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School Of Thoughts In Psychology Essay Sample

“Psychology has a long past but only a short history.” With these few words, Hermann Ebbinghaus, one of the great thinkers in psychology, aptly captured the essence of this field’s development. Since time immemorial, men and women have pondered over questions that are psychological in nature. From the early Egyptians to the ancient Greek philosophers, there has been no letup in efforts to understand human thought and behavior. Yet, in spite of its long past, the formal history of psychology dates back only 133 years to 1879 – the year when Wilhelm Wundt opened the doors of the first psychology laboratory in Leipzig, Germany. As a result of this significant move, Wundt is widely regarded as the founder of psychology. Yet, this was just the beginning of Wundt’s contributions to the field. He went on to become the first of several spirited speakers to engage in an ongoing debate over what should be the focus of psychology. The history of psychology is indeed short, but it has never been short of drama. With that said, let the drama unfold…


Wundt’s ideas formed the basis of the first school of thought (or perspective) in psychology, known as structuralism. In reality, though, it was one of Wundt’s students, Edward B. Tichener, who formally established this psychological school of thought. Structuralism, as the name suggests, was centered on investigating the structure of the mind. Wundt believed that psychology should focus on breaking down consciousness into its basic elements, in much the same way a child would pull apart a toy to reveal its component parts. The idea of determining the specific structure of something so abstract and dynamic as the mind may seem absurd to many today. Yet, structuralists were confident that not only could they accomplish this goal, but that they could do so scientifically. [showmyads]

Wundt advanced the technique of introspection as the “scientific” tool that would enable researchers to unveil the structure of the mind. Introspection involves looking inwards; reflecting on, analyzing and trying to make sense of our own internal experiences as they occur. In employing this technique, trained subjects were presented with various forms of stimuli and asked to describe as clearly and “objectively” as possible what they experienced. Reports would then be examined to determine the basic elements of consciousness. For example, if you were presented with a slice of cake, it would not be enough to simply identify the type of food before you. You would also need to explain the basic elements of the cake that you able to sense. For example, you might describe the taste, smell, texture, colour, and shape of the cake in as much detail as possible.

Structuralism played a significant role in shaping the field of psychology during its formative years. Wundt and his followers helped to establish psychology as an independent experimental science and their emphasis on scientific methods of inquiry remains a key aspect of the discipline today. Nevertheless, structuralists could not escape criticism. Despite their noble attempt at scientific investigation, introspection was less than ideal because no two persons perceive the same thing in exactly the same way. Subjects’ reports therefore tended to be subjective and conflicting. Some of the fiercest criticisms of structuralism came from the person of William James, one of the leading proponents of the functionalist perspective.


From the point of view of American scholar William James, structuralists were sorely misguided. The mind is fluid, not stable; consciousness is ongoing, not static. Attempts to study the structure of the mind would therefore be futile at worst and frustrating at best. A more fruitful endeavor, they argued, would be to study the function, as opposed to the structure, of the mind. Function in this sense can mean one of two things – first, how the mind operates – that is, how the elements of the mind work together – and second, how mental processes promote adaptation. Clearly influenced by the teachings of Charles Darwin and the principle of natural selection (survival of the fittest), James believed that mental processes serve vital functions that enable us to adapt and survive in a changing world. Thus, while the structuralists asked “what happens” when we engage in mental activity, the functionalists were more concerned with “how it happens” and “why.”

Functionalism contributed greatly to the development of psychology. It extended both the subject matter of psychology as well as the range of methods use to acquire data. For example, the functionalists’ emphasis on adaptation led them to promote the study of learning since this is believed to improve our adaptability and chances of survival. Their concern with “why” certain mental processes occur also meant that they did extensive work on motivation. Functionalists are also credited with bringing the study of animals, children and abnormal behaviour into psychology, as well as an emphasis on individual differences (Hergenhahn, 2009). In addition, while the structuralists established psychology as a pure science, the functionalists broadened this narrow focus by also concentrating on the practical application of psychology to real-world problems.  As it relates to research methods, functionalists added to the existing repertoire by utilizing mental tests, questionnaires and physiological measures, in addition to introspection (Schultz & Schultz, 2011).

