1.2 The Evolution of Psychology: History, Approaches, and Questions

Learning Objectives

  1. Explain how psychology changed from a philosophical to a scientific discipline.
  2. List some of the most important questions that concern psychologists.
  3. Outline the basic schools of psychology and how each school has contributed to psychology.

In this section we will review the history of psychology with a focus on some of the major approaches to psychological inquiry. The approaches that psychologists have used to assess the issues that interest them have changed dramatically over the history of psychology. Perhaps most importantly, the field has moved steadily from speculation about behaviour toward a more objective and scientific approach as the technology available to study human behaviour has improved (Benjamin & Baker, 2004). As you will see, psychology contains a diverse set of approaches both historically and now. Some psychologists adhere to one approach or perspective, while others are eclectic and use several approaches to inform their research. It is important to note that we have not covered all of the approaches in this section — to do so would require an entire book.

Before we talk about different psychological perspectives, it is important to make note of some biases. Most of the earliest psychologists were men, but women have steadily entered psychology, and by the mid-1980s, half of the doctorates in psychology were awarded to women. In fact, there are now more women than men achieving doctoral degrees in psychology (American Psychological Association, 2006). The gradual integration of women into the field opened the door for greater diversity in the areas of research and teaching to include those more historically related to the lives of girls and women, and also to greater interest in all aspects of psychology related to so-called minority interests, such as cross-cultural issues, ethnic identity, and LGBTQ+ lives. Some female milestones in Canadian psychology include:

  • 1968: Mary Jean Wright became the first woman president of the Canadian Psychological Association.
  • 1970: Virginia Douglas became the second woman president of the Canadian Psychological Association.
  • 1972: The Underground Symposium was held at the Canadian Psychological Association Convention. After having their individual papers and then a symposium rejected by the Program Committee, a group of six graduate students and non-tenured faculty, including Sandra Pyke and Esther Greenglass, held an independent research symposium that showcased work being done in the field of the psychology of women.
  • 1975: The Task Force on the Status of Women in Canadian Psychology by the Canadian Psychological Association in response to the United Nations 1975 International Year of Women led to the establishment of a Canadian Psychological Association Section on Women and Psychology (SWAP): “a community of researchers, teachers, and practitioners interested in the psychology of women and feminist psychology, to advance the status of women in psychology, to promote equity for women in general, and to educate psychologists and the public on topics relevant to women and girls” (Canadian Psychological Association, n.d., para. 1).
  • 1980: Canadian Psychological Association adopted Guidelines for Therapy and Counselling with Women.

Another bias relates to culture, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status. North American psychology has traditionally been the domain of white, middle-class researchers and research subjects. We will see how this approach has been broadened in this section and the next, but it’s important to keep in mind that the research that has been conducted, especially by the early psychologists, did not do a very good job at representing other populations.

Early psychologists

The earliest psychologists that we know about are the Greek philosophers Plato (428–347 BC) and Aristotle (384–322 BC). These philosophers (see Figure 1.2) asked many of the same questions that today’s psychologists ask; for instance, they questioned the distinction between nature and nurture and the existence of free will. In terms of the former, Plato argued on the nature side, believing that certain kinds of knowledge are innate or inborn, whereas Aristotle was more on the nurture side, believing that each child is born as an “empty slate” (in Latin, tabula rasa) and that knowledge is primarily acquired through learning and experience.



On the left, this picture shows a marble portait of Plato; on the right, this picture shows a bust of Aristotle.
Figure 1.2. The earliest psychologists were the Greek philosophers Plato (left) and Aristotle (right). Plato believed that much knowledge was innate, whereas Aristotle thought that each child was born as an “empty slate” and that knowledge was primarily acquired through learning and experience.

