimulates creativity, causing a person to seek out new challenges and skills that motivate healthy growth in one’s lifetime (Gross, 1996). According to Rogers (1961, but originally proposed in 1947): Whether one calls it a growth tendency, a drive towards self-actualization, or a forward moving direction tendency, it is the mainspring in life…

It is the urge which is evident in all organic and human life – to expand, extend, become autonomous, mature and develop. In reflection, I continue to feel that Roger’s influence and continuing popularity in the psychotherapeutic community give his theories merit. APA members have been asked which psychotherapist they believe to me the most influential figure in the field (Smith, 1982). In 2006, this survey repeated in the Psychotherapy Networker. In both surveys, Carl Rogers was the “landslide” choice.

While this does not prove Rogers to be correct, certainly it gives his theory of motivation more credence than not, increasing its believability. Certainly, I feel influenced by Rogers as I move forward in my career. While Roger’s theory of an actualizing tendency and the overall nature of the client-centered approach may be controversial due to its allowance to let the client call the shots and as stated by Goodwin (2009) for its overemphasis on the the self at the expense of the importance of the community, in addition to being clearer what it was against than what it was for, it is nevertheless, a credible postulation in terms of its application in therapy and remains my preference over Freud.

Accordingly, I continue to feel that all clients innately wish to be successful in life and to be praised as contributors to their own selfactualization. They wish to expand their knowledge and achieve higher levels of success beneath all the guises that seem otherwise. When clients are not performing to their fullest potential, praise and support can help ignite the actualizing tendency in a manner that would otherwise have remained dormant.

When exploring postmodern views of psychology we have to inherently speak about cultural narratives and meta-narratives. What is psychology today and who defines it? What is psychology’s story, who told that story historically, and who gets to tell it today? When we look at psychology as a practice, historically and today, is important to bring to the fore the ethnocentric monocultural aspects that were oppressive to women and continue to be to minority groups in reinforcing white male Euro-American culture as the normative and desirable culture. Indeed, therapists and helping professionals should try to help deconstruct and unveil monoculturalism whenever it rears its despicable head. When oppressive forms such as heterosexism, ageism, gender and sexism come to the fore in therapy, for example, therapists should not reinforce them but try to encourage reflection on such prejudices with the aim being for the client to indentify for what it is – and to grow accordingly.

The field of psychology itself is not immune but remains at risk to the debacle of monoculturalism. According to Yutrzenka, Todd-Bazemore and Caraway (1999) even though the data forecast that by 2050, ethnic minorities will make up over 50% of the US population, this quickly changing demographic has minimal effect on the number of ethnic minority psychologists. This is particularly true for Native Americans, who are far more underrepresented than any other ethnic body. Though the APA as stated by Goodwin (2009), is vigorously addressing this entire issue at present, with such efforts to be praised, still the legacy of ethnocentric monoculturalism is a stain on the profession, and will remain so until significant numbers of minority psychologists abound.

In spite of the barriers confronting them, women and minorities have made many notable, valuable and vital contributions to the field of psychology. During the course I discussed Eleanor Gibson who received the National Medal of Science in 1992 for a lifetime of research on topics dealing with the development of depth perception to the fundamentals involved in reading, faced discrimination while at Yale from psychologist Robert Yerkes who wanted no females in his lab (Goodwin, 2009).

While she was able to get her PhD there under the guidance of the neobehaviorist Clark Hull, she unfortunately went on to experience difficulties at Cornell (where her husband had gained a position) forced into an unpaid research associate position in spite of winning competitive and prestigious research grants. As a result of these grants, however, she was able to carry out pioneering studies on depth perception with Richard Walk. When Cornell, home to Titchener’s legacy, removed its nepotism rules in 1966, only then did she become a full professor.

Furthermore, as discussed in the course, African-Americans have also made outstanding contributions to psychology. Kenneth and Mamie Phipps Clark again come to mind in terms of their best known research titled Racial identification and preference in Negro children (Goodwin, 2009). In this research it was shown that black children showed a preference for white dolls over black ones when asked which they would like to play with and looked more like. The Clarks concluded, according to Goodwin (2009) that one insidious effect of racial segregation was its negative influence on African-American self-esteem. As a result of this research, in part, the Supreme Court was compelled to do the right thing and reverse the racist separate but equal doctrine in Brown v. Board of Education.

The Clarks’ contribution to psychology and the contributions of other AfricanAmericans preceding them were not without struggle. Their mentor at Howard University, Francis Sumner faced huge obstacles when attempting to get a graduate degree and gain employment in academia. African-Americans have often had their basic intellectual abilities questioned (Goodwin, 2009). The legacy of white racism and of the field of psychology’s complicity by not taking a firmer stand until only recently is without question a significant reason why African-Americans remain heavily underrepresented in the profession, in spite of the gains made for women. 60 percent of doctorates in psychology are awarded to women today, while Native Americans as we discussed and African-Americans continue to be awarded a paltry percentage in turn.

Such dismal figures have nothing to do with intelligence. We know that early intelligence tests were normed on just Caucasian, middle-class populations and only recently has such bias been addressed and perhaps abated. This also was the case for the MMPI personality tests as well. In the case of the MMPI, many of the original items became dated and according to Kassin (2008), to bring the test up to the 21st century and more postmodern views, new items were written in, and a more diverse cross-section of the US was sampled. The result of that updating is the newer 567-item version called the MMPI-2.

In reflection, my guess is that similar advances have been made or are being considered in IQ testing as well; otherwise we would have to call into question whether biased IQ tests are valid for minority groups. Accordingly, great care should be taken when formulating test questions as well as interpreting the results of test-takers from different cultural groups and urban tribes. Fundamentally, it is crucial that test makers be made aware of cultural differences when putting together IQ test questions, as recommended for the MMPI (Church 2001). Exercising caution does not mean minority groups are treated with kid gloves, but rather that a lens of understanding is in place — and that can come about as a result of the test makers and assessors informing themselves. Otherwise an IQ test’s validity for minority groups is at issue.

Pre-modern, modern and postmodern frames of reference have all helped shape important, contemporary psychological theories and issues. Accordingly, I have attempted in a reflective manner to revisit the areas of psychology’s history we covered in course. If psychology as a profession is to continue to grow and develop, it will occur through a similar process of reflection, followed by action. It is important for psychology to know its origins, its history and respective story. However, in realization of the depth of ethnocentric monoculturalism, its leadership, particularly in the APA, must act on the call to bring about the inclusion of more minorities. Otherwise, the oppressive stain of monoculturalism shall abound and continue to blemish the profession we hold dear.


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Yutrzenka, B.A., Todd-Bazemore, E., & Caraway, S.J. (1999). Four winds: The evolution of culturally inclusive clinical psychology training for Native Americans. International Review of Psychiatry, 11, 129- 135. ProQuest: 43479524.

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