Wilhelm Wundt: The First Experimentalist

Wilhelm Wundt

“The only possible conclusion
the social sciences can draw is: some do, some don’t.”
– Ernest Rutherford
Morton Hunt’s excellent ‘Story
of Psychology‘ helps explain why people doubt the scientific basis of
psychology. Think about the famous figures in the history of the more physical
sciences: Biology has Charles Darwin, Physics has Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein,
Chemistry has Francis Crick and whole load of other people whose surnames are
immediately recognisable: Anders Celsius, Robert Wilhelm Bunsen and Louis
Pasteur. Now famous psychologists.
Think for a moment…who have
you got?
If you’re not a psychologist
then you’ve probably thought of Sigmund Freud…and who else? B. F. Skinner?
Maybe Ivan Pavlov and his soggy dog? Perhaps Jean Piaget’s developmental psychology
and maybe Alfred Kinsey because of the film with Liam Neeson? If you’re a
psychologist then I’m sure you came up with quite a few more but let’s just
consider Siggy for a moment because he’s prototypical.
Freud was one of the greatest
psychologist of all time. Let’s not split hairs here about his legacy, many
think it is incomparable, a few think he was full of it. Either way, everyone
can agree that he was the kind of man you could trust to be creative. While he
trained as a neurologist, a man of science, his influence pervades the arts.
And what are the things that
people know about Freud? That his theories have largely been discredited (not
really true). That he thought it all came down to sex (well yes: sex plus
aggression certainly). And that he invented/discovered the unconscious (his
greatest idea).
The point is that he’s not
really known as a scientist in the same way as Darwin, Newton or Einstein. He’s
seen more as a literary figure, a man of writing and insight certainly, but not
a scientific man. How could anyone interested in dreams in these times of cold
hard facts be a man of science?
By contrast, not many people
have heard of one of the founding fathers of modern psychology: Wilhelm Wundt.
It was Wundt who, in the University of Leipzig, carried out what some credit as
the first ever psychological experiment in 1879.
The experiment was fairly
simple, though it is still employed today in more complicated guises. It simply
measured perceptual processing – the time it takes from hearing a bell ring to
pressing a button.
Now, if Wilhelm Wundt was the
first name that came to mind when you were asked for a famous psychologist,
that would make a big difference to the public perception of psychology.
So, to return to today’s straw
man, Ernest Rutherford, while I’m not sure if Rutherford meant his statement to
include psychology, he does sum up many people’s attitude to modern psychology.
The reason Rutherford is wrong is simply that psychology can also answer the
questions: “Which ones?” “Why?” and “How?”.

Unfortunately, here is a science regularly represented in the popular press by a man who has worked out a formula for the ‘happiest‘ and ‘worst‘ days of the year. A parody of scientific psychology if ever there was one. Instead psychology needs to remember its more prosaic, and more prototypically scientific, alumni like Wundt, Weber, Fechner and Helmholtz.

About the author

Psychologist, Jeremy Dean, PhD
is the founder and author of PsyBlog. He holds a doctorate in psychology from
University College London and two other advanced degrees in psychology.
He has been writing about
scientific research on PsyBlog since 2004. He is also the author of the book
“Making Habits, Breaking Habits” (Da Capo, 2003) and several ebooks.

Kayode Ojo
Kayode Emmanuel Ojo is the Co-Founder and Managing Director at SHEFFA Limited. He is presently studying Computer Science at the National Open University, Victoria Island, Lagos.