European philosophers continued to ask these fundamental questions during the Renaissance. For instance, the French philosopher René Descartes (1596–1650) also considered the issue of free will, arguing in its favour and believing that the mind controls the body through the pineal gland in the brain, an idea that made some sense at the time but was later proved incorrect. Descartes also believed in the existence of innate natural abilities. A scientist as well as a philosopher, Descartes dissected animals and was among the first to understand that the nerves controlled the muscles. He also addressed the relationship between mind (i.e., the mental aspects of life) and body (i.e., the physical aspects of life). Descartes believed in the principle of dualism: that the mind is fundamentally different from the mechanical body. Other European philosophers, including Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679), John Locke (1632–1704), and Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778), also weighed in on these issues. The fundamental problem that these philosophers faced was that they had few methods for settling their claims. Most philosophers didn’t conduct any research on these questions, partly because they didn’t yet know how to do it and partly because they weren’t sure it was even possible to objectively study human experience. However, dramatic changes came during the 1800s with the help of the first two research psychologists: the German psychologist Wilhelm Wundt (1832–1920), who developed a psychology laboratory in Leipzig, Germany, and the American psychologist William James (1842–1910), who founded a psychology laboratory at Harvard University.

Structuralism: Introspection and the awareness of subjective experience

Wundt’s research in his laboratory in Leipzig focused on the nature of consciousness itself. Wundt and his students believed that it was possible to analyze the basic elements of the mind and to classify our conscious experiences scientifically. Wundt began the field known as structuralism, a school of psychology whose goal was to identify the basic elements or structures of psychological experience. Its goal was to create a periodic table of the elements of sensations, similar to the periodic table of elements that had recently been created in chemistry. Structuralists used the method of introspection to attempt to create a map of the elements of consciousness. Introspection involves asking research participants to describe exactly what they experience as they work on mental tasks, such as viewing colours, reading a page in a book, or performing a math problem. A participant who is reading a book might report, for instance, that he saw some black and coloured straight and curved marks on a white background. In other studies, the structuralists used newly invented reaction time instruments to systematically assess not only what the participants were thinking but how long it took them to do so. Wundt discovered that it took people longer to report what sound they had just heard than to simply respond that they had heard the sound. These studies marked the first time researchers realized that there is a difference between the sensation of a stimulus and the perception of that stimulus, and the idea of using reaction times to study mental events has now become a mainstay of cognitive psychology.

Perhaps the best known of the structuralists was Edward Bradford Titchener (1867–1927). Titchener was a student of Wundt’s who came to the United States in the late 1800s and founded a laboratory at Cornell University (see Figure 1.3). Titchener was later rejected by McGill University in 1903. Perhaps he was ahead of his time; Brenda Milner did not open the Montreal Neurological Institute until 1950. In his research using introspection, Titchener and his students claimed to have identified more than 40,000 sensations, including those relating to vision, hearing, and taste. An important aspect of the structuralist approach was that it was rigorous and scientific. The research marked the beginning of psychology as a science because it demonstrated that mental events could be quantified, but the structuralists also discovered the limitations of introspection. Even highly trained research participants were often unable to report on their subjective experiences. When the participants were asked to do simple math problems, they could easily do them, but they could not easily answer how they did them. Furthermore, once you can describe the experience of eating chocolate, for example, what can you do with that knowledge? Structuralism was constrained in moving forward in understanding human psychology because it relied on introspection. The structuralists realized that many important aspects of human psychology occur outside our conscious awareness, that reporting on experiences in the here-and-now had limited generalizability, that research participants are unable to accurately report on all of their experiences, and that there are numerous individual differences in experiences that further limit generalizability to all humans.



On the left, this picture shows Wilhelm Wundt seated at a desk with five other men standing; on the right, this picture shows a portrait of Edward Titchener.
Figure 1.3. Wilhelm Wundt (seated at left) and Edward Titchener (right) helped create the structuralist school of psychology. Their goal was to classify the elements of sensation through introspection.

Functionalism and evolutionary psychology

In contrast to Wundt, who attempted to understand the nature of consciousness, William James and the other members of the school of functionalism aimed to understand why animals and humans have developed the particular psychological aspects that they currently possess (Hunt, 1993). For James, one’s thinking was relevant only to one’s behaviour. As he put it in his psychology textbook, “My thinking is first and last and always for the sake of my doing” (James, 1890, p. 333). James believed that people have a collection of instincts, and that these instincts were part of our evolved nature. Thus, James saw certain psychological characteristics such as fear, curiosity, or sexual passion as instincts.