Nevertheless, functionalists had their share of flaws. Like structuralists, they relied heavily on the technique of introspection with all the shortcomings previously mentioned and were criticized for only providing a vague definition of the term “function.” Despite repeated verbal attacks aimed at each other, neither structuralism nor functionalism remained at the  forefront of psychology for very long. Both made significant contributions to psychology but  neglected one important influence on human thought and behaviour – the unconscious. Here is where Sigmund Freud made his great début.


Mention the word psychology, and few persons would fail to recall Sigmund Freud. Like the structuralists and functionalists before him, Freud believed in studying covert behavior, but unlike his predecessors, Freud was not content with examining only conscious thought; he dived head-first into the unconscious. Freud compared the human psyche to an iceberg – only a small portion is visible to others with most of it lying below the surface. Freud also believed that many of the factors that influence our thoughts and actions lie outside of conscious awareness and operate entirely in our unconscious. Psychology therefore needed to study these unconscious drives, motives and impulses to arrive at a more complete understanding of the individual.

Not all modern psychologists subscribe to Freud’s psychoanalytic theory but none can deny the significant impact that this man has had on psychology. He opened up whole new frontiers in psychology and proposed one of the most comprehensive theories of personality ever written, complete with explanations of how the unconscious mind works and how personality develops in the early years of life. Many later  theorists were influenced directly and indirectly by Freud as they either built on, modified or reacted to his sometimes controversial views. Freud’s work led to the development of the first form of psychotherapy – one which has been modified and used by countless therapists throughout the history of psychology. Even all this, to use Freud’s analogy, is just the very “tip of the iceberg” as far as his contributions are concerned.

No other psychological school of thought has received as much attention, admiration and criticism as Freud’s psychoanalytic theory. One of the biggest criticisms is that his theory falls short of being scientific as many of his concepts are not testable. Freud also failed to recognize how experiences after childhood contribute to personality development and focused mainly on psychological disorders rather than more positive, adaptive behaviours (Burger, 2011).


Despite their differences, structuralism, functionalism and psychoanalysis all shared an emphasis on mental processes – events that are unseen to the naked eye. John B. Watson, a staunch supporter of behaviourism, strongly objected to this approach and prompted a revolution in psychology. Watson was an advocate of scientific scrutiny but for him, covert behavior, including mental processes, could not be studied scientifically. The emphasis, from his perspective, should only be on overt or observable behavior. Behaviourists believed that human behavior can be understood by examining the relationship between stimuli (events in the environment) and responses (observable behavior). They saw no need to employ subjective techniques such as introspection to infer mental processes over which even trained subjects and researchers could not agree. What was once the study of the mind thus became the study of observable behaviour.

B.F. Skinner, another famous behaviourist, supported Watson’s view by advancing the idea that human behavior can be explained by reinforcement and punishment – observable, environmental factors – with no need to consider inner mental processes. Later behaviourists adopted a more balanced view of matters, embracing the study of both overt and covert behavior. These became known as cognitive behaviourists.

Watson’s call for greater objectivity, radical as it was, greatly propelled psychology along the path to becoming a science rather than a mere body of philosophical thought (Benjafield, 2004, cited in Coon & Mitterer, 2010). Many of the learning theories used by psychologists today were also born out of the behaviourist school of thought and are frequently applied in behavior modification and the treatment of some psychological disorders (e.g. phobias). Nevertheless, the strict behaviourist view of Watson, was in no way superior to the narrow emphasis of structuralists and functionalists on mental life alone. Indeed, “many aspects of human experience (e.g. thinking, intrinsic motivation, creativity)…lie outside a strict behavioural definition of psychology” (Walters, 2002, p.29). These too must be studied in order to gain a more complete understanding of the individual. This was one of the key arguments of another emerging school of thought known as gestalt psychology.

Gestalt Psychology

The word “gestalt” means “form, pattern or whole.” Gestalt psychologists believed that psychology should study human experience as a “whole,” not in terms of separate elements as the structuralists would contend. Their slogan, “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts” conveyed the idea that meaning is often lost when psychological events are broken down; only when these pieces are analyzed together and the whole pattern is visible do we find true meaning in our experiences. To use an example, imagine breaking apart the words you are now reading into individual letters and scattering them as you wish across the page. Would you be able to discern anything meaningful from them? Quite likely, you wouldn’t. Only when the letters are properly combined to form words and then structured into sentences do you grasp any true meaning. The “whole” then becomes something different, something greater than the accumulation of its “parts.”

