Many fields of study within modern psychology try to understand our basic human nature by using a scientific approach. Scientific psychology first appeared during the late-nineteenth century and, as noted in Section 2-13, it represented a merging of physiology with philosophical speculations about the conscious human mind. Most early psychologists thought of the conscious mind as consisting of a set of mental events and processes that, in some unknown way, was linked to brain activity. In addition, a number of biologists and psychologists during the late 1800s argued that the modern human brain — and hence, the modern human mind — was the result of evolutionary forces acting over a great span of time. Charles Darwin had published On the Origin of Species in 1859 (see Darwin, 1872) and The Descent of Man twelve years later (Darwin, 1871), two books that spurred evolutionary thinking about mind and behavior. Biologists and psychologists inferred that, if the human brain had evolved, then the human mind must have evolved along with it, and hence, that the human mind itself was a part of nature. In short, by 1890, psychologists thought of the human mind as something associated with natural processes within the brain. If this inference was true, they reasoned, then it followed that the human mind could be studied scientifically: it could (in principle) be linked to observable events in the brain.
By 1880, there were several researchers in Europe and the United States who referred to themselves as experimental psychologists. For them, experimental psychology was one of the natural sciences (biology, chemistry, and physics) because it used the techniques, principles, and concepts of the natural sciences to study and explain the workings of the human mind. Wilhelm Wundt (1832-1920; pronounced Vil•helm Voont), a German physiologist, usually is credited with the founding of the first psychology laboratory in 1879, and also with establishing the first psychology journal. But there also were several others at this time who were attempting to develop a scientific psychology. They referred to themselves as experimental psychologists because they emphasized the importance of controlled research and the precise measurement of variables.
Wundt’s work is an exemplar of research in early experimental psychology. He wanted to understand the structure of the conscious mind. [REFERENCE]. He reasoned that, if the mind is similar to a natural object, then it must consist of a collection or combination of “things.” He knew that physical objects consist of combinations of chemical elements. For example, a molecule of water is a combination of two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom. But because the mind is a “nonphysical object,” it cannot consist of combinations of physical elements: it must, instead, consist of combinations of “nonphysical elements” — combinations of mental elements. In making this inference, he distinguished two types of mental element:
- Sensations. These, of course, are sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and touches.
- Feelings. These are the elements of emotional states, such as pleasure or displeasure.
Wundt wanted to analyze the mind or consciousness into its elemental components, just as the natural scientists were breaking down their subject matter, the material universe [into chemical components]. The work of the chemist Mendeleev, who developed the periodic table of chemical elements, supported Wundt’s claim. Indeed, Wundt may have been striving to develop a “periodic table of the mind.” (Schultz and Schultz, 1987, p. 65)
Wundt and his students attempted to identify basic mental elements through careful experimentation and measurement. As you will see later, however, the idea that experiences of ourselves, others, and the world around us can be explained by constantly changing combinations of “mental elements” is not very helpful for understanding our cognitions, emotions, and behavior.
E. B. Titchener (1867-1927) also assumed that our conscious experience consists of combinations of mental elements. But this view led Titchener to focus on a different question: how do these mental elements combine to form the “compounds” that (he thought) made up our conscious experiences? Titchener’s approach to answering this question was based upon the philosophical doctrine known as associationism. You may have noticed that this chapter is titled Associative Learning. This should suggest to you that associationism is an important concept for understanding the material covered in this section. However, since the 1800s, the concept has meant different things for different thinkers. For Titchener (but not for us, as you will see in later sections, when we talk about the field of cognitive psychology) associationism referred to the doctrine that complex mental experience is the result of a passive and automatic combining of simple mental elements. In other words, Titchener believed that colors, tones, smells, tastes, touches, and feelings were linked together (associated) automatically because of our past experiences.
According to Titchener’s approach, humans and other animals are like “mental sponges”: we involuntarily combine sensations whenever they occur together. For example, after seeing a bright flash of light outside your window on a cloudy day, you involuntarily feel anxiety and physically brace yourself, perhaps without any thought as to why you are doing this. Associationism provides a simple explanation: because you experienced the close pairing of lightning and thunder in the past, these two sensory events are associated passively (that is, without any conscious thought or deliberation) in your mind — an association that causes you to respond automatically to bright flashes of light on a cloudy day. According to Titchenarian associationists, the human mind is constructed from associations passively formed between mental elements (sensations and feelings) paired closely in time. In this way, we are similar to machines: just as machines have no active role in their own construction (they are constructed by external forces — the humans who built them), humans have no active role in the construction of their own minds: our minds are constructed by external forces — the pairing of environmental events. (Again, when we talk about the field of cognitive psychology, you will see that modern psychologists give a much more active role to our thoughts and interpretations.)
This belief in the machine-like nature of the human mind led associationists, around the turn of the twentieth century, to claim that our responses to events are completely determined by our past experiences. Titchenarian associationists, for example, would not condemn as immoral the man with the underwear fetish described in the previous section. Instead, they would argue that he could not help but feel and act in the ways he did. His emotional responses to underwear, they would say, are completely determined by childhood experiences (seeing women wearing underwear in a pornographic magazine), adolescent experiences (masturbating while fantasizing about women wearing underwear), and adult experiences (having sex with prostitutes wearing panties). The adolescent and adult experiences served to strengthen the association initially formed at seven years of age between underwear and women. According to Titchenarian associationists, therefore, condemning this man for his deviant sexual desires makes no sense and, furthermore, will not change the mental associations causing his fetishism: he will be compelled to engage in fetishistic behaviors as long as these associations exist. The only way to change his desires and behaviors would be to expose him to new experiences — experiences that eliminate the deviant association between underwear and women, and create new, more normal, ones.
As you will see, the doctrine of associationism that was developed in philosophy and psychology during the late-nineteenth century eventually led to a generally mechanistic view of human beings among experimental psychologists during the first half of the twentieth century — a view that has continued to have an influence within scientific psychology, although it has largely been replaced by another approach (the cognitive approach) that assigns us an active role in the development of our minds.
Study Questions for Section 4-4
- In what way did evolutionary thinking influence the emergence of a scientific psychology during the late-nineteenth century?
- What were the main influences on the development of experimental psychology during the late-nineteenth century?
- What did Wilhelm Wundt mean by the “structure of the mind” and why did he decide to study it?
- What was the main focus of E. B. Titchener’s research?
- What did Titchener mean by “associationism”?
- How did this meaning influence Titchener’s view of the human mind?
- Did Titchener think that humans had free will? (Please explain your answer.)
Darwin, C. (1871). The descent of man, and selection in relation to sex. Retrieved October 2, 2011 from http://www.literature.org/authors/darwin-charles/the-descent-of-man/
Darwin, C. (1872). The origin of species by means of natural selection or, the preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life (6th ed.). Retrived October 2, 2011, from http://www.literature.org/authors/darwin-charles/the-origin-of-species-6th-edition/