1. Introduction to Psychology

What Is Psychology?

Official definition

“Psychology is a science of behavior and mental processes.”

Psychologists have engaged in asking questions such as: “What makes us behave in the way we do? Who are we? Why do humans do horrible things like torturing others and committing genocide? Do we have free will? Are we simply a product of our environment? What is mind and consciousness?”

Roots of psychology

Psychology has roots in both biology and philosophy. Here are figures that influenced the development of psychology.

1. René Descartes (1596-1650)

Father of modern Western philosophy, a mathematician and scientist
He engaged in the question; how can we know anything? How can we believe our senses, in what we see, what we taste and hear? How can we know if we are not dreaming now?

He came to a conclusion that he can’t doubt about his own existence. Someone is thinking and if there is a thought, there must be a thinker having that thought.

He is the first one to make a strong distinction between mind and the body.
Mind-body dualism – separation of mind and body
Known for a famous dictum, “I think therefore I am.”

2. Charles Darwin (1809-1882)

1870, Theory of evolution
The ability for living beings to adapt to the changes in the environment determines the perpetuation of that species.
There is no psychology as a science before this.

3. John Locke (1632-1704)

English empiricist, philosopher and political theorist of the 17th century
He offered an empiricist theory.

In his essay Concerning Human Understanding, he sets out the case that the human mind is a blank slate (tabula rasa), which imprints experiences from life to form knowledge.

Humans are only a product of their environment. Everything we are comes from something learned from outside.

How did psychology begin?

First psychologist: Wilhelm Wundt (1832-1912)

A German physician, physiologist, philosopher, and professor
He is known today as one of the founding figures of modern psychology.

In 1879, Wundt created the first laboratory completely devoted to the study of psychology. This is the time that psychology as a science began.

He separated psychology from philosophy by analyzing the workings of the mind in a more structured way, with emphasis on objective measurement and control.

The method of introspection was used, which is a way to study consciousness by objectively recording one’s own thought processes and perception.

Psychology as a science

Psychology tried to cut ties with philosophy that looked inwardly to find answers and instead pushed it into the experimental realm of verifiable phenomena.

Battle for the conception of man

Psychology is an integrated science, composed of different schools of thought.

Throughout history, whoever defines humanity and its narrative in religion, mythology or science, has gained a certain power to influence society. A conception of man widely held, becomes a driving force for the present and the future and redefining the past.

Thus, psychology has been a front line of a major battle. Depending on who you ask, you get widely divergent answers about what psychology is.


One school of thought in psychology is based in psychoanalysis.

‘Talking Cure’: In the late nineteenth century, scientists, psychiatrists, and medical practitioners began employing a new experimental technique to study mental disorders. At that time, a particular condition called neurosis (depression, anxiety and obsession) was identified.

Psychoanalytic treatment utilizes clinical observation and interpretation to understand patterns of behavior and aims to treat emotional distress in patients.

Sigmund Freud (1856-1939)

Psychoanalysis was founded by psychologist Sigmund Freud.
One of the breakthroughs in his efforts was the discovery of the unconscious mind.

Freud used hypnosis to regress his patients so he could access a realm that they themselves were generally not conscious of.

He put forward a model of mind by using the structure of the iceberg.

Iceberg theory:

Conscious mind
What we know about and are aware of happening in our conscious mind.

The Unconscious
Contains material that stays out of personal awareness because it is too painful, threatening, or uncomfortable for us to acknowledge it fully. The unconscious mind acts as a storage of wishes and repressed memories.

Freud attributed causes of phenomena and symptoms patients experience to one’s past history and repressed sexual desires. He held a view that every human action is caused by some hidden mental processes in the unconscious.

We will explore Freud’s ideas more in depth later.


Another school of thought in psychology is behaviorism.
This has become a dominant paradigm of modern psychology, with emphasis on the observable.

“It is a psychological approach that scientifically investigates human behavior without relying on inner mental processes or consciousness”.

Behaviorists viewed impulses coming from outside and focused on this external environment. They believed that sequences of cause and effect at a psychological level happens in the same way at a physical level. They relied on what one could see.