James and the other members of the functionalist school (see Figure 1.4) were influenced by Charles Darwin’s (1809–1882) theory of natural selection, which proposed that the physical characteristics of animals and humans evolved because they were useful (i.e., functional). The functionalists believed that Darwin’s theory applied to psychological characteristics as well. Just as some animals have developed strong muscles to allow them to run fast, the human brain, so functionalists thought, must have adapted to serve a particular function in human experience.



On the left, this picture shows a portait of William James; on the right, this painting shows a portait of young Charles Darwin.
Figure 1.4. The functionalist school of psychology, founded by the American psychologist William James (left), was influenced by the work of Charles Darwin (right).

Although functionalism no longer exists as a school of psychology, its basic principles have been absorbed into psychology and continue to influence it in many ways. The work of the functionalists has developed into the field of evolutionary psychology, a branch of psychology that applies the Darwinian theory of natural selection to human and animal behaviour (Dennett, 1995; Tooby & Cosmides, 1992). Evolutionary psychology accepts the functionalists’ basic assumption, namely that many human psychological systems, including memory, emotion, and personality, serve key adaptive functions. As we will see in the chapters to come, evolutionary psychologists use evolutionary theory to understand the pshcological processeses underlying many different behaviours, including romantic attraction, stereotypes and prejudice, and even the causes of many psychological disorders.

Evolution by natural selection is the process that resulted in universal human design. Over evolutionary time, all of the features that were passed on from parent to child that conferred survival and reproductive benefits were selected for. This means that if there were a number of genetic variations in the design for a human organ like the kidneys, for example, the design that allowed people to live longer and have slightly more children would be passed on with greater frequency. Over long evolutionary time, that genetic variation would become universal, and all of the other variations would not be passed on. Eventually, the entire population would have the same design for kidneys, unless some other novel genetic mutation popped up that increased reproductive success even more, and if so, the process would begin again. While this is a simplification, this is a good example for how to think about evolutionary psychology. Over long evolutionary time, our brains have also been subject to natural selection, both in structure and function. It makes sense to wonder what psychological adaptations have been selected for and are now part of our universal human design.

The phrase “survival of the fittest” is often misapplied when we are looking for evolutionary explanations. The common understanding of this phrase is that it means only the strongest survive. A more accurate way to look at it is in terms of reproductive success: only those with the genetic means to greater reproductive success will survive. As you might imagine, reproductive success depends on the environment. It might require strength, but it is equally likely that it might require spatial reasoning, language skills, or the ability to feel love and empathy for one’s children.

The environment of human evolutionary history is varied and occurred over millions of years. For example, the ability to walk on two legs like a human and not on all fours like an ape is an ancient adaptation that occurred over four million years ago. One thing is certain: for virtually all of our evolutionary history, humans have lived a nomadic hunting and gathering lifestyle, and it is to this way of life that all of our adaptations evolved. Our preference for high caloric food would have served us well when we didn’t have fast food and grocery stores, but in the contemporary world, this adaptation can result in obesity and disease.

It is relatively easy to think about human physical adaptations, but it is more difficult to think of psychological ones — perhaps because they are so obvious to us that we don’t think of them as such. For example, the capacity for love, empathy, and attachments have ensured that people look after their close relatives, especially their children. Are these adaptations? We will consider this later. What about fear and anxiety? The ability to feel fear and for fear to propel us unthinkingly into action is called the flight or fight response. This adaptation, which we share with many other creatures, helped keep us alive. When we feel fear now, it is not always to something that is objectively threatening or imminent; the flight or fight response can be “over-activated,” leaving us feeling anxious, stressed, and worn out.

