Precursors To Cognitive Psychology

Before learning how the discipline of cognitive psychology emerged, it is helpful to understand something of the earlier ideas in psychology. Some of these are sketched out below.

The first researchers

The discipline of psychology itself is relatively recent. Prior to the nineteenth century discussions about human behaviour were the province of philosophers. Before psychology became established as a discipline, a number of individuals began conducting research studies which are still of importance today. These men were usually based in university departments of physiology, physics, or philosophy. Some of them are described in this section.

Ernst Weber (1795-1878) and Gustav Fechner (1801-1887)

Gustav Fechner
Ernst Weber

Two such people were Weber and Fechner. They studied psychophysics, which is concerned with how people perceive environmental stimuli. Suppose a blindfolded person is able to tell the difference between a weight of 100 grams and a weight of 102 grams, but not a smaller difference. We say that his difference threshold is 2 grams. However, that same person may be unable to distinguish a 2 gram difference between heavier weights, say 200 grams and 202 grams, but can distinguish between 200 grams and 204 grams - we say that his difference threshold for a 200 gram weight is 4 grams. If we divide the difference threshold by the stimulus weight in each case, we get the same figure:

  1. 2/100 = .02
  2. 4/200 = .02

Weber was the first person to note this relationship between difference threshold and stimulus magnitude, and this is now known as Weber's Law, or the Weber-Fechner Law (because Fechner provided a theoretical elaboration on the relationship). The relationship holds for many types of stimuli, though Stanley Stevens later suggested that a power law might better capture the relationship.

Hermann Von Hemholtz (1821-1894)

Helmholtz made a number of contributions to science generally, as well as to psychology-related areas such as colour vision and perception. Having examined the human eye, Hemholtz considered that it was optically rather poor and developed the idea that visual perception must involve unconscious inferences, such as assuming that light comes from above.

Hermann Ebbinghaus (1850-1909)

Ebbinghaus is remembered for his early work on memory, especially his discovery of the forgetting curve and the spacing effect, both of which have important applications to the improvement of learning. Hebbinghaus conducted his early research in this area before joining a university, though he later went on to form his own psychological laboratories in Germany.

Other key figures in the early history of psychology

Name and dates

Contribution to psychology

Sir Francis Galton (1822-1911) Polymath; contributed to the study of intelligence and statistics
Oswald Külpe (1862-1915) Structuralist psychologist; developed the theory of imageless thought
Margaret Floy Washburn (1871-1939) First woman to obtain a PhD in psychology; animal behaviour and motor development

Psychology becomes a discipline in its own right

The first psychology lab is established / Voluntarism and Structuralism

Wilhelm Wundt (1832-1920)

In 1879 the first psychological laboratory was established in Leipzig, by Wilhelm Wundt. Wundt was interested in immediate conscious experience, which he believed was composed of sensations and feelings (or affect). Sensations were an immediate experience of some external stimulus and were associated with particular feelings. A less immediate component of consciousness was the idea, which arose from the recollection of previous sensations. Wundt measured basic mental processes through the use of reaction time (RT) measures, originally developed by Franciscus Donders. By this time it was known that mental processes were the result of nerve impulses, and RTs were used to estimate the time taken to produce simple responses, discriminations, and choices. Wundt called his school of psychology voluntarism.

Wundt's doctoral student, Edward Titchener, moved to Cornell University in the US where he used the introspective method to search for the same elements of consciousness as Wundt. Titchener referred to his form of psychology as structuralism. However, the introspective method soon fell out of favour.

Question: Why do you think the introspective method fell out of favour? What might be a flaw(s) with the introspective method?

Recommended reading: Tichener, E.B. (1912). The schema of introspection. American Journal of Psychology, 23, 485-508.

Tichener, E.B. (1901). Experimental psychology: A manual of laboratory practice. New York: Macmillan (Recommended extracts are the opening section "Introduction to students" and pages 195-206 "Ideational type and the association of ideas").

