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A Snippet of Psychology’s Scientific Roots

A Snippet of Psychologys Scientific RootsThroughout the years, sometimes it seems that the public has been iffy about psychology and psychologists. Part of the problem is a lack of knowledge. Past surveys have shown that many people have no idea what psychologists even do.

More recent research has found that the public largely views psychology in a positive light. But people still have a limited understanding of the discipline and don’t view it as a hard science.

A 1998 survey revealed that both adults and college faculty viewed the physical sciences more favorably. They believed that psychology — along with sociology — led to fewer critical contributions to society and had less expertise than the physical sciences.

How did psychology get this bad reputation?

PsyBlog’s Jeremy Dean (which, by the way, is an awesome resource) blames this view on the famous figures in psychology. For most people, the person that pops into their heads is Sigmund Freud. The problem?

We tend to associate Freud with outdated and unsubstantiated theories. In other words, Freud, as Dean writes in his post, isn’t known as a scientist.

On the other hand, the physical sciences are associated with plenty of scientific heroes. Dean writes:

“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.”

But you might be surprised to learn that psychology is filled with scientific figures, even in its early days. We just don’t hear about them as much. No doubt Freud’s theories are sexier than lab experiments on sensation and perception. But it’s these experiments that’ve contributed greatly to the science of psychology.

Take Wilhlem Wundt (1832-1920), for instance, a German psychologist, medical doctor and professor, who was one of the founding fathers of modern psychology. In 1879, he established the first-ever psychology laboratory at the University of Leipzig and is regarded as being the father of experimental psychology.

He used science to study mental processes. His research focused mainly on sensation and perception, studying auditory pitch, brightness and differences between lights or weights. (Benjamin and Baker, 2004). Using tools that measured time in thousands of a second, Wundt and his students also examined the amount of time it took people to make simple decisions and more complex ones. Today, this is an area of cognitive psychology called mental chronometry (Benjamin and Baker, 2004).

Wundt also trained many prominent American psychologists who went on to establish labs in the U.S., including James McKeen Cattell, Harry Kirke Wolfe and Walter Dill Scott.

PsyBlog’s Dean mentions the below three psychologists in his post, who’ve also had a big impact on the science of psychology. Here’s just a slice of what they’re known for:

Ernst Weber (1795-1878)

One of Weber’s major contributions to psychology was Weber’s law. Weber was interested in “muscle senses,” or learning how this sense helped in judging different weights of objects.

Consider the following example:  You’re not able to detect that 30 and 32 grams are different weights but you notice the difference between 30 and 33 grams. This showed Weber that some threshold had been passed at 33 grams (Goodwin, 1999). Weber referred to this discrimination as the “just noticeable difference” or “jnd.” (Weber’s law was jnd/S = K.)

His contribution was important for several reasons, writes Goodwin: “He was subjecting mental events to measurement and mathematical formulation”; he “showed that there is not a one-to-one-relationship between changes in the physical world and the psychological experience of changes”; and he showed “that mental and physical events could be related mathematically.”

Gustav Fechner (1801-1889)

Fechner “can be considered the first genuine experimental psychologist,” and wrote Elements of Psychophysics, typically thought of as the first book on experimental psychology (Goodwin, 1999). He also reformulated Weber’s law into: S = k log R.

He came up with the idea of the absolute threshold, which is the point where sensation is first noticed along with the concept of difference thresholds, where the person keeps noticing the just noticeable difference (such as you noticing that a dimmer switch keeps getting brighter than it was a second ago) (Goodwin, 1999). Even though his theory was challenged and his formula only worked under certain situations, Fechner’s lab methods are still used today to test thresholds.

Hermann von Helmholtz (1821-1894)

When German physiologist Helmholtz passed away, another renowned physiologist Carl Stumpf said in his eulogy that Helmholtz was most responsible for building the “bridge between physiology and psychology that thousands of workers today go back and forth upon” (Goodwin, 1999).

During the 19th century, Helmholtz was the authority on vision and audition, making considerable contributions to the field with a theory of color vision, a tool for examining the retina and a belief in the importance of experience to perception. His nerve impulse speed demonstration led to reaction time, which Goodwin writes is “one of psychology’s most enduring methods.” He also trained Wundt.

?Are you surprised to learn of psychology’s experimental roots? Do you know of past psychologists who used science to test their theories?
(Hint: there are tons!)


Benjamin, L.T., & Baker, D.B. (2004). The beginnings of psychological practice: The new psychology. From Séance to Science: A History of the Profession of Psychology in America (pp.21-24). California: Wadsworth/Thomson Learning.

Goodwin, C.J. (1999). Wundt and German psychology. A History of Modern Psychology (pp. 85-104). New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Goodwin, C.J. (1999). The neurophysiological context: Helmholtz: The physiologist’s physiologist. A History of Modern Psychology (pp. 61-65). New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

A Snippet of Psychology’s Scientific Roots

Margarita Tartakovsky, M.S.

Margarita Tartakovsky, M.S. is an Associate Editor and regular contributor at Psych Central. Her Master's degree is in clinical psychology from Texas A&M University. In addition to writing about mental disorders, she blogs regularly about body and self-image issues on her Psych Central blog, Weightless.

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APA Reference
Tartakovsky, M. (2018). A Snippet of Psychology’s Scientific Roots. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 1, 2020, from
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Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 21 Apr 2011)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
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