Evolutionary psychology has some limitations. One problem is that many of its predictions are extremely difficult to test. Unlike the fossils that are used to learn about the physical evolution of species, we cannot know which psychological characteristics our ancestors possessed or did not possess; we can only make guesses about this. We have to make predictions about what adaptations should have evolved, and then look for evidence that they exist. Because it is difficult to directly test evolutionary theories, it is always possible that the explanations we apply are made up after the fact to account for observed data (Gould & Lewontin, 1979). Nevertheless, the evolutionary approach is important to psychology because it provides logical explanations for why we have many psychological characteristics.

Psychodynamic psychology

Perhaps the school of psychology that is most familiar to the general public is the psychodynamic approach to understanding behaviour, which was started by Sigmund Freud (1856–1939) with his invention of psychoanalysis and taken up by his followers. Psychodynamic psychology is an approach to understanding human behaviour that focuses on the role of unconscious thoughts, feelings, and memories. Psychodynamics is grounded in psychoanalysis, but it includes other approaches that are not purely Freudian. Freud (see Figure 1.5) developed his theories about behaviour through extensive analysis of the patients that he treated in his private clinical practice. Freud believed that many of the problems that his patients experienced — including anxiety, depression, and sexual dysfunction — were the result of the effects of painful childhood experiences that they could no longer remember.



This picture shows a portait of Sigmund Freud.
Figure 1.5. Sigmund Freud and the other psychodynamic psychologists believed that many of our thoughts and emotions are unconscious. Psychotherapy was designed to help patients recover and confront their “lost” memories.

Freud’s ideas were extended by other psychologists whom he influenced, including Carl Jung (1875–1961), Alfred Adler (1870–1937), Karen Horney (1855–1952), and Erik Erikson (1902–1994). These and others who follow the psychodynamic approach believe that it is possible to help the patient if the unconscious drives can be remembered, particularly through a deep and thorough exploration of the person’s early sexual experiences and current sexual desires. These explorations are revealed through talk therapy and dream analysis in a process called psychoanalysis. The founders of the psychodynamic approach were primarily practitioners who worked with individuals to help them understand and confront their psychological symptoms. Although they did not conduct much research on their ideas, and although later, more sophisticated tests of their theories have not always supported their proposals, psychodynamics has nevertheless had substantial impact on the field of psychology and indeed on thinking about human behaviour more generally (Moore & Fine, 1995). The importance of the unconscious in human behaviour, the idea that early childhood experiences are critical, and the concept of therapy as a way of improving human lives are all ideas that are derived from the psychodynamic approach and that remain central to psychology.


Although they differed in approach, both structuralism and functionalism were essentially studies of the mind, as was psychoanalysis. On the other hand, the psychologists associated with the school of behaviourism were reacting, in part, to the difficulties psychologists encountered when they tried to understand the mind — the mind is not easy to observe. Behaviourism is a school of psychology that is based on the premise that it is not possible to objectively study the mind; therefore, psychologists should limit their attention to the study of behaviour itself. Behaviourists believe that the human mind is like a black box into which stimuli are sent and from which responses are received. They argue that there is no point in trying to determine what happens in the box because we can successfully predict behaviour without knowing what happens inside the mind. Furthermore, behaviourists believe that it is possible to develop laws of learning that can explain all behaviours.

The early American behavioural psychologist John Watson (1878–1958) was influenced in large part by the work of the Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov (1849–1936), who had discovered that dogs would salivate at the sound of a tone that had previously been associated with the presentation of food. Watson and the other behaviourists began to use these ideas to explain how events that people and other organisms experienced in their environment (i.e., stimuli) could produce specific behaviours (i.e., responses). For instance, in Pavlov’s research, the stimulus — either the food or, after learning, the tone — would produce the response of salivation in the dogs. In his research, Watson found that systematically exposing a child to fearful stimuli in the presence of objects that did not themselves elicit fear could lead the child to respond with a fearful behaviour to the presence of the objects (Watson & Rayner, 1920; Beck, Levinson, & Irons, 2009). In the best known of his studies, an eight-month-old boy named Little Albert was used as the subject. Here is a summary of the findings: The boy was placed in the middle of a room; a white laboratory rat was placed near him, and he was allowed to play with it. The child showed no fear of the rat. In later trials, the researchers made a loud sound behind Albert’s back by striking a steel bar with a hammer whenever the baby touched the rat. The child cried when he heard the noise. After several such pairings of the two stimuli, the child was again shown the rat. Now, however, he cried and tried to move away from the rat. In line with the behaviourist approach, the boy had learned to associate the white rat with the loud noise, resulting in crying.

