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a Psychology Primer

The mind
Sigmund Freud
Sigmund Freud
Sigmund Freud, born Sigismund Schlomo Freud; 6 May 1856 - 23 September 1939, was an Austrian neurologist who became known as the founding father of psychoanalysis. | Sigmund Freud, Psychoanalysis, Psychology, Psychiatrist, Doctor, Sex, Icon,

The system is flawed, incomplete and simplistic

First, I'll state the obvious; This primer is meant to merely scratch the surface of an colossal subject. I get it. For the purpose of beginning this column, an overview is in order.

The everlasting "nature-nurture" issue has influenced the development of modern psychology, documented as far back as 130 years ago with Sir Francis Galton and continuing throughout the debates of psychology since. I suspect it's origins go back much further. Nevertheless, this is one of many topics that have fueled the learning circles of psychology, drawing varying degrees of connection between the formal discipline of psychology and other subjects including history, philosophy, chemistry, and unfortunately, global politics.

Historically, the modern psychology of the early 1900s gave rise to two of the subject's more noted and referenced books; Edna Heidbreder's Seven Psychologies (1933) and E. G. Boring's A History of Experimental Psychology (1929; 1950). It was not until the mid-1900s that the specialized area of research within psychology began to take shape. The creation of journals, organizations, and bases for the production of research all blossomed from this new, specialized discipline during the 1960s in particular.

Robert I. Watson (1909-1980) a clinical psychologist, was at the head of this new movement with an article in American Psychologist entitled "The History of Psychology: A Neglected Area" in 1960. Soon thereafter he created a group of psychologists within the American Psychological Association (APA) who understood and followed the same principals and formed a new division of the APA in 1965 entitled, "Division #26."

Incomplete and simplistic

For centuries, history and philosophy scholars have preached that one needs to know history to know the future. Alternately stated, they would also say "to avoid mistakes today, you need to understand the mistakes from yesterday." Despite the intermittent truth to these statements, they are also somewhat incomplete and simplistic. In fact, the deliberate avoidance of historical lessons may have led philosopher and historian G. W. F. Hegel to the possible conclusion that the past has nothing to teach us. Furthermore, he contended that knowing the past merely gives us a vague outline for the future, for history never repeats itself and all historical events are directly linked to the unique historical context in which they occur.

Despite the fact that history is not as reliable for predicting the future as many preach, this rarely prevents historians from making predictions about events to come.

History is also a less than reliable guide to the future, a fact that historians recognize, although the acknowledgement seldom prevents them from venturing forecasts. For example, in the 1961 book What Is History? Edward Hallett Carr (1892-1982) wrote

Good historians, I suspect, whether they think about it or not, have the future in their bones. Besides the question why? The historian also asks the question: Whither?

In it, he examined historiographical principles rejecting many formal historical practices and methods. Interestingly, the Cambridge-educated Carr became increasingly preoccupied with the study of the Soviet Union. As such, he resigned from the British Foreign Office and began a life of academia. He began as an assistant editor at The Times, where he was instrumental in urging (by way of editorial) a socialist system as well as a Anglo-Soviet alliance as the basis of a post-war order. What followed was a sweeping, 14-volume work on Soviet history entitled "A History of Soviet Russia", covering the first twelve years of the history of the Soviet Union. Carr (fortunately or unfortunately, depending on your flavor of choice) began to shift more and more to the left, as he saw his role in society as an architect for a new international order. He died in 1982 while still working on the project.

The IQ of immigrants

Earlier in the century, Henry Goddard was assigned to helping screen immigrants coming in to the United States by way of New York's Ellis Island. He was an American Intelligence tester and was tasked to evaluate which immigrants were deemed "unfit" so they could be returned to their country of origin. History is, again, not always the way to avoid mistakes. Goddard believed intelligence was an inherited trait. He also felt that intelligence could be measured with a new method of evaluation called the "Intelligence Quotient" (IQ) test. Goddard first deployed a version of the IQ test to accurately identify which immigrants were "mentally defective." Claims of the ability to discern "defective" immigrants from "non-defective" immigrants by looking at them were followed by massive deportations and his studies eventually led to an atmosphere of anti-immigration. This helped push through a congressional measure where restrictive immigration quotas were put in place during the 1920s.

So much for my Mensa membership

Since then, decades of additional research have let to the conclusion that IQ tests can be problematic because of faulty interpretation and more. Given this recent realization, many would be inclined to think a brilliant man like Goddard was a biased fool. Yet again, one must study his behavior from the perspective of the historical period in which it occurred, not todays vantage point. Then, using this historical comparison, one can better understand current concerns regarding immigration, the subtle effects of bigotry and racism, even within the most intelligent academic and social circles, and help us be wary of the potential problems untested new technologies can bring.

The importance of history within psychology continues; The Archives of the History of American Psychology (AHAP) was established in 1965 to promote research in the history of psychology by collecting, cataloging, and preserving the historical record of psychology. For example, one report details how a researcher was studying Carl Koller, a Viennese physician who was experimenting with the use of cocaine as an anesthetic in eye surgery. This report contained a pharmacist's packet with a small sample of cocaine. Despite law enforcement removing the illegal substance from the report, the envelope still remains in the report with the text label: "Remainder of the 1st dose of cocaine, which I used in my first cocaine experiments in August 1884. Dr. Koller" ("A Stash," 1996, p. 15).

The Zeitgeist

The methods commonly used by most historians to conduct research in history include the Personalistic method and the Naturalistic method. The distinction between a personalistic history which correlates the particular actions of individual historical characters to the history they bring about, and a naturalistic history which places emphasis on the overall cultural and intellectual environment of a given historical era; This is what German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel called the zeitgeist. It is interesting to note that zeitgeist is defined as "the spirit of the times" or "the spirit of the age" and yet the influence of history relating to the future is already being challenged.

The system is flawed

The problems with constructing a historical narrative from accumulated data first, there are difficulties associated with the laborious and manual collection of data. The tasked individual must verify the data and chose what to include in the research. Second, there is the issue of interpretation. The tasked historians are humans with opinions, interpretations, and perceptions. Regardless of how scientific a research process is, there is usually some level of interpretation involved. This is not necessarily a flaw or problem, but it does, in fact, represent the subjective nature of reprocessing accumulated historical data.

It is alleged that Winston Churchill said history would be kind to him because he was going to be the person writing it. It is the job of psychology historians to be more objective than Winston in this regard. At the same time, they need to understand that historical narratives typically reflect something about the specific timeframe and writer. With this in mind, a balanced combination of evaluating historical data and it's run-time environment, common-sense forecasts based on that data, and thorough research, can prove to be the best formula for continuing the correction and discovery of modern psychology.


Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (2003). Zeitgeist. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition.

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Updated Feb 1, 2018 7:50 AM EST | More details


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