The Origins of Psychology: History Through the Years

Psychology is an important discipline, with links into many different areas and across disciplines. To address this question, we will be looking at psychology by looking at mental health treatment. The past, the present and the future of psychology will be discussed, as well as the application of psychological models in aiding the understanding of psychology in wider society, and whether psychology is really a science, with links into mental health treatment.

Psychology does not just have one school of thought or one approach, rather it is an amalgamation of differing approaches, each using different methods, and having different key concepts.

The main approaches in psychology are: psychodynamic, behaviourist, humanist, cognitive, and biological. The psychodynamic approach was introduced by Sigmund Freud, with a focus on the unconscious, with key concepts such as, the id, the ego and the superego, and defence mechanisms (Bianco, Barilaro & Palmieri, 2016; Hingley, 1997). The research methodology was usually case studies that involved abnormal phenomena, such as Little Hans (Muris, 2006).

The behaviourist approach, with figures such as Watson, Pavlov and BF Skinner, had the main idea of the person being a black box, just receiving and responding to stimuli passively, and that everything can be learned or conditioned. The preferred method of research was laboratory experiments, with a focus on observable behaviour (Palermo, 1971).

The humanist approach, with Maslow and Rogers, had key ideas of placing the individual back into psychology and with a focus on more positive psychology, involving concepts like Rogers’ client-centered therapy (Robbins, 2008; Kensit, 2000). The cognitive approach, including cognitive science, which came into popularity in the 1950s, focused on how the mind can explain behavior, (Miller, 2003).

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The biological approach, working across disciplines with biology, has led to the research and development of different medications, such as selective serotonin reuptake-inhibitors (SSRI) in treating depression (Kinderman, 2005). What these differing approaches show, is that psychology has evolved and developed, through the changing approaches and the time of their dominance in the discipline. Yet, the approaches can still experience crossover between them., such as between the cognitive approach of Beck and the humanistic approach of Rogers. They share a similar idea of changing negative thoughts in mental health treatment (Bohart, 1982), so while the approaches in psychology have many differences, there are some links across these schools of thought within psychology.

Psychology is a constantly evolving discipline, which is evident in its history. The history of mental health treatment in psychology is considered to be dark, due to the lack of knowledge and understanding of those with mental health conditions. Those diagnosed with mental health conditions were thought to have been possessed, and were demonic, or that they had contracted their mental illness by being sinful (Schlosberg, 1993 as cited by Byrne, 2001). This showed that the strong influence of religion informed how mental health was regarded, therefore informing the attitudes towards those with mental health conditions and how they were treated. The treatment of those with mental health conditions could involve the individual being sent to asylums or madhouses (Turner, 2004). However, other research argues that the historical treatments and attitudes towards mental health were not as dark as we had otherwise been led to believe. Neugebauer (1978) stated that in the medieval and early modern England, from about the thirteenth to the seventeenth century, those with mental health conditions were provided with help. They had guardians assigned to aid, care and protect them. This history of mental health treatment can help to show how psychology has changed and learned from its past, undergoing shifts in the knowledge that allow it to evolve into what it is now and what it will evolve into in the future.

Currently, in psychology, mental health conditions can be identified through the use of classification manuals, such as the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V) from the American Psychological Association (APA, 2013), and there are many different treatments for different mental health conditions. Treatments for various mental health conditions are a wide variety, such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) for treating depression (Cuijpers et al., 2013). Medication can also be used to treat mental health conditions by reducing the severity of the symptoms. Therapy and medication are commonly used together, in order to better treat mental health conditions, such as depression (Foster & Mohler-Kuo, 2018). Within psychology, is the mind-body problem, a philosophical debate about how the mind and body are considered in relation to each other (Kreitler, 2018), which is also linked to the current understanding and direction of mental health treatment in psychology. The current stance in the treatment of mental health in psychiatry is that the mind and body are the same, which moves away from the dualism of Descartes, taking ideas from molecular biology, that neuronal anatomy in the brain and their functions help make up the mind (Mohr, 2003).

This illustrates the developments and current direction in mental health treatment, and how psychology works across disciplines with biology, with psychology and biology working together to further understand and developmental health treatments. This shows how psychology can be informed by, but also inform, other subject fields. It also shows how psychology is moving in a more scientific direction, by looking at the influence of biological structures in understanding behavior and developing mental health treatments. As well as the better identification and treatment of mental health conditions, the attitude towards mental health, in general, has changed. It is talked about in mainstream society, such as in politics and education, showing the influence psychology has and how it can work to change society’s attitudes, in this case, towards mental health treatment.