The most famous behaviourist was Burrhus Frederick Skinner (1904–1990), who expanded the principles of behaviourism and also brought them to the attention of the public at large. Skinner (see Figure 1.6) used the ideas of stimulus and response, along with the application of rewards, known as reinforcements, to train pigeons and other animals. He used the general principles of behaviourism to develop theories about how best to teach children and how to create societies that were peaceful and productive. Skinner even developed a method for studying thoughts and feelings using the behaviourist approach (Skinner, 1957, 1972).



This picture shows a portait of B. F. Skinner.
Figure 1.6. B. F. Skinner was a member of the behaviourist school of psychology. He argued that free will is an illusion and that all behaviour is determined by environmental factors.

The behavioural perspective — or learning perspective, as it is often called — has enormous practical application in the treatment of some disorders such as phobias. Behaviour modification, a system for changing problematic behaviours, has grown to include cognition (i.e., thinking) in its application, giving rise to cognitive-behavioural therapy. We will return to this later when we discuss effective treatments for disorders such as depression.

The behavioural perspective places much emphasis on employing testable, falsifiable hypotheses in research. Behaviourists would argue that looking for evidence of Freudian constructs like the id — that is, an unconscious part of our personality that develops early and is responsible for seeking gratification — is a waste of time, and we should focus on using science to understand what environmental conditions reliably produce or extinguish behaviours that are objectively observable.

Behaviourists have made and continue to make substantial contributions to psychology by identifying principles of learning. Although the behaviourists were incorrect in their beliefs that it was not possible to measure thoughts and feelings, behaviourism is fundamental to psychology and helps us better understand the role of environments and previous experiences in shaping our thoughts, feelings, and behaviour.


Imagine that you are interested in psychology and that the main perspectives are either psychoanalysis or behaviourism. On the one hand, you must make the assumption that people’s motivations are often lost to them because they are in the unconscious, that childhood experiences are critical for the one’s happiness and functioning later in life, and that sexuality is a key motivator for a range of human behaviour — all assumptions of psychoanalysis. On the other hand, you can apply the tenets of behaviourism to accept that the study of psychology should focus on observable and measurable behaviour. You might be excused for thinking “Is that all there is?” Neither psychoanalysis nor behaviourism accounted for the rich inner life that people experience, for the striving for self-betterment, on human needs and motivation, or for the belief that we control our own destinies. Out of this disagreement with psychoanalysis and behaviourism, humanism was born.

Humanist psychology arose with an optimistic and positive view of human nature. Humanists argued that we are not victims of our childhood experiences or at the mercy of unconscious motivation. Humanist psychologists, such as Abraham Maslow (1908–1970), argued that people strive to reach their full potential and have self-determination. They argued that we should be concerned with human qualities like courage and determination, not just with measurable behaviours that may ignore the full picture of what it means to be human. You may note that this view of people is in keeping with a cornerstone of the 20th-century “American dream” — the promise of freedom and a better life. Humanism is no longer a dominant force in psychology; however, it is evident in the blossoming of the self-help movement and in the new science of positive psychology (e.g., Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi, 2000), which aims to apply scientific study to topics related to human happiness, mindfulness, and potential. It is also evident in some forms of therapy, such as client-centred therapy, which is a widely used approach developed by Carl Rogers (1902–1987).

