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Discuss and compare the contribution to the development of experimental psychology and any two ot_0

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Discuss and compare the contribution to the development of experimental psychology of any two other subject areas. Including the assessment of what remains of their influence today.

In this essay, I intend to look at the development of experimental psychology as we know it today, beginning with a look at the founder, Wilhelm Wundt. Then I will take a look back in time, focusing on philosophy and comparative psychology, and historical views on animals through the ages, and their development, and the people responsible for these developments. I will then look at what influences and attitudes still remain today, in both the area of psychology, science and the rest of the world.

Psychology, where did it come from? Wilhelm Wundt (1832 – 1920) grew up in a studious family, and as an intellectual, he studied medicine in which he obtained a doctorate. He then went to work as a laboratory assistant for the famous psychiatrist, Helmholtz. He then moved over to philosophy and became a university lecturer on the subject. In 1975 he moved to the University of Leipzig. In 1879 he asked the university if he could set up a laboratory to conduct research on nerves, even though he was a philosopher. Therefore he could test his theories of theoretical processes in the human body. The test laboratory was the first psychological research laboratory, and the starting point for modern day experimental psychology. Wundt’s work included the theories of mediate and immediate experiences, whereby an immediate experience is something which we react to immediately, as we directly and consciously experience the stimuli, and mediate experience is where we must measure the object and therefore indirectly experience the stimuli. It is apparent that Wundt’s work was heavily based in the study of reaction times and nerves, and experiments performed by Wundt included his pendulum-clock experiment to measure reaction time to sensory stimulation. He also created the three-dimensional theory of feeling, which was based on his theory that all consciousness could be divided into feelings and sensations. Of those feelings, they too could be divided into arousing, subduing, pleasurable, unpleasurable, strain and relaxing.

But where did Wundt get his theories from? Where were they based? I shall take a look back at Wundt’s main subject area, philosophy, to try and gain some perspective on his thoughts and theories.

Plato (427 - 347 B.C.) was one of the great philosophers in the Golden Age of Greece. Plato believed that there were two worlds, the world of Knowledge and the world of Opinion. Knowledge being the world of ideas and things are known universally, such as "the apple is red," and the world of Opinion being that things exist and we convey them with our senses, but we cannot be sure of their true form as our senses are inaccurate. This sounds rather similar, if not identical to Wundt’s theory of mediate and immediate experience. We see the apple to be red (immediate or Knowledge) and we see that there is light shining on the apple, but we cannot be certain of the precise amount of light that is shining on it (mediate or Opinion).

One of Plato’s students, Aristotle (384 - 322 B.C.) made contributions in his work which influenced the later works of Charles Darwin. Aristotle had theories that organs were analogous between animals and species in the animal kingdom. He stated that claws were the analogues of nails, that scales were the analogues of feathers or skin. This lead Darwin to later form his theories of natural selection and evolution.

Aside from his theories of animals, Aristotle formed his theory of the psyche. Conventionally, the psyche is the soul, which later formed psychological theories of anthropomorphism, but to Aristotle, the psyche was the defining principal which separated the living from the non-living. He also categorised the psyche into three areas. These are the vegetative, sensitive and rational psyches. The vegetative psyche was attributed to plants, which attributed them to only grow, reproduce and absorb nourishment. The sensitive psyche is attributed to both animals and humans, which is attributed to the sensation and perception of their environment. The rational psyche is only attributed to humans, as this psyche is responsible for memory and imagination and reasoning.

Beliefs involving animals in ancient Greece were quite clear, looking at Aristotle’s theories; this was also highlighted by René Descartes (1596 - 1650) in his work. Descartes created the "mechanical" theory of animal and human behaviour. This led to one of his greatest theories of all, the reflex action. The reflex action he said was the sense receptors in the body, being connected to the ventricles in the brain, and thus when we experience a negative stimulus, such as putting our foot too close to a fire, the nerves recoil, and we move the limb.

This idea that the Renaissance had, that animals were merely clockwork automata, continued for over a hundred years, where physiologists, biologists and other scientists believed that animals acted purely by instinct, without conscious thought. That was however, until 1859.

In 1859, Charles Darwin (1809 – 1882) wrote his book, The Origin of Species, which not only suggested that humans and animals were on the same continuum, but that humans actually evolved from apes. Darwin’s theory of evolution not only suggested that we were physically alike the animals, such as standing on two legs, opposable thumbs, etc... but that our behaviour is also alike the animals. This was expressed by Darwin further in his book in 1872, The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, where he gives rise to the biological explanations for behaviour.

George Romanes (1848 – 1894) wrote three books in which he attempted to trace the origins and evolution of human intelligence and mind. The three books were: Animal Intelligence (1882), Mental Evolutions in Animals (1884), and Mental Evolution in Man (1885), which was nearly completely anecdotal evidence, and at times exhibited anthropomorphism, whereby human emotions, personality and thought processes are attributed to animals. These anthropomorphisms took the form of attributing jealousy to fish, reasoning to dogs, and pride to birds.

