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Wilhelm Wundt

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Wilhelm Wundt opened the Institute for Experimental Psychology at the University of Leipzig in Germany in 1879.  This was the first laboratory dedicated to psychology, and its opening is usually thought of as the beginning of modern psychology. Indeed, Wundt is often regarded as the father of psychology.

Wundt was important because he separated psychology from philosophy by analyzing the workings of the mind in a more structured way, with the emphasis being on objective measurement and control.

This laboratory became a focus for those with a serious interest in psychology, first for German philosophers and psychology students, then for American and British students as well.  All subsequent psychological laboratories were closely modeled in their early years on the Wundt model.

Wundt's background was in physiology, and this was reflected in the topics with which the Institute was concerned, such as the study of reaction times and sensory processes and attention. For example, participants would be exposed to a standard stimulus (e.g. a light or the sound of a metronome) and asked to report their sensations.

Wundt's aim was to record thoughts and sensations, and to analyze them into their constituent elements, in much the same way as chemist analyses chemical compounds, in order to get at the underlying structure. The school of psychology founded by Wundt is known as voluntarism, the processing of organizing the mind.

During his academic career Wundt trained 186 graduate students (116 in psychology). This is significant as it helped disseminate his work. Indeed, parts of Wundt's theory were developed and promoted by his one-time student, Edward Titchener, who described his system as Structuralism, or the analysis of the basic elements that constitute the mind.

Wundt wanted to study the structure of the human mind (using introspection).Wundt believed in reductionism. That is he believed consciousness could be broken down (or reduced) to its basic elements without sacrificing any of the properties of the whole.

Wundt argued that conscious mental states could be scientifically studied using introspection. Wundt’s introspection was not a causal affair but a highly practiced form of self-examination. He trained psychology students to make observations that were biased by personal interpretation or previous experience, and used the results to develop a theory of conscious thought.

Highly trained assistants would be given a stimulus such as a ticking metronome and would reflect on the experience. They would report what the stimulus made them think and feel. The same stimulus, physical surroundings and instructions were given to each person.

Wundt's method of introspection did not remain a fundamental tool of psychological experimentation past the early 1920's.  His greatest contribution was to show that psychology could be a valid experimental science

Therefore, one way Wundt contributed to the development of psychology was to do his research in carefully controlled conditions, i.e. experimental methods. This encouraged other researchers such as the behaviorists to follow the same experimental approach and be more scientific. However, today psychologists (e.g. Skinner) argue that introspection was not really scientific even if the methods used to introspect were.  Skinner claims the results of introspection are subjective and cannot be verified because only observable behavior can be objectively measured.

Wundt concentrated on three areas of mental functioning; thoughts, images and feelings. These are the basic areas studied today in cognitive psychology.  This means that the study of perceptual processes can be traced back to Wundt.  Wundt’s work stimulated interest in cognitive psychology.

On the basis of his work, and the influence it had on psychologists who were to follow him, Wundt can be regarded as the founder of experimental psychology, so securing his place in the history of psychology.  At the same time, Wundt himself believed that the experimental approach was limited in scope, and that other methods would be necessary if all aspects of human psychology were to be investigated.

How to cite this article:

McLeod, S. A. (2008). Wilhelm Wundt. Retrieved from http://www.simplypsychology.org/wundt.html