The cognitive approach and cognitive neuroscience

Science is always influenced by the technology that surrounds it, and psychology is no exception. Thus, it is no surprise that beginning in the 1960s, growing numbers of psychologists began to think about the brain and about human behaviour in terms of the computer, which was being developed and becoming publicly available at that time. The analogy between the brain and the computer, although by no means perfect, provided part of the impetus for a new approach to psychology called cognitive psychology. Cognitive psychology is a field of psychology that studies mental processes, including perception, thinking, memory, and judgment. These actions correspond well to the processes that computers perform. Although cognitive psychology began in earnest in the 1960s, earlier psychologists had also taken a cognitive orientation. Some of the important contributors to cognitive psychology include the German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus (1850–1909), who studied the ability of people to remember lists of words under different conditions, and the English psychologist Sir Frederic Bartlett (1886–1969), who studied the cognitive and social processes of remembering. Bartlett created short stories that were in some ways logical, but they also contained some very unusual and unexpected events. Bartlett discovered that people found it very difficult to recall the stories exactly, even after being allowed to study them repeatedly, and he hypothesized that the stories were difficult to remember because they did not fit the participants’ expectations about how stories should go. The idea that our memory is influenced by what we already know was also a major idea behind the cognitive-developmental stage model of Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget (1896–1980). Other important cognitive psychologists include Donald E. Broadbent (1926–1993), Daniel Kahneman (1934–), George Miller (1920–2012), Eleanor Rosch (1938–), and Amos Tversky (1937–1996).


Research Focus

The War of the Ghosts

The War of the Ghosts is a story that was used by Sir Frederic Bartlett to test the influence of prior expectations on memory. Bartlett found that even when his British research participants were allowed to read the story many times, they still could not remember it well, and he believed this was because it did not fit with their prior knowledge.

One night two young men from Egulac went down to the river to hunt seals, and while they were there it became foggy and calm. Then they heard war-cries, and they thought: “Maybe this is a war-party.” They escaped to the shore, and hid behind a log. Now canoes came up, and they heard the noise of paddles and saw one canoe coming up to them. There were five men in the canoe, and they said: “What do you think? We wish to take you along. We are going up the river to make war on the people.” One of the young men said, “I have no arrows.” “Arrows are in the canoe,” they said. “I will not go along. I might be killed. My relatives do not know where I have gone. But you,” he said, turning to the other, “may go with them.” So one of the young men went, but the other returned home. And the warriors went on up the river to a town on the other side of Kalama. The people came down to the water and they began to fight, and many were killed. But presently the young man heard one of the warriors say, “Quick, let us go home: that Indian has been hit.” Now he thought: “Oh, they are ghosts.” He did not feel sick, but they said he had been shot. So the canoes went back to Egulac and the young man went ashore to his house and made a fire. And he told everybody and said: “Behold I accompanied the ghosts, and we went to fight. Many of our fellows were killed, and many of those who attacked us were killed. They said I was hit, and I did not feel sick.” He told it all, and then he became quiet. When the sun rose he fell down. Something black came out of his mouth. His face became contorted. The people jumped up and cried. He was dead. (Bartlett, 1932, p. 65)

In its argument that our thinking has a powerful influence on behaviour, the cognitive approach provided a distinct alternative to behaviourism. According to cognitive psychologists, ignoring the mind will never be sufficient in explaininig behaviour because people interpret the stimuli that they experience. For instance, when a boy turns to a girl on a date and says “You are so beautiful,” a behaviourist would probably see that as a reinforcing (i.e., positive) stimulus. Yet, the girl might not be so easily fooled. She might try to understand why the boy is making this particular statement at this particular time and wonder if he might be attempting to influence her through the comment. Cognitive psychologists maintain that when we take into consideration how stimuli are evaluated and interpreted, we understand behaviour more deeply. It is important to point out that many of the processes of cognition, such as reasoning and some forms of problem-solving, are not part of our conscious awareness. Thus, cognitive psychologists focus on information processing in its broadest sense.