Similarly, Conway Lloyd Morgan (1842 – 1936) studied animal behaviour, but more importantly, comparative psychology, whereby human and animal behaviour is compared. In his book Introduction to Comparative Psychology (1891) he stressed that the behaviour of animals was purely instinct, which was in opposition to Romanes’ anthropomorphised ideas of animal behaviour. In Morgan’s second book, Animal Behaviour (1900), he described that trial and error was important to the learning processes of animals.

This idea that instinct was the cause of behaviour was studied in great depth by several psychologists, including Konrad Lorenz (1903 – 1989) who used the maternal attachment of geese as an instinctive behaviour to "trick" a gaggle of newborn geese into believing he was their mother, and the study of the honey bee dance by Karl von Frisch (1886 – 1982).

Edward Thorndike (1874 – 1949) conducted some of the first major experiments into comparative psychology, inspired by Conway Lloyd Morgan (1842 – 1936). His experiments were mainly focussed on intelligence in cats (1898) using lab experiments, testing how long it took for them to escape from puzzle boxes. As Lloyd Morgan originally suggested, trial and error had a large impact on animal learning. This study using the puzzle boxes produced a learning curve for the time taken for a cat to find the correct response to open the latch on the box on repeated trials. The curve shows that the more trials the cat performed in the box, the quicker it was able to escape each time.

Burrhus Frederick Skinner (1904 – 1990) performed experiments on rats, in which he used as a paradigm for all behaviour across all species. Skinner invented the Skinner box which was used to study operant conditioning, a device which was inspired by Thorndike’s cat box. Instead of cats, Skinner used rats in these experiments, and instead of conditioning the rats to escape, he conditioned them to press a lever which gave them food pellets. He also studied the responses of the animals dependant on the kind of reinforcement he gave them. If the reinforcement was positive, and the rat received a reward in the form of food pellets, it was more likely to press the lever. If the rat received negative reinforcement like a shock, it would be less likely to press the lever.

Skinner also suggested that operant conditioning could gain the same reaction in humans, and therefore shaped the idea of token economy in schools, prisons and workplaces to keep control and order.

Edward C. Tolman (1886 – 1959) used his behaviourist approach on animal psychology, and concentrated on stimulus-response reflex models to explain animal behaviour as reflex over thought. He did this by constructing a 3-arm maze. The purpose of this was to support his theory that rats had the ability to form cognitive maps of their environment, and thus act on that, thus controlling their responses in accordance to their cognitive map.

Probably one of the most famous studies involving operant conditioning would be by Ivan Petrovich Pavlov (1849 – 1936). His experiment in 1891 involved ringing a bell at the same time every day, to which his dogs would approach him, he would produce their food, and they would salivate at the sight of the food before eating it. After months of this conditioning, Pavlov would ring the bell, and the dogs, expecting food, would salivate on hearing the bell ring. He called this the psychic reflex.

At the beginning of this essay I explained that the Wilhelm Wundt was responsible for the first experiments in psychology. But the practises used in psychology were used hundreds if not thousands of years before it was implemented into psychology. This I have gone into great lengths explaining, and have looked at nearly one and a half thousand years of study, research and theories, up until early experiments in the area we now call psychology.

It is clear to see that Plato had a significant influence on Wundt, Aristotle had a greater effect on Darwin, and Darwin had a large effect on the world. But what really exists of their influence today?

Well, Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution has shaped the way the world sees the creation of man. Evolution replaced Adam and Eve, God and the Garden of Eden. Because of this theory, many psychologists, biologists, anthropologists and the like, all focussed their attention on comparative psychology, and this in turn gave us greater understanding into animal and human behaviour.

Because of the studies conducted by Edward Thorndike, Conway Lloyd Morgan and Burrhus Frederick Skinner into the use of operant conditioning, psychologists such as Gardner and Gardner (1969) were inspired to try and teach Washoe the chimp American Sign Language (ASL) through operant conditioning.

On the whole, everything related to psychology can be traced back to the influences by the Greek philosophers, Renaissance biologists, and scientists and theorists up until more recent times. Therefore it would be unfair to say that Darwin, Plato and Aristotle were the only three people I mentioned who actually made an impact which lasts in psychology today. These people are merely the pioneers who carved the path for those people who are making the differences in the world today.

Therefore I can conclude that the influence of the philosophers and the like of the past have had one major remnant of their influence which still survives today. That remnant is psychology as a subject. Without the early breakthroughs of the ancient Greeks, the philosophers of the later years may not have had the base theories to base their work on, which in turn would have meant that Darwin may not have invented his theory of evolution, and that the comparative psychologists who followed in his footsteps would cease to exist. Therefore, the only remnant of the past influence is the subject itself, and the ever-expanding knowledge and theories it brings with it.


Aronson, E, Wilson, T.D. & Akert, R.M. (2005)

Social Psychology (5th Edition). Pearson: Prentice Hall.

Banyanrd, P. & Grayson, A. (2000)

Introducing Psychology (2nd Edition). Palgrave.

Hergenhahn, B.R. (1986).

An Introduction to the History of Psychology. California: Wadsworth Publishing Company.

Hogg, M.A. & Vaughan, G.M. (2002).

Social Psychology (3rd Edition). Pearson: Prentice Hall.

Thorne, B.M. & Henley, T.B. (2001).

Connections in the History and Systems of Psychology (2nd Edition). Boston New York: Houghton Mifflin Company.

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