Experimental Psychology 101: An Origin Story (and Another)

“What am I thinking right now?”

The first question asked of anyone admitting to studying psychology. And it is, unfortunately, very difficult to answer — largely because it’s not one of the skills you develop on the course.

The budding (or established) psychologist is then left to guess, more often than not guesses badly, and embarks on a long explanation of what psychology actually is. They are honour bound to include the mantra drilled into them from day one.

Psychology is a science. Psychology is a science. Psychology is a science.

There is a sizeable disconnect between psychology according to psychologists, and psychology as the rest of the world understands it. The aim of this 101 series is to provide an introduction to psychology as a science — covering its focuses, methods, and goals.

I hope you read and enjoy it. And continue to ask psychologists what you’re thinking anyway. You might as well have fun with it.

Zephyr and Psyche (Delorme, c. 1820)

A natural starting point is to answer the question I’ve set up for myself: what is psychology?

Let me assure you, I’m not throwing myself much more of a softball than the ‘what am I thinking’ conundrum. To illustrate this, consider these two century-old definitions of psychology:

Psychology is the Science of Mental Life, both of its phenomena and their conditions. The phenomena are such things as we call feelings, desires, cognitions, reasonings, decisions, and the like; and, superficially considered, their variety and complexity is such as to leave a chaotic impression on the observer.

William James (1890)

Psychology… is a purely objective experimental branch of natural science. Its theoretical goal is the prediction and control of behavior. Introspection forms no essential part of its methods, nor is the scientific value of its data dependent upon the readiness with which they lend themselves to interpretation in terms of consciousness.

John B. Watson (1913)

On the one hand psychologists are interested in the inner workings of “mental life”, and on the other they are encouraged to discount these as essentially unknowable and worry most about outward expressions of behaviour.

It would seem that we are already at an impasse.

Helpfully, Wikipedia provides as good a compromise of these approaches as any: “Psychology is the science of mind and behaviour.”

A clever solution to the problem of opposing schools of thought; simply slam them both together. Job done.

It may not shock you to learn that we can go a little deeper than just those eight words, and that doing so might provide a clearer idea of the full remit of psychology as a science. And so this 101 series will live on a while longer yet.

Alexander cuts the Gordian Knot (Berthélemy, 1767)

By this point of the article you might have wondered why I bothered to title this "Experimental Psychology 101", only to drop the "experimental" as soon as we kicked off. I appreciate the patience you’ve shown in allowing me to do so for this long.

For a moment we will return to the common conception of psychology. This time more specifically who (or what) a psychologist is.

What would come to mind if you were asked to picture one? Perhaps the most common image is of an Austrian man armed with a cigar, a leather couch, and a set of probing questions about your childhood. But you might also think of someone who helps to treat people with mental health problems or who is brought in as a last gasp effort by police to get in the mind of the serial killer that continues to elude them.

I’m not here to say you’re wrong. But I am here to say that these are not the people that we are talking about today.

These are examples of the all-action applied psychology — a field that uses psychological theories, methods, and findings to solve real-world problems. Forensic psychologists, clinical psychologists, sports psychologists, and so on — this is the psychology world’s ragtag group of gung-ho gunslingers.

There are surely none more gung-ho than science-based life-hack self-help writers.

But before psychological theories, methods, and findings can be applied — they need to be developed. And this is the role of experimental psychology.

In short, experimental psychology is very much a Ronseal term (for those of you not in the UK; it does exactly what it says on the tin). An experimental psychologist will test a hypothesis (or a ‘prediction’) in a scientifically rigorous manner and draw conclusions from their findings about the mind and behaviour.

“Mind and behaviour” is pretty broad — but we’ll start to delve a little deeper in the articles that continue this series.

For now, we’ll finish our introduction with a brief rundown of the origin story of experimental psychology.

Sigmund Freud (Halberstadt, 1921)

If you’ve followed this article so far, you might have guessed that it won’t be as simple as me just telling you.

The ‘study’ of mind and behaviour can be traced back a very long way. If humans have been fascinated with anything across our history, it has been ourselves.

