This essay explores three of the most significant founding fathers of psychology, W. Wundt, B. F. Skinner, and S. Freud. Beyond his well lauded contributions as an experimental psychologist, we explore Wundt’s often neglected contributions to social psychology and the legacy of his Völkerpsychologie. Skinner is explored both in the context of a behaviorist and as a social philosopher. Finally, treatment is given to S. Freud and his continued relevance into the 21st Century.
Wilhelm Wundt has been described as “one of the anchors of our collective consciousness; one of the fixed points from which we extrapolate our intellectual position and from which we derive the place of our discipline in the family of the sciences.” (Kroger & Scheibe, 1990, p. 221) Through a distinctly social lens, Wundt attempted to explain the theoretical and logical necessities that serve as antecedents to empirical regularities. Contemporary psychological historians frequently credit Wundt with an early recognition of the social dimensions of cognition, emotion, and behavior. Wundt suggested that cognition, emotion, and behavior are predisposed to align themselves with the cognition, emotion, and behavior of members of social networks or organizations with whom the individual associates. As a result… beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors are held or engaged by individuals because they are represented as held by the people with whom we socialize. (Greenwood, 2003, p. 70)
There is a curious dichotomy surrounding Wundt, however. While his contributions as an experimental psychologist are repeatedly lauded, the social theory that guided his experimentation is decidedly missing of influence or impact. “His concepts of the higher synthesis, the social mind, the reality of folk-psychological actuality, etc., are all seemingly firmly anchored in a monumental philosophical system; but Wundt’s conceptual scheme breaks down when applied.” (Haeberlin, 1916, p. 301) “Wundt asked questions about how the relationship between individual consciousness and cultural heritage ought to be conceptualized, how mind is embedded in, and shaped by, culture.” (Kroger & Scheibe, 1990, p. 227) One might deduce that Wundt represents the first multicultural social theorist in the field of psychology. “Wundt’s Völkerpsychologie contributed substantially to the clariﬁcation of the role of culture in the time scale of human phylogeny.” (Wong, 2009, p. 258) Aside from his obvious contributions to the field of experimental psychology, I have not included him for that reason. He is foremost on my list due to contributions to the understanding of the collective consciousness, which are only recently being explored and lauded as his most important contributions to the field of social psychology.
Although he was preceded by great minds like John B. Watson, the field of behaviorism was radically changed by the work of B. F. Skinner. “By the 1970s, B. F. Skinner was woven into the fabric of American culture both as an experimental psychologist and as a prominent social commentator whose radical behaviorist philosophy, and the technology of behavior arising from it, challenged traditional American outlooks on life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” (Rutherford, 2003, p. 371-372) Skinner revised the Watson Stimulus-Response (S-R) model of respondent behavior to include a third contingency, known as the Stimulus-Response-Reinforcing Stimulus (S-R-S) or operant behavior model. “Operant behaviors are not elicited by preceding stimuli but instead are influenced by stimulus changes that have followed the behavior in the past.” (Cooper, Heron, & Heward, 2007, p. 10) His “experimental analysis of behavior” has been described as a “revolutionary conceptual breakthrough” that “continues to provide the empirical foundation for behavior analysis today.” (Cooper et al., 2007, p. 11)
Aside from his contributions as a behaviorist, he was a frequent contributor as a social philosopher. The sociopolitical Skinner reached its pinnacle following the publication of Beyond Freedom and Dignity in 1971.
The main thesis of the book, pared down to its essentials, was that the freedom or free will that we all cherish is an illusion; our behavior is actually controlled by subtle and complex systems of environmental contingencies. Skinner’s message was that these contingencies must be recognized and deliberately manipulated through a technology of behavior if we are to improve our prospects for long-term cultural and social survival. He argued that this deliberate control would be possible only if we gave up our antiquated and sentimental belief in “autonomous man.” (Rutherford, 2003, p. 383-384)
B. F. Skinner set out to prove that we are capable of controlling ourselves. How is this possible? Manipulate the contingencies under which your behaviors are reinforced by the environment in which you reside. (Throne, 1992) “Toward his goal he contributed 19 books; 2 of these, Behavior of Organisms and Verbal Behavior, certainly rank among the most important contributions to human thought.” (Holland, 1992, p. 665) Jack Michael introduced the ideas of B.F. Skinner to Montrose M. Wolf before he was exiled to the University of Houston due to the fact that “the department told me that they didn’t need a Skinnerian in the K.U psychology department, and I should find another job somewhere else.” (Risley, 2005; Michael, 2006)
How can an essay of the founding fathers of counseling come to pass without mention of Sigmund Freud? Despite the fact that most books that mention both Skinner and Freud tend to focus on differences instead of similarities, it is worth noting that B.F. Skinner cited Freud more often than any other author. (Overskeid, 2007) I have intentionally saved Freud for last, not because I want to finish strong, but because I believe the following statement to be true:
The contemporary attitude toward psychological problems that is fueled by a wish (and promise) of symptom relief (by psycho-pharmacologists and behavior therapists) and the reliance on third-party payments (that limit the number of sessions that will be covered), make Freud’s method (that is many times a week and an intense and comprehensive analysis of the interaction between patient and analyst) admittedly, not relevant for the “climate” of the 21st Century. (Frank, 2008, p. 377)
Despite the hostile climate, it would be difficult to diminish the contribution of S. Freud. Freud put the unconscious mind on the map. (Lothane, 2006) Twemlow and Parens (2006) advance the view that “Freud’s main legacy will be the application of psychoanalysis to community and social problems and issues, rather than in contributions to the treatment of mental illness.” (Twemlow & Parens, 2006, p. 430) Despite repeated attempts to move Freud off the couch, he still has a presence there. “Recent research findings on the process and mechanisms of change within psychoanalytic forms of treatment now provide much needed empirical support for some of the basic tenets of psychoanalytic theory and practice, challenge long-standing notions regarding the link between therapeutic technique and clinical improvement, and suggest that factors once believed to be unique to psychoanalytic psychotherapy might be playing a crucial role in the promotion of change in other therapeutic modalities.” (Schut & Castonguay, 2001, p. 40) The latter opinion might suggest that the theories of Freud are not quite ready to be shoved off the couch just yet.
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Risley, T. (2005, Summer). Montrose M. Wolf (1935–2004). J Appl Behav Anal, 38(2), 279–287. doi: 10.1901/jaba.2005.165-04
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Wong, W. (2009, Nov). Retracing the footsteps of Wilhelm Wundt: Explorations in the disciplinary frontiers of psychology and in Völkerpsychologie. History of Psychology, 12(4), 229-265. doi: 10.1037/a0017711