The Brief History of Psychology

If we go for historical roots of psychology, We will find Psychology is relatively new field. The formal beginning of modern psychology dates back to 1879. Psychology as a modern discipline, which is influenced to a large extent by Western developments, has a short history.

It grew out of ancient philosophy concerned with questions of psychological significance. The term ‘Psychology’ is derived from two Greek words; Psyche means “soul or breath” and Logos means “knowledge or study” (study or investigation of something).

The word ‘Psychology’ was not in common use before the nineteenth century, and the field of psychology did not actually become an independent science until the middle of the nineteenth century.

Psychology emerged as an independent academic discipline in 1879, when a German Professor Wilhelm Wundt established the first psychology laboratory at the University of Leipzig, Germany. In this Laboratory students were taught to study the Structure of mind.

Wundt was interested in the study of conscious experience and wanted to analyse
the constituents or the building blocks of the mind. Psychologists during Wundt’s time
analysed the structure of the mind throughintrospection and therefore were called
structuralists. Introspection was a procedure in which individuals or subjects in psychological experiments were asked to describe in detail, their own mental processes
or experiences.

Prior to Wundt, it was not possible to major in psychology, because there were no official psychologists or psychology departments. Wundt started studying the structure of mind which referred the immediate (conscious) experience, the contents and processes of subjective experience such as sensations, thoughts, feelings and emotions.

The intellectual roots of psychology lie at the union of philosophy & physiology. Wundt is traditionally recognised as the founder, or father of the modern psychology. The year of 1879 is seen as a remarkable year when psychology finally emerged as a unique field.

Thus, formally, psychology was recognized as an independent science in 1879.

An American psychologist, William James, who had set up a psychological laboratory in Cambridge, Massachusetts soon after the setting up of the Leipzig laboratory, developed what was called a functionalist approach to the study of the human mind.

William James believed that instead of focusing on the structure of the mind,  psychology should instead study what the mind does and how behaviour functions in making people deal with their environment.

In the early 20th century, a new perspective called Gestalt psychology emerged in Germany as a reaction to the structuralism of Wundt. It focused on the organisation of perceptual experiences. Instead of looking at the components of the mind, the Gestalt psychologists argued that when we look at the world our perceptual experience is more than the sum of the components of the perception.

Example, light from a series of flashing bulbs falls on our retina, we actually experience movement of light.

Yet another reaction to structuralism came in the form of Behaviorism. Around 1910, John Watson rejected the ideas of mind and consciousness as subject matters of psychology.

Watson was greatly influenced by the work of physiologists like Ivan Pavlov on classical conditioning. For Watson, mind is not observable and introspection is subjective because it cannot be verified by another observer.

According to him, scientific psychology must focus on what is observable and verifiable. He defined psychology as a study of behaviour or responses (to stimuli) which can be measured and studied objectively. Skinner applied and  popularized the approach.

Sigmund Freud founded psychoanalysis as a system to understand and cure psychological disorders.  He viewed human behaviour as a dynamic manifestation of unconscious desires and conflicts. While Freudian psychoanalysis viewed human beings as motivated by unconscious desire for gratification of pleasure seeking (and often, sexual) desires.

The humanistic perspective in psychology took a more positive view of human nature. Humanists, such as Carl Rogers and Abraham Maslow, emphasised the free will of human beings and their natural striving to grow and unfold their inner potential.

Humanists argued that behaviourism with its emphasis on behaviour as determined by environmental conditions undermines human freedom and dignity and takes a mechanistic view of human nature.

These different approaches filled the history of modern psychology and provided multiple perspectives to its development.

Interesting Landmarks in the history of Modern Psychology

1879 Wilhelm Wundt establishes the first psychology laboratory in Leipzig, Germany.
1890 William James publishes Principles of Psychology.
1895 Functionalism is formulated as a system of psychology.
1900 Sigmund Freud develops Psychoanalysis.
1904 Ivan Pavlov wins the Nobel Prize for his work on digestive system that led to understanding of principles of development of responses.
1905 Intelligence test developed by Binet and Simon.
1912 Gestalt psychology is born in Germany.
1916 First Psychology Department at Calcutta University is established.
1922 Psychology is included in Indian Science Congress Association.
1924 Indian Psychological Association is founded.
1924 John B. Watson publishes ‘Behaviourism’, a book that led to the foundation of behaviourism.
1928 N.N. Sengupta and Radhakamal Mukerjee publish the first textbook on Social Psychology (London : Allen & Unwin).
1949 Psychological Research Wing of the Defence Science Organisation of India is established.
1951 Humanistic psychologist Carl Rogers publishes Client-Centred Therapy.
1953 B.F. Skinner publishes ‘Science and Human Behaviour’, strengthening behaviourism as a major approach to psychology.
1954 Humanistic psychologist Abraham Maslow publishes ‘Motivation and Personality’.
1954 Bureau of Psychology is established at Allahabad.
1955 National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (NIMHANS) is established at Bangalore.
1962 Hospital for Mental Diseases in Ranchi is established.
1973 Konrad Lorenz and Niko Tinbergen win the Nobel Prize for their work on built-in species specific animal behaviour patterns that emerge without any prior experience/ learning.
1978 Herbert Simon wins the Nobel Prize for work on decision-making.
1981 David Hubel and Torsten Wiesel win the Nobel Prize for their research on vision cells in the brain.
1981 Roger Sperry wins the Nobel Prize for split brain research.
1989 National Academy of Psychology (NAOP) India was founded.
1997 National Brain Research Centre (NBRC) is established at Gurgaon, Haryana.
2002 Daniel Kahneman wins the Nobel Prize for research on human judgment and decision making under uncertainty.
2005 Thomas Schelling wins the Nobel Prize for his work in applying Game Theory to understanding of conflict and cooperation in economic behaviour.


1. Ciccarelli, S. K.; White J. N. Adapted by Girishwar Misra (2018). Psychology (5th Edition). Pearson.
2. Chadha, N.K. & Seth, S. (2014). The Psychological Realm: An Introduction. Pinnacle Learning, New Delhi.
3. Carole, W. and Carol, T. (2007). Psychology (7th Edition). Pearson Education, India.

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