Perhaps the school of psychology that is most familiar to the general public is the psychodynamic approach to understanding behavior, which was championed by Sigmund Freud (1856–1939) and his followers. Psychodynamic psychology is an approach to understanding human behavior that focuses on the role of unconscious thoughts, feelings, and memories. Freud developed his theories about behavior 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 the person could no longer remember.
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 school of psychodynamics 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 behavior more generally (Moore & Fine, 1995). The importance of the unconscious in human behavior, 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.
Behaviorism and the Question of Free Will
Although they differed in approach, both structuralism and functionalism were essentially studies of the mind. The psychologists associated with the school of behaviorism, on the other hand, were reacting in part to the difficulties psychologists encountered when they tried to use introspection to understand behavior. Behaviorism is a school of psychology that is 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 behavior itself. Behaviorists believe that the human mind is 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 behavior without knowing what happens inside the mind. Furthermore, behaviorists believe that it is possible to develop laws of learning that can explain all behaviors.
The first behaviorist was the American psychologist John B. Watson (1878–1958). Watson 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 behaviorists began to use these ideas to explain how events that people and other organisms experienced in their environment (stimuli) could produce specific behaviors (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 behavior to the presence of the stimulus (Watson & Rayner, 1920; Beck, Levinson, & Irons, 2009). In the best known of his studies, an 8-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 behaviorist approach, the boy had learned to associate the white rat with the loud noise, resulting in crying.
The most famous behaviorist was Burrhus Frederick (B. F.) Skinner (1904–1990), who expanded the principles of behaviorism and also brought them to the attention of the public at large. Skinner used the ideas of stimulus and response, along with the application of rewards or reinforcements, to train pigeons and other animals. And he used the general principles of behaviorism 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 behaviorist approach (Skinner, 1957, 1968, 1972).