The History of Psychology—The Cognitive Revolution and Multicultural Psychology

Learning Objectives

  • Describe the basics of cognitive psychology
  • Summarize the history of psychology, focusing on the major schools of thought

Behaviorism and the Cognitive Revolution

Behaviorism’s emphasis on objectivity and focus on external behavior had pulled psychologists’ attention away from the mind for a prolonged period of time. The early work of the humanistic psychologists redirected attention to the individual human as a whole, and as a conscious and self-aware being. By the 1950s, new disciplinary perspectives in linguistics, neuroscience, and computer science were emerging, and these areas revived interest in the mind as a focus of scientific inquiry. This particular perspective has come to be known as the cognitive revolution (Miller, 2003). By 1967, Ulric Neisser published the first textbook entitled Cognitive Psychology, which served as a core text in cognitive psychology courses around the country (Thorne & Henley, 2005).

Although no one person is entirely responsible for starting the cognitive revolution, Noam Chomsky was very influential in the early days of this movement. Chomsky (1928–), an American linguist, was dissatisfied with the influence that behaviorism had had on psychology. He believed that psychology’s focus on behavior was short-sighted and that the field had to re-incorporate mental functioning into its purview if it were to offer any meaningful contributions to understanding behavior (Miller, 2003).

A photograph shows a mural on the side of a building. The mural includes Chomsky's face, along with some newspapers, televisions, and cleaning products. At the top of the mural, it reads “Noam Chomsky.” At the bottom of the mural, it reads “the most important intellectual alive.”

Figure 1. Noam Chomsky was very influential in beginning the cognitive revolution. In 2010, this mural honoring him was put up in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (credit: Robert Moran)

European psychology had never really been as influenced by behaviorism as had American psychology; and thus, the cognitive revolution helped reestablish lines of communication between European psychologists and their American counterparts. Furthermore, psychologists began to cooperate with scientists in other fields, like anthropology, linguistics, computer science, and neuroscience, among others. This interdisciplinary approach often was referred to as the cognitive sciences, and the influence and prominence of this particular perspective resonates in modern-day psychology (Miller, 2003).

Cognitive Psychology

Cognitive psychology is radically different from previous psychological approaches in that it is characterized by both of the following:

  1. It accepts the use of the scientific method and generally rejects introspection as a valid method of investigation, unlike phenomenological methods such as Freudian psychoanalysis.
  2. It explicitly acknowledges the existence of internal mental states (such as belief, desire, and motivation), unlike behaviorist psychology.

Cognitive theory contends that solutions to problems take the form of algorithms, heuristics, or insights. Major areas of research in cognitive psychology include perception, memory, categorization, knowledge representation, numerical cognition, language, and thinking.

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Multicultural Psychology

Culture has important impacts on individuals and social psychology, yet the effects of culture on psychology are under-studied. There is a risk that psychological theories and data derived from white, American settings could be assumed to apply to individuals and social groups from other cultures and this is unlikely to be true (Betancourt & López, 1993). One weakness in the field of cross-cultural psychology is that in looking for differences in psychological attributes across cultures, there remains a need to go beyond simple descriptive statistics (Betancourt & López, 1993). In this sense, it has remained a descriptive science, rather than one seeking to determine cause and effect. For example, a study of characteristics of individuals seeking treatment for a binge eating disorder in Hispanic American, African American, and Caucasian American individuals found significant differences between groups (Franko et al., 2012). The study concluded that results from studying any one of the groups could not be extended to the other groups, and yet potential causes of the differences were not measured.

This history of multicultural psychology in the United States is a long one. The role of African American psychologists in researching the cultural differences between African American individual and social psychology is but one example. In 1920, Cecil Sumner was the first African American to receive a PhD in psychology in the United States. Sumner established a psychology degree program at Howard University, leading to the education of a new generation of African American psychologists (Black, Spence, and Omari, 2004). Much of the work of early African American psychologists (and a general focus of much work in first half of the 20th century in psychology in the United States) was dedicated to testing and intelligence testing in particular (Black et al., 2004). That emphasis has continued, particularly because of the importance of testing in determining opportunities for children, but other areas of exploration in African-American psychology research include learning style, sense of community and belonging, and spiritualism (Black et al., 2004).

The American Psychological Association has several ethnically based organizations for professional psychologists that facilitate interactions among members. Many psychologists who identify with specific ethnic groups or cultures are most interested in studying the psychology of their communities. These organizations play an important role in supporting research and treatment in the communities they serve and are building a more comprehensive understanding of the psychological impact that race, ethnicity, and systems of oppression have upon individuals and communities.

Summary of the History of Psychology

Before the time of Wundt and James, questions about the mind were considered by philosophers. However, both Wundt and James helped create psychology as a distinct scientific discipline. Wundt was a structuralist, which meant he believed that our cognitive experience was best understood by breaking that experience into its component parts. He thought this was best accomplished by introspection.

William James was the first American psychologist, and he was a proponent of functionalism. This particular perspective focused on how mental activities served as adaptive responses to an organism’s environment. Like Wundt, James also relied on introspection; however, his research approach also incorporated more objective measures as well.

Sigmund Freud believed that understanding the unconscious mind was absolutely critical to understand conscious behavior. This was especially true for individuals that he saw who suffered from various hysterias and neuroses. Freud relied on dream analysis, slips of the tongue, and free association as means to access the unconscious. Psychoanalytic theory remained a dominant force in clinical psychology for several decades.

Gestalt psychology was very influential in Europe. Gestalt psychology takes a holistic view of an individual and his experiences. As the Nazis came to power in Germany, Wertheimer, Koffka, and Köhler immigrated to the United States. Although they left their laboratories and their research behind, they did introduce America to Gestalt ideas. Some of the principles of Gestalt psychology are still very influential in the study of sensation and perception.

One of the most influential schools of thought within psychology’s history was behaviorism. Behaviorism focused on making psychology an objective science by studying overt behavior and deemphasizing the importance of unobservable mental processes. John Watson is often considered the father of behaviorism, and B. F. Skinner’s contributions to our understanding of principles of operant conditioning cannot be underestimated.

As behaviorism and psychoanalytic theory took hold of so many aspects of psychology, some began to become dissatisfied with psychology’s picture of human nature. Thus, a humanistic movement within psychology began to take hold. Humanism focuses on the potential of all people for good. Both Maslow and Rogers were influential in shaping humanistic psychology.

During the 1950s, the landscape of psychology began to change. A science of behavior began to shift back to its roots of focus on mental processes. The emergence of neuroscience and computer science aided this transition. Ultimately, the cognitive revolution took hold, and people came to realize that cognition was crucial to a true appreciation and understanding of behavior.

Early Schools of Psychology: Still Active and Advanced Beyond Early Ideas
School of Psychology Description Earliest Period Historically Important People
Psychodynamic Psychology Focuses on the role of the unconscious and childhood experiences in affecting conscious behavior. Very late 19th to Early 20th Century Sigmund Freud, Erik Erikson
Behaviorism Focuses on observing and controlling behavior through what is observable. Puts an emphasis on learning and conditioning. Early 20th Century Ivan Pavlov, John B. Watson, B. F. Skinner
Humanistic Psychology Emphasizes the potential for good that is innate to all humans and rejects that psychology should focus on problems and disorders. 1950s Abraham Maslow, Carl Rogers
Cognitive Psychology Focuses not just on behavior, but on on mental processes and internal mental states. 1960s[1] Ulric Neisser, Noam Chomsky, Jean Piaget, Lev Vygotsky

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  1. Although Piaget's research on cognition began in the 1920s, cognitive psychology did not become mainstream until the 1960s.