Cognitive psychology remains enormously influential today, and it has guided research in such varied fields as language, problem solving, memory, intelligence, education, human development, social psychology, and psychotherapy. The cognitive revolution has been given even more life over the past decade as the result of recent advances in our ability to see the brain in action using neuroimaging techniques. Neuroimaging is the use of various techniques to provide pictures of the structure and function of the living brain (Ilardi & Feldman, 2001). These images are used to diagnose brain disease and injury, but they also allow researchers to view information processing as it occurs in the brain because the processing causes the involved area of the brain to increase metabolism and show up on the scan. We will discuss the use of neuroimaging techniques in many areas of psychology in the chapters to follow. Notably, these are part of a broader biological perspective in psychology, which is concerned not just with the structure and function of the brain, but also with how other aspects of our physiology, genetics, and hormones intersect with topics of interest to psychologists.

Social-cultural psychology

A final approach, which takes a higher level of analysis, is social-cultural psychology, which is the study of how the social situations and the cultures in which people find themselves influence thinking and behaviour. People are often described as “social animals.” Indeed, we are embedded in social roles (e.g., mother, daughter, sister, etc.) and in social worlds where we encounter and interact with people, both by choice and necessity. Social relationships and how we feel about other people affect our thinking, our emotions, and our behaviours, both consciously and unconsciously. These relationships work the other way as well; for example, our mood can affect whom we are attracted to! Social-cultural psychologists are particularly concerned with how people perceive themselves and others and how people influence each other’s behaviour. For instance, social psychologists have found that we are attracted to others who are similar to us in terms of attitudes and interests (Byrne, 1969), that we develop our own beliefs and attitudes by comparing our opinions to those of others (Festinger, 1954), and that we frequently change our beliefs and behaviours to be similar to those of the people we care about — a process known as conformity. An important aspect of social-cultural psychology are social norms, which are the ways of thinking, feeling, or behaving that are shared by group members and perceived by them as appropriate (Asch, 1952; Cialdini, 1993). Norms include customs, traditions, standards, and rules as well as the general values of the group.

In addition, our social worlds by definition involve culture. Different cultures around the world have different cultural rules or expectations. Psychologists have a responsibility to consider the role of culture in their research and in their interpretations of what makes people “tick.” Traditionally, psychologists in North America based their research on samples of participants that were not socially or culturally diverse: white, middle-class males. Feminist psychology was influential in opening our eyes to the lack of women in psychology, and this imbalance has been corrected somewhat; in some places, there are more women than men studying psychology. For an in-depth exploration of the feminist voice in psychology and its impact on the discipline, see the website for Psychology’s Feminist Voices (Psychology’s Feminist Voices Project, n.d.). However, we still have a long way to go to integrate cultural diversity into our understanding of human behaviour, emotions, and cognition.

Many of the most important social norms are determined by the culture in which we live, and these cultures are studied by cross-cultural psychologists. A culture represents the common set of social norms, including religious and family values and other moral beliefs, shared by the people who live in a geographical region (Fiske, Kitayama, Markus, & Nisbett, 1998; Markus, Kitayama, & Heiman, 1996; Matsumoto, 2001). Cultures influence every aspect of our lives, and it is not inappropriate to say that our culture defines our lives just as much as does our evolutionary experience (Mesoudi, 2009). Psychologists have found that there is a fundamental difference in social norms between Western cultures — including those in Canada, the United States, Western Europe, Australia, and New Zealand — and East Asian cultures — including those in China, Japan, Taiwan, Korea, India, and Southeast Asia. Norms in Western cultures are primarily oriented toward individualism, which is about valuing the self and one’s independence from others. Children in Western cultures are taught to develop and to value a sense of their personal self and to see themselves in large part as separate from the other people around them. Children in Western cultures feel special about themselves; they enjoy getting gold stars on their projects and the best grade in the class. Adults in Western cultures are oriented toward promoting their own individual success, frequently in comparison to, or even at the expense of, others. Norms in the East Asian culture, on the other hand, are oriented toward interdependence or collectivism. In these cultures, children are taught to focus on developing harmonious social relationships with others. The predominant norms relate to group togetherness and connectedness as well as to duty and responsibility to one’s family and other groups. When asked to describe themselves, the members of East Asian cultures are more likely than those from Western cultures to indicate that they are particularly concerned about the interests of others, including their close friends and their colleagues (see Figure 1.7).