Here are famous behavioral psychologists:

Ivan Pavlov (1849-1936)

Russian physiologist, psychologist and physician, known for his experiment with dogs “Pavlov’s Dogs”.

He observed how dogs salivated in anticipation of eating before foods actually reach their mouth. Pavlov then rings a bell before giving the dogs food and observed how the dogs salivated simply upon hearing the bell.

Classic conditioning:

Classical conditioning theory involves learning a new behavior via the process of association. In simple terms, two stimuli are linked together to produce a new learned response in a person or animal. This is the idea that learning mostly occurs through association.

John B. Watson (1878 -1958)

American behaviorist, Inspired by the work of Pavlov, Watson began studying physiology, biology, animal behavior and the behavior of children. He experimented on what Pavlov did on dogs by using a child. Watson believed that children operated on the same principles as animals and they are simply a bit more complex.

He believed that mental processes could not be studied and that only actions can teach us about ourselves. He called for behavior to be studied separately from consciousness.

He is known for a study on phobias called the “Little Albert Experiment”.

Watson suggested psychology is not to make distinction between animals and human behavior and that behavior should be studied not only to predict future behavior but to control it.

In 1913, he wrote an article in the Psychological Review, and this has become the “Behaviorist manifesto”. By 1920, he won the battle for definition of American psychology and from a 40-50 year period, most were strongly in his camp.

“The time seems to have come when psychology must disregard all reference to consciousness; when it need no longer delude itself into thinking that it is making mental states the object of observation. We have become so enmeshed in speculative questions concerning the elements of mind, the nature of conscious content … that I, as an experimental student, feel that something is wrong with our premises and the types of problems which develop from them” (as cited in Hunt, 1993, p. 256).

Burrhus Frederic Skinner AKA B. F Skinner (1904-1990)

Skinner reacted to Freud’s theory of the unconscious mind. He didn’t deny the existence of mind, but thought if it cannot be observed, it cannot be studied. He studied rats and pigeons in order to understand human behavior. He tried to generalize simple understanding of animals and apply it to understand complex human behaviors.

The most important element of his study was the concept of operant conditioning; to change behavior by use of reward and punishment. He created a systemic research through creating an operant conditioning chamber made to put animals in for experiments, which is known as Skinner’s box.

Operant conditioning: The organism learns to modify their behaviors based on desirable and undesirable consequences of their behavior. Positive reinforcement is when a behavior is strengthened from outside. Negative reinforcement is when a behavior is weakened.

Reinforcing stimuli had an effect of increasing behavior, while aversive stimuli decreases behavior. The greater the consequences, the greater the changes in their behaviors.

Get a sense as to how they were trying to understand human beings.

Reflection: Any impressions or thoughts?

Where is operant conditioning manifested in your life? Can you think of any of your own behaviors that you think can be explained by using this concept? Does this apply to truly understanding human behavior?

Summary –Psychology lost its mind

Behaviorism successfully turned psychology into a science of human behavior. Prior to Charles Darwin – impulses were seen as originating within ourselves.

In modern psychology, Watson replaced feelings with instincts and habits and said there is nothing inside to create stimulus, as all behavior is simply response to conditions of stimulus from outside (verbal stimuli, laws, advice, rules and suggestions, actions enforced by consequences).

By denying the higher mental life, it aimed to maintain a continuity of species (between animals and humans).

Key questions

Free will:
If we are only a product of our environment and response to external stimuli, where does free will fit in? Does it exist?
Do we have any true choices in life and if so, where does it come from?
If there is no freedom, are we truly responsible for our own actions?


BullyingNewsVideos. (2008, September 13). Classical condition – Ivan Pavlov. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hhqumfpxuzI
Hunt, M. (1993). The story of psychology. New York, NY. DOUBLEDAY.
Institute of Psychoanalysis. (2011, January 5). What is psychoanalysis? [Video file]. Retrieved from
jenningh. (2007, March 20). Operant conditioning. [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I_ctJqjlrHA
Johncheezy. (2010, Jun 1). The little Albert experiment. [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9hBfnXACsOI

Go to the next – What drives us?