For the majority of history, this ‘study’ has largely consisted of introspection and contemplation. This is at odds with the experimental method of data collection and hypothesis testing. As such, the great thinkers of antiquity do not fully satisfy the demands we have set. Indeed, these thinkers are largely recognised as philosophers (rather than psychologists, experimental or otherwise). Although this isn’t per se the start of our origin story, it fits nicely as the prologue.

The first known recorded reference to ‘psychology’ has never been found. Quite explicitly, I am referring to the earliest known reference. Because even though it has never been recovered, we do know that it existed.

Sometime in the early 16th century, Croatian humanist Marko Marulić wrote a Latin treatise entitled “Psichiologia de ratione animae humanae” — Psychology, on the Nature of the Human Soul. The contents of the work are unknown, as the treatise has never been found. However, the title does appear on a list of Marulić’s works written by his friend Franjo Bozicevic.

The term would not yet be associated with experimental study for three centuries. Some (such as Immanuel Kant) proposed that experiments were ill-suited to understanding the human mind — suggesting that, at worst, they may even taint understanding with the experimenter’s own biases.

The response to this is fairly simple: Be careful with your method and cautious with your conclusions. The application of the scientific method relies on repeated testing that continues to provide evidence towards a prediction. There is nothing inherent that says it must be directed towards any given topic.

And, finally, this brings us to the origin of experimental psychology. The remaining steps are only somewhat circuitous.

In the 1830s, German physiologist Ernst Weber performed a series of experiments on the human capacity to perceive touch and light. This inspired Gustav Fechner to produce his 1860 work "Elemente der Psychophysik" (Elements of Psychophysics) — describing a field of study that investigates the relationship between a physical stimuli and how it is perceived as a sensation. Some of Fechner’s ideas are still relevant in psychological study today (including the concept of the ‘just noticeable difference’ — i.e. the smallest physical change that can still be perceived).

This research inspired Wilhelm Wundt to found the first laboratory dedicated to psychological experimentation in Leipzig in 1879, Institut für experimentelle Psychologie — the Institute for Experimental Psychology.

Although some evidence exists of earlier psychological experimentation (as early as the 11th century), to my knowledge this is the earliest institution explicitly dedicated to psychological research.

And that brings us to the end of this brief introduction to experimental psychology.

Wilhelm Wundt (1902)

More or less. Because there is one last story to tell.

The ‘psych’ of ‘psychology’ comes from the Ancient Greek “psyche” — the word for both the butterfly and the human soul.

The Greek myth of Psyche tells the story of a mortal woman whose beauty rivalled that of Aphrodite — and the problems this caused her. The story is a good one and there are many versions online, you can find one that I enjoy here.



Hawkins, S. L. (2011). William James, Gustav Fechner, and early psychophysics. Frontiers in Physiology, 2, 68.

James, W. (1890). The principles of psychology, Vol. 1. Henry Holt and Co.

Khaleefa, O. (1999). Who is the founder of psychophysics and experimental psychology? American Journal of Islamic Social Sciences, 16(2), 1.

Krstic, K. (1964). Marko Marulic – The Author of the Term “Psychology”. Acta Instituti Psychologici Universitatis Zagrabiensis, 36(7), 13.

Leary, D. E. (1982). Immanuel Kant and the development of modern psychology. " In The Problematic Science: Psychology in Nineteenth Century Thought, edited by William Ray Woodward and Mitchell G. Ash, 17-42.

Watson, J. B. (1913). Psychology as the behaviorist views it. Psychological Review, 20(2), 158–177.


Image References

Berthélemy, J.S. (1767) Alexander cuts the Gordian Knot [oil on canvas]. Beaux-Arts de Paris, Paris, France. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Alexander_cuts_the_Gordian_Knot.jpg

Delorme, P.C.F. (c. 1820) Zephyr and Psyche [crayon-manner lithograph on wove paper]. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., United States. https://www.nga.gov/collection/art-object-page.150508.html

Halberstadt, M. (1921) Sigmund Freud [photograph]. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Sigmund_Freud,_by_Max_Halberstadt_(cropped).jpg

Poynter, E. (1882) Psyche in the Temple of Love [oil on canvas]. Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool, United Kingdom. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Edward_John_Poynter_-_Psyche_in_the_Temple_of_Love_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg

Wilhelm Wundt (1902) [photograph]. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Wilhelm_Wundt.jpg

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Sam Ridgeway

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