Psychology has had an impact on society, through the research it has provided. For mental health, whether it concerns good mental health or mental health conditions, there are different models that are utilized in society, for understanding mental health. An example of one of these models is that of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (Maslow 1970, as cited by Thielke et al., 2012). This has affected the attitudes and understanding of good mental health in general, by stating what is required to attain a good quality of mental health. This can be used in education to improve the experience of students (Milheim, 2012), therefore having an impact on wider society. Another psychological model used is Beck’s negative/ cognitive triad, a model of depression of negative views of self, world and future, which is also applied to mental health treatments for depression (Beck, 1976, as cited by Pössel, 2011). This model is useful in understanding the reasoning and thought processes involved in those who experience depression, in order to be able to better treat an individual. These models help to show the impact psychology has on wider society and the influence that it can have with its research. With the use of these models, they have helped expand the knowledge behind and the treatment of mental health, therefore having an impact on the wider society of having created a greater understanding through psychology.

However, there is a problem prevalent currently within psychology, when it comes to the cultural implications of psychology research. This issue is that psychology is too WEIRD. By being too WEIRD, what is meant is that psychology is rife with having research samples that are comprised primarily of undergraduate students who are Western, are Educated, Industrialised, are Rich and are from cultures that are Democratic in nature (Henrich, Heine & Norenzayan, 2010). The issue, as Henrich, Heine and Norenzayan (2010) argues, for psychology is that WEIRD samples are not representative of those from other cultures. This means that the research conducted in psychology, that has been claimed to be generalisable, is in fact not the case. Gergen, Gulerce, Lock and Misra (1996) states that by psychological research being disproportionally made up of WEIRD samples, psychology also disregards other cultures with this research, as well as the research holding little relevance to these cultures. Therefore, psychological research needs to be conducted on a more diverse set of participants with a wide range of cultures, in order to be better attributed to wider society and to be able to further expand our knowledge of psychology.

There is also an argument that psychology is not considered to be scientific. Alex Berezow is one of the key advocates against psychology being a science. Berezow (2012) argues that psychology cannot be considered a science, due to the fact that psychology often lacks five requirements in order to be regarded as a science. Some of these requirements that psychology lacks are terminology that has been defined clearly, reproducibility, and experimental conditions that have been controlled to a high standard. An argument against this is that non-experimental methods, such as qualitative methods, are of equal standing and importance as quantitative methods, that can be controlled highly, in psychology. Qualitative methods for research have been identified as having an important place in mental health research, in aiding in understanding how mental health treatments are used and experienced (Peters, 2010).

This requirement would discount important research and methods that those of a qualitative nature can provide. Another argument against these requirements are that, in some cases, laboratory experiments that are highly controlled are not the best method for investigating a research area, so sometimes this must be forfeited. Research conducted in real-life situations can be incredibly useful in mental health treatment, such as being able to develop a treatment strategy that would work in an individual’s daily life (Heron & Smyth, 2011), which gives ecological validity. The point can be made that the requirements for psychology to be a science, as outlined by Berezow, are too strict and would actually cause some important research to be disregarded, which is why psychology should be thought of as a science, though it probably will not be considered as much as a science as the natural sciences, such as biology or chemistry.

However, with the increase in focus of psychology becoming more scientific, we could actually be losing something. With psychology moving towards being seen as more scientific than it is currently, psychology as a discipline may in fact be becoming more reductionist. In the case of mental health treatment, by focusing on more quantitative measures and methods of research that are considered to be more scientific, we could be losing the personal perspective of the individual who is being treated. This is against the ideas of those in the humanist approach, such as Maslow and Rogers, who advocated for the individual to be put back in psychology, and for them to be considered at a more personal level.

Roberts (2000) discussed how the personal story of the individual is important in mental health practices and treatment. By psychology moving in a more scientific, but reductionist, direction, the individual could be lost and almost dehumanized, with this reductionist approach to mental health treatment focusing on just symptoms and their treatment, rather than including the person as well. Future directions of mental health treatment within psychology, therefore need to not disregard or forget the individual in the pursuit of psychology to be more scientific.

The advancements of technology could also affect the future directions that psychology could take. This can be through the use of technology in mental health treatment. Benavides-Vaello, Strode and Sheeran’s (2012) review shows the benefits of technology being used for a greater reach to rural communities for mental health treatment and services. Through the use and advancement of technology, more people can access mental health treatments, such as by telephone and virtual reality. For psychology, it means that in the future more people will be able to access mental health treatments that they may not have been able to now and, in the past, which could lead to improvements in how mental health conditions can be treated.

To conclude, in order to answer the question of what psychology is, many different issues and concepts need to be considered. Psychology is an ever-evolving discipline, having undergone many changes. Looking through the eyes of mental health treatment in psychology, we can see how the discipline has changed in understanding, attitudes, and methods. The current state of psychology is one that is more scientific, and working across disciplines. However, there is a need for psychology to be more diverse in its research, with a greater range of cultures being represented in the samples, to increase the cultural impact of research. Looking at the future of psychology, there is debate about whether psychology moving towards a more scientific direction would result in the discipline becoming too reductionist, losing the individual in the process. The advancements of technology for mental health treatment in psychology could mean that treatment and services could be more far-reaching in the future. Overall, to answer the question of what is psychology, it is an ever-evolving, increasingly scientific discipline, that has an impact on wider society with its research.

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The Origins of Psychology: History Through the Years. (2020, Sep 18). Retrieved from

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