Gestalt psychologists, such as Max Wertheimer, did extensive work on various aspects of cognition, including perception, problem-solving and thinking. Additionally, their insistence on studying individuals and experiences as wholes is still preserved in psychology today. Their work also led to the emergence of a form of psychotherapy widely practiced by modern psychologists.

Humanistic Psychology

With the rise of each school of thought mentioned previously, the face of psychology was gradually taking shape. Yet, not all were satisfied with the way things were progressing. Foremost among these were the humanistic psychologists, such as Carl Rogers, who were uncomfortable with the highly deterministic view of two of the major forces in psychology – psychoanalysis and behaviourism. Determinism is the idea that our actions are controlled by forces beyond our control. For the psychoanalysts, these forces are unconscious; for the behaviourists, they exist in our environment. Humanistic psychologists, however, viewed humans as free agents capable of controlling their own lives (as opposed to being controlled), making their own choices, setting goals and working to achieve them. Humanism asserted a positive view of human nature, stressing that humans are inherently good. A unique form of therapy also emerged out of this school of thought, with emphasis on helping people to achieve their full potential. This differed greatly from psychoanalysis which only focused on reducing maladaptive behavior.


In the few years since psychology emerged as a distinct science, it has grown and changed in innumerable ways. Each major school of thought fought for dominance but in the end, none emerged as clear winners. At the same time, none were losers. How so? Well each school of thought left an indelible mark on psychology, helping to mold it into the respected discipline that it now is. In addition, many psychologists today adopt an eclectic approach – instead of clinging to one particular perspective, they carefully choose from each school of thought those ideas and methods they believe are most appropriate for achieving their objectives. Psychology has never been nor will it ever be a static field of study. Even now, there are new theories being written, new topics being studied and new ideas yet to be explored.


Burger, J. M. (2011). Personality. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

Coon, D., & Mitterer, J. O. (2010). Introduction to psychology: Gateways to mind and behavior (12th ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth

Hergenhahn, B. R. (2009). An introduction to the history of psychology (6th ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

Schultz, D. P., & Schultz, S. E. (2011). A history of modern psychology (10th ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

Walters, G. D. (2002). Psychology as the study of mind and behaviour. In S. P. Shohov (Ed.), Advances in psychological research, Vol 15 (pp. 27-50). New York: Nova Science Publishers Inc.

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This entry was posted in Definitions and tagged behaviourism, functionalism, gestalt psychology, history of psychology, humanistic psychology, newsnow, psychoanalysis, psychological schools of thought, psychology, structuralism, wilhelm wundt on by K. Coomarsingh.

About K. Coomarsingh

K. Coomarsingh holds a Masters degree in Clinical Psychology and is a former lecturer at the Northern Caribbean University in Jamaica where she taught several undergraduate psychology courses, including Introduction to Psychology, Physiological Psychology and Introduction to Psychological Testing. She currently conducts psychological assessments of children across Jamaica.

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1. Motivation

We all know that there will almost always be something to do that sounds much more appealing than our studies, so why do we study if there is something better? Motivation, that’s why. Everyone has their own motivating factor that keeps them in line with studying. Mine is pretty general and that is my future.

I have dreams of becoming a psychologist and helping people throughout my life. I also have a huge passion for American Sign Language. I plan to merge these two goals into one for my future career. I don’t want to be just any psychologist, I want to be a psychologist that is open to Deaf people and hearing people alike. I want Deaf people to feel comfortable coming to me without the need of a third person interpreter who is usually a stranger. Many Deaf people feel uncomfortable visiting a psychologist because of the need for a third person. I plan to make a step towards breaking that barrier by being able to signor speak with any patient who comes to me.

With all these huge goals I know that I have to be very on top of studies and make sure I continue to stay on track and do my best. All of these reasons put together make up my ideal future and therefore my motivation to study.

~ Hannah Reis, Palomar College

2. My Dream

We live in a world filled with hurt and suffering, and a place that is not equal for all. My dream is to leverage my unique set of skills, abilities, privileges, resources, and knowledge in a way that increases equality and privilege for all (not just people with white skin). I am pursuing a degree in Industrial and Organizational Psychology which combines psychology and business.