Gestalt Psychology

In Germany, beginning in the early part of the 20th century, there was a reaction against the ideas of Wundt and Titchener. The Gestalt psychologists objected to the idea that experience could be analysed in terms of elemental parts. Their view was the exact opposite: "The whole is more than the sum of its parts", and so they investigated people's phenomenological experiences, or experiences not broken down into their elemental parts. The formal development of Gestalt psychology is said to have occurred after Max Wertheimer was on a train and realised that the perception of movement could occur even when no movement was actually happening1. Gestalt psychology had a big influence in the areas of visual perception, where several principles were devised to account for perceptual organisation, and problem solving. We shall look at Gestalt ideas in more detail when encountering these topics.

William James (1842-1910)


An alternative approach to structuralism was functionalism, a school of psychology particularly associated with William James. James was strongly influenced by Charles Darwin's work on evolution and, whereas structuralists were concerned with the structure of consciousness, James was interested in the processes of thought - what people did and why. In 1890 James published a landmark book Principles of Psychology, which is still widely cited today, especially the sections concerned with perception, attention, and consciousness. James referred to the stream of consciousness, meaning that the content of consciousness was continually changing, as distinct from the notion of consciousness as having a structure that could be analysed by introspecting on sensations and feelings.

Functionalists were not tied to any particular methodology. Rather, they used whatever methods seemed best to address the questions they were interested in. This approach seems to be linked to James's own espousal of pragmatism, the idea that the value or truth of a belief is related to its usefulness; that is, the practical consequences that follow from that belief.

One of William James's students at Harvard was Edward Lee Thorndike. After moving to Columbia University, Thorndike began to investigate how cats learned to escape from a "puzzle box" into which they had been placed. Thorndike discovered that behaviours that led to positive consequences were more likely to be repeated, whereas negative consequences tended to reduce the likelihood of the behaviour being repeated. He referred to the refinement of behaviour in this fashion as the Law of Effect. His work is illustrated in the following video:

Recommended reading:

Darwin, C.R. (1872). The expression of the emotions in man and animals. London: John Murray.

James, W. (1892). Principles of Psychology. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. (Recommended extracts: Ch.24 on "Instinct" and Ch.25 on "Emotion")


In the middle part of the 20th century psychology was dominated by the behaviourist school, which built upon Thorndike's (1905) Law of Effect and Pavlov's (1927) discovery of classical conditioning, illustrated in the following video reconstruction:

Behaviourists focused on the relationship between events in the environment and observable behaviour. In particular, John Watson argued against the discussion of internal mental contents or processes, believing that researchers should examine only observable behaviour. B.F. Skinner developed a version of behaviourism called radical behaviourism. This approach emphasised operant conditioning, whereby behaviour is strengthened by subsequent rewards or weakened by the absence of rewards (or presence of punishment). An advocate of social reform, Skinner also believed that operant conditioning could be used to shape people's behaviour for the social good. Like Watson, Skinner's research was mainly conducted using animals. The two following videos show (a) an example of operant conditioning occurring with a rat in a "Skinner box", and (b) a second example involving a pidgeon responding to words, plus an interview with Skinner himself:

Question: What are the differences between Skinner's behaviourism and Watson's behaviourism? (hint: read the Wikipedia entries for each and for radical behaviourism).
Question: Can you think of any specific situations where operant conditioning has been used or could be used to shape behaviour?
Question: On the basis of what you have read so far, what do you think might be the limits of the radical behaviourist approach?

Recommended reading:

Pavlov, I.P. (1927). Conditioned reflexes: An investigation of the physiological activity of the cerebral cortex. Translated by G.V. Anrep (1927). (Lectures I and II describe Pavlov's original studies with the dogs).

Watson, J.B. (1913). Psychology as the behaviorist views it. Psychological Review, 20, 158-177.

Skinner, B.F. (1950). Are theories of learning necessary? Psychological Review, 57, 193-216.

Next: Emergence of Cognitive Psychology

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