Theory Contributions for Modern Psychology Development

04 Apr 2018

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Contribution of different approaches to psychology for the development of modern psychology

  • Charunya Rajakaruna


Different approaches to psychology contributed immensely for the development of modern psychology. Psychology is a large area of study with its branches in many other fields. Modern definition of psychology is the scientific study of behavior and mental processes. However the study of psychology existed even during the times of ancient civilizations, under a philosophical line of study. Now it is a modern science that has matured in diverse ways throughout the years. Many approaches of psychology and schools of thought lead to the development of modern psychology.

Primeval people had many different theories about mental illnesses. These psychological problems were viewed as punishments from god, possession by demon or as caused by spiritual mystic forces.

The birth of modern science led to the emergence of modern psychology in the 1800s.

Wilhelm Wundt (1832-1920), a German scientist, opened the first experimental psychology laboratory in Leipzig in 1879, paving the way for a scientific turn in the history of psychology. As it established psychology as a science separate from biology and philosophy, arguments over definition and interpretation of the mind and behavior appeared (cite).This resulted in various schools of thought arising during this period.

Schools of thought are various aspects of assessing human behavior. Psychologists use a range of viewpoints when assessing how humans behave or think. These are approaches or perspectives of psychology. These perspectives or schools of thought help psychologists to approach different problems, find new solutions or treatments for psychological problems and analyze behavior of people.

The first scientific and systematic school of thought, emerged from Wundt’s work, was structuralism. It focused on the structure or the basic elements mind, consciousness, sensations and ideas. The procedure used in structuralism was ‘introspection’. According to Wundt psychology is the study of ‘immediate experiences’. A student of Wundt, Edward B. Tichener, formally established structuralism, even though later on he diverted from Wundt’s ideas. Structuralism was an important milestone in the development of psychology because it was the first proper school of thought in psychology and because of its influence on experimental psychology.

Founded by William James, functionalism came up as a counterpose to structuralism. This approach focused on the purpose of the mind rather than the ‘structure’. And how people adapt to their environment. ‘The Principles of Psychology’ (1890) by James was viewed by many as the first textbook of modern psychology. Functionalism had an impact on educational psychology in regard to John Dewey’s theories. Furthermore it influenced on various aspects of modern psychology such as evolutionary psychology, behaviorism, educational psychology and Industrial or organizational psychology.

Criticisms of structuralism gave way to another approach in the field of psychology. Wertheimer, Kohler and Koffka’s gestalt approach emphasized that the ‘whole’ is more than the sum of its parts. Gestalt psychology influenced on perception and learning. Mario Polito, an Italian psychologist said ‘Gestalt theory is focused on the experience of contact that occurs on the here now. It considers with interest the space of teachers as well as students (Gelph n.d.).

Criticisms of structuralism, functionalism and gestalt theory brought forward behaviorism. Based mostly on the work of Ivan Pavlov’s work, behaviorism was proposed by John B. Watson. According to Pavlov, behavior is learned- ‘conditioned’. Watson argued psychology should study observable behavior, not internal events (consciousness). The concept of ‘tabula rasa’- one’s mind is a blank state when born- arose under this approach. Behaviorism had a major impact on development of modern psychology. Gender role development, behavioral therapy, scientific method, aversion therapy, moral development, phobias are only some of the areas in modern psychology that have been influenced by this approach (McLeod 2007).

Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytical approach stood opposed to Watson’s behaviorism, emphasizing on the importance of unconscious motives and early childhood experiences. Under psychoanalytical approach Freud presented the structure of personality (Id, Ego and Superego), defense mechanisms and psychosexual stages of personality development. And he introduced ‘free association’ as a form of therapy. This approach has made many contributions towards the growth of other psychotherapies. “SigmundFreud, in his influential theory of the unconscious, gave a new direction to psychology and laid the groundwork for the psychoanalytic model. Freudian theory took psychology into such fields as education, anthropology, and medicine, and Freudian research methods became the foundations of clinical psychology” (The Colombia electronic encyclopedia 2012).

These differences of opinions between the schools of thought had led to many vehement debates among early psychologists. But these schools of thought or historical approaches contributed greatly for the development of modern psychology and guided the way to the modern or contemporary perspectives of psychology.

Modern or contemporary perspectives are the main approaches used in todays field of psychology. Most of them were guided by the historical approaches mentioned earlier.

One of the modern approaches is the psychodynamic perspective. It is a modern version of psychoanalysis. Although this rooted from Freud’s psychoanalytical theory, psychodynamic approach focused more on ‘self-psychology’ and the discovery of other motivations behind behaviors rather than sexual motivations. Neo-Freudians like Carl Jung diverted from Freud’s ideas and developed concepts of collective unconscious and archetypes. Anna Freud further expanded the theory of defense mechanisms. The attachment theory, transference, resistance and trauma are being studied by other psychologists and merged with their hypotheses and procedures of treatments (American psychoanalytic association n.d.)

Behavioral perspective is another approach used in psychological field today and focuses on overt behavior. B. F. Skinner’s work made behavioral approach important in the modern psychology. Two main processes of people learning has been introduced by this approach: classical conditioning and operant conditioning. In clinical psychology, behavior therapy and behavior modification play a major role in the treatment of abnormal behavior.

Another main approach of psychology is the humanistic approach. This approach rejects behaviorism and argued that humans have their own ‘free will’ and that people had control over their lives. Psychologist such as Carl Rogers and Abraham Maslow introduced concepts such as self-actualization and ‘ideal self’. Today humanistic approach is utilized in areas such as person centered therapy, education, motivation. This perspective shifted the focus of behavior to the individual / whole person rather than the unconscious mind, genes, observable behavior.

Biological perspective or biopsychology is another approach of psychology which has contributed immensely to the growth of psychology. Biopsychology emphasizes on biological events such as nervous system, hormones and genetics in relation to behavior. Biological approach has become increasingly important in psychology with the invention of various apparatus for mapping of the brain. The field of neuropsychology bloomed under this approach.

One of the major modern approaches of psychology is cognitive perspective. It focuses on the processes of the mind,.mainly researching on memory, intelligence, perception, problem solving, and learning. Cognitive psychology, derived from Wundt’s structuralism, has been integrated into various other subfields of psychology such as social psychology , personality psychology , abnormal psychology and developmental psychology (Boundless n.d.)

As a relatively new approach of psychology evolutionary perspective focuses on inherited tendencies shaped by evolution. Charles Darwin’s theories of evolution has been incorporated in this approach. Evolutionary perspective can help interpret dysfunctional behaviors such as anorexia (McLeod 2007)

There are various approaches of psychology giving different viewpoints in explaining human behavior. None of the perspectives are greater or more suitable than the other. Earlier psychologist viewed psychological problems only in one way of approach. But nowadays psychologists tend to incorporate more than single approach in finding suitable solution to a problem. Today psychology is a modern science. And for the field of psychology to become what it is today the contribution of different approaches of psychology has been immense.

List of references

McLeod, S. A. (2007). Behaviorist Approach [online]. Available from <>

Gelph, C. (n.d). Gestalt psychology [online]. Available from <>

American Psychoanalytic association (n.d.). Contributions of psychoanalysis [online]. Available from<>

The Colombia Electronic Encyclopedia (2012). Psychoanalytical approach [online]. Available from <>

McLeod, S. A. (2007). Evolutionary Approach [online]. Available from < psychology.html>

Boundless (n.d.). Cognitive perspective e[online]. Available from<>

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