I feel most alive when I am volunteering with my family at The Christian Children's Home of Ohio (CCHO) which is a non-profit orphanage for children. I love working with the children there, and it hurts my heart when I see them being forced to leave once they are eighteen without any further aid or support. Due to this fact, I have decided that after I get several years of work experience applying psychology principles to the business world, I want to start my own non-profit organization that aids young adults who grew up in foster care or orphanages. Once they have turned eighteen the government will no longer provide very much aid to them; I want to supply them with the additional skills and services that they need to make it in the real world, and give them the emotional support that they may not have.

One of the main services I want to provide them is taking them to do mission work because the best way to grow as a person and gain perspective is through service and travel. When college gets hard, I hold on tight to this dream because I know my studies will help me achieve this dream.

~ Alyssa Powers, The University of Akron

3. A Catalyst for Change

The incredible transformation I have experienced in my own life from the power of the therapeutic relationship motivates me to immerse myself in my studies and move closer towards my goal of becoming a psychologist. Recognizing how the quality of my own life has been profoundly enhanced by self-reflection, the invaluable lesson of how to learn from suffering, and coming to a deeper understanding of who I am, encourages me to try and be a catalyst for this kind of change in other’s lives. I’m motivated to empower people to feel confident enough in who they are that they don’t feel the need to bring others down.

When life as a student feels exceptionally challenging, I remind myself of the impact that the work I wish to practice has on people’s lives and those around them. I strongly believe large scale change happens on the individual level first, and if we want to see a world where we value the earth and all the people living on it, we have to do the work with ourselves first. I want to help people in their transformation towards becoming more unconditionally loving, tolerant, and compassionate people. I think when people are more comfortable with, and accepting of, who they are, they are consequently kinder and more loving towards those around them. Encouraging this kind of growth first on an individual level, and ultimately on a global level, motivates me to not only get through, but thrive within my program.

~ Hannah Freund, California Institute of Integral Studies

4. Reshaping Mental Health

People who are given psychiatric diagnoses experience some of the worst prejudice and discrimination. They are more likely to be the victims of violence, have a harder time securing jobs and housing, and constantly come face-to-face with the harmful stereotypes that state that these individuals are violent and unpredictable. As such, much research needs to be done to understand the cause of such distress, as well as to develop effective interventions and achieve healthy minds.

Our current mental health paradigm positions mental distress as biological in origin and best treated with medical interventions. However this paradigm has conversely led to an increase in stigma and an increase in the number of people on disability for mental health related reasons. I was one of the fortunate few who was able to pursue a college degree despite being given a severe diagnosis and a hopeless prognosis. However, I know that much of my success has been due to luck and privilege, and the opportunities that I have been afforded are an exception, not a rule. I am striving to change that.

It is my hope that, through increased research and advocacy, society can come to understand that extreme distress is often a message about something that is wrong in a person’s world, and as such, is profoundly meaningful and can be understood. Furthermore, by understanding the psychosocial origins of distress – trauma, poverty, inequality, etc. – we can refocus upstream and create policies that protect against these stressors in the first place.

~ name withheld, Mount Holyoke College

5. C's Get Degrees

It is said that “C’s get degrees”, but that isn’t enough for me. C’s show an average amount of work, an average amount of time, an average amount of effort. “Average” is not something that I want to be known as. I want to be known as the girl who kept moving forward, went above and beyond, and never looked back. My driving force is making my family proud and reaching my ultimate goal—becoming a school psychologist.

I am the very first in my family to attend college. Every time the topic of school or my future is mentioned, I can see on their faces that they are overwhelmed with pride. When I received my Associate’s degree, seeing my grandpa cry made me realize how special my academic journey is to them. They have given up so much and have supported me in every way, making them proud is the very least I could do in return.

Becoming a school psychologist has been my dream career since I was in middle school. The thought of being able to connect and help a child grow both academically and socially is the greatest reward I could ever receive. Every time I am procrastinating typing a paper, not studying when I know I should have, or wanting to give up on a difficult problem, I think about my end goal. Making a difference to even just one child with make all of school worth it.

~ Haleigh Cordeiro, California Polytechnic State University

6. Find Your Unconscious

Psychologists have discovered reasons, stages, and correlations among our biopsychosocial make-up. Over the centuries, they have managed to explain why humans experience what occurs in everyday life. They provide answers when we have questions about ourselves; it is for this reason that I strive to major in psychology.