On the left, this picture shows an Asian family playing a board game; on the right, this picture shows a blonde woman standing alone with her dog.
Figure 1.7. In Western cultures, social norms promote a focus on the self (i.e., individualism), whereas in Eastern cultures, the focus is more on families and social groups (i.e., collectivism).

Another important cultural difference is the extent to which people in different cultures are bound by social norms and customs, rather than being free to express their own individuality without considering social norms (Chan, Gelfand, Triandis, & Tzeng, 1996). Cultures also differ in terms of personal space, such as how closely individuals stand to each other when talking, as well as the communication styles they employ. It is important to be aware of cultures and cultural differences because people with different cultural backgrounds increasingly come into contact with each other as a result of increased travel and immigration and the development of the Internet and other forms of communication. In Canada, for instance, there are many different ethnic groups, and the proportion of the population that comes from minority (i.e., non-caucasian) groups is increasing from year to year. The social-cultural approach reminds us of the difficulty in making broad generalizations about human nature. Different people experience things differently, and they experience them differently in different cultures.

Table 1.2. Some important approaches in psychology
School of Psychology Description
Structuralism Used the method of introspection to identify the basic elements or “structures” of psychological experience. No longer used.
Functionalism Attempted to understand the function of behaviour or thought. No longer used, but revisited in evolutionary psychology, which is concerned with finding evidence for psychological adaptations and their role in contemporary environments.
Psychodynamic Focuses on the role of our unconscious thoughts, feelings, and memories and our early childhood experiences in determining behaviour and personality.
Behaviourism Based on the premise that it is not possible to objectively study the mind and, therefore, that psychologists should limit their attention to the study of behaviour itself.
Humanism Rejected psychoanalysis and behaviourism as deterministic and pessimistic; focused on human potential and free will.
Cognitive The study of conscious and unconscious mental processes, including perception, thinking, memory, and judgments.
Social-Cultural The study of how social situations and cultures influence thinking and behaviour.



Key Takeaways

  • The first psychologists were philosophers, but the field became more empirical and objective as more sophisticated scientific approaches were developed and employed.
  • The structuralists attempted to analyze the nature of consciousness using introspection.
  • The functionalists based their ideas on the work of Darwin, and their approaches led to the field of evolutionary psychology.
  • Psychodynamic psychology focuses on unconscious drives and the potential to improve lives through psychoanalysis and psychotherapy.
  • The behaviourists explained behaviour in terms of stimulus, response, and reinforcement, while denying the presence of free will.
  • Humanists rejected psychoanalysis and behaviourism as deterministic and pessimistic; they focused on human potential and free will.
  • Cognitive psychologists study how people perceive, process, and remember information.
  • The social-cultural approach focuses on the social situation, including how cultures and social norms influence our behaviour.



Exercises and Critical Thinking

  1. What type of questions can psychologists answer that philosophers might not be able to answer as completely or as accurately? Explain why you think psychologists can answer these questions better than philosophers can.
  2. Choose two of the fields of psychology discussed in this section and explain how they differ in their approaches to understanding behaviour and the level of explanation at which they are focused.
  3. Think about the role of culture in psychology. How does culture affect what psychologists study and how they explain behaviour?

Image Attributions

Figure 1.2. Plato (Capitoline Museums) by Marie-Lan Nguyen is used under a CC BY 2.5 license; Aristotle (National Roman Museum, Ludovisi Collection) by Marie-Lan Nguyen is in the public domain.

Figure 1.3. Wundt Research Group by unknown author has no known copyright restrictions; Edward B. Titchener by unknown author has no known copyright restrictions.

Figure 1.4. William James by unknown author has no known copyright restrictions; Charles Darwin by George Richmond has no known copyright restrictions.

Figure 1.5. Sigmund Freud by Max Halberstadt has no known copyright restrictions.

Figure 1.6. B.F. Skinner at Harvard by Silly rabbit is used under a CC BY 3.0 license.

Figure 1.7. Family Playing a Board Game by Bill Branson is in the public domain; West Wittering Wonderful as Always by Gareth Williams is used under a CC BY 2.0 license.


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