I believe that I can make people in my environment, as well as myself, healthier by providing some sense of clarity whenever life situations become foggy. My dream is to someday become a successful industrial-psychologist. Why not a clinical psychologist? Working one-on-one with individuals who are struggling would definitely bring me pleasure. However, I believe that I would have a greater impact within my society by helping larger groups. This dream of mine to become an industrial-psychologist would allow me to make the environment of common day people the most comfortable and enjoyable one.

Through the study of psychology, I will be able to know what qualities are the most necessary to enrich the daily lives of people and ensure that I apply them to my work. What drives me? The fact that I have seen psychologists help my family make sense of one of the most difficult things that we have gone through. Psychologists helped my sister facing anorexia nervosa deal with her disorder and helped my family become a strong support system to aid my sister’s recuperation. I want to know that I can help other people, psychology will open the doors to this dream of mine.

~ Iridian, Cal State University of Long Beach

7. My Dream

Over 22 million children in the United States do not live with their biological mother and father and reside with their grandparents. This means that 3 percent of children living in America face the same situation as me. My father and mother were teenagers when they had me, so raising a baby girl was a difficult task for them. Neither of my parents went to college either, so having me took a toll on their lives. For the both of them, college was an opportunity to better their education and be successful, but with me, that would have been harder for them. Living with my grandparents was the best option for me.

I am currently experiencing teenage life and I can understand why raising a child, when you are only a child yourself, is a daunting responsibility. I commend my parents because they choose to provide a better life for me. They wanted to prevent me from facing adversity, they shielded me from their struggles. When I enter college, my goal is not just to pass my classes, it is to make something of myself. I know my parents would want that for me.

My dream is to work up to my doctorate and become a psychiatrist, fulfilling every opportunity and experience that comes my way. Psychiatrist Carl Gustav Jung once said “I am not what happened to me, I am what I choose to become”, and through my hardship, I choose to overcome and prepare for my destiny.

~ Nina Grizzle

8. Art Therapy

My love for psychology began my junior year when I took the AP course. What was supposed to be a schedule-filling elective credit accidentally grew into a genuine fascination. I found myself going above and beyond the curriculum purely out of curiosity. My interest in what we were discussing in class every day would often send me down long, thought-provoking paths that motivated me to hunt down explanations to the answers of questions I didn't know I had. But once I had the answers, they seemed to be demanding further explanation, and I was always more than happy to oblige.

With my future education in this field, I hope to further develop new methods of art therapy that will aid those suffering from different mental disorders and cognitive declines. I feel that experimenting with the effects that art has on people's brain chemistry will open up a new type of therapy that can be clinically prescribed. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, approximately 43.8 million adults in the United States suffer from mental illnesses. This new form of therapy could possibly improve the mental state of the millions of people impacted while inspiring the creation of art.

~ Taylor Himes, University of Texas San Antonio

9. If You Put Your Mind To It

For as long as I can remember, I knew that I wanted to make a difference in the world. I knew that the first step was to attend an accredited university, and that university happens to be Michigan State. I went into college with the dream of becoming a doctor, however, I had a change of heart.

At the beginning of my freshmen year, the unthinkable happened. My dad committed suicide. My world came crashing down. It was a complete shock. My dad always kept all his feelings masked. I never knew what he was going through, and everyday I regret not paying closer attention. Not a day goes by where I don't think about him. If only I had known. I could've done something. That experience then motivated me to change my major to psychology.

I always wanted to make a difference, and now I know just how I am going to be able to accomplish that dream. I want to help people who are going through what my dad endured. I want to be there for them, to help them overcome their inner demons. I want to let them know that their lives are worth living. Losing a family member to suicide is one of the most detrimental events that anyone can ever endure, and if I can one day prevent someone from experiencing that, then I would have accomplished my goal; I will make a difference.

~ Kayla Harper, Michigan State University

10. Motivated by God to Help Others

I’ve heard from so many different people how difficult college can be. Late nights, big tests, difficult and early classes, that doesn’t even sound like fun. The only thing that keeps me moving towards college is the idea of being able to help other people when I graduate.

In December of 2016 I travelled halfway around the world to the Philippines. While I was there I met 15 wonderful children with horrible backgrounds. The love these children missed out on for so many years is heartbreaking. My future goal is to study Psychology and Religion at Liberty University.

The dream that keeps me motivated to go back to school is the idea that I could help so many people, not just children, but anyone who needs someone willing to listen and talk about their problems. People need more people to care and who want to listen. If people would feel the love that God made for them this world would be a much better place.

~ Trinity Rake, Liberty University

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