The Historical Evolution of Psychology: A Framework for the Future


At the beginning of the 20th century, psychology underwent several profound shifts. The purpose of the present work is to highlight the historical milestones in the evolution of behaviorism, psychoanalysis, and humanistic/transpersonal/existential (HTE) psychology. The paper includes a thorough analysis of the historical context in which the three philosophies developed. A rationale for each movement is provided. A thorough analysis of each theory and movement is performed. The concepts underpinning each philosophy are discussed, along with the major theorists. A brief evaluation of applications is included. The paper offers an insight into the future of psychoanalysis, behaviorism, and HTE. Implications for the future of psychology are also provided.

The 20th century was a turning point in the evolution of psychology as both theory and empirical science. The past century brought to the earth a whole galaxy of outstanding psychology theorists and practitioners. Behaviorism, psychoanalysis, and humanistic/transpersonal/existential psychology all came to signify a new day in the development of psychology thought and practice. Today these trends and philosophies exert powerful influences on the direction and patterns of clinical decision making. They also set the stage for the continuous, steady but increasingly promising development of psychology in its diverse representations. Together, psychoanalysis, the humanistic/transpersonal/existential and behavioral psychology create a cluster of sophisticated meanings, which enable psychologists to shape a more comprehensive picture of the holistic human personality and design evidence-based strategies for revitalizing the best talents and human potentials.


An Overall Historical Context of All Three Movements

The 20th century was full of scientific and historical challenges. Those challenges greatly predetermined the direction and pace of psychology development. Apparently, the nature and complexity of those challenges varied, depending on the stage of development and type of psychological theory involved. However, in all respects, theorists and scientists in the psychology discipline sought to refine it and develop a valid instrumentation for achieving relevant, credible, and reliable results in psychological research and practice.

Speaking of psychoanalysis, its roots can be traced back to the end of the 19th century, when the need to develop novel approaches to treating mentally ill became more pronounced. "Several efforts at improving treatment of the mentally ill occurred in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, a product of the Enlightenment, a time of spreading light into the dark corners of the human mind". In fact, it is the ideas of Enlightenment and the growing openness to the study of human psychology gave rise to theories and philosophies that would gain prominence later into the middle of the 20th century, including behaviorism and humanistic/transpersonal/existential (HTE) psychology. The rapid spread of the Enlightenment ideas was further accompanied by the dramatic transformations facing the treatment of the mentally ill. As Goodwin notes, as the 19th-century asylum was undergoing a well-structured reform, professionals in psychology and psychiatry sought to propose novel approach to treatment for the mentally ill. As a neurologist himself, Freud launched a sequence of theoretical and practice reactions in the field of psychology. His theory reflected the major concerns in psychology during his time.

The end of the 19th century was not only the time of change for 19th-century asylum; it was also the time of profound transformations in diverse fields of theory and science. That was the time when Darwin published his theory of evolution, and that theory changed the direction of most, if not all, scientific processes in the world. Baum confirms that Darwin's theory of evolution had substantial and irreversible impacts on the development of psychology at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries. The evolutionary discourse gave rise to a new set of priorities in the field of psychology, forcing theorists and scientists to look for more objectivity and empirical reliability in their professional activities. Darwin's theory of evolution altered the historical and scientific context of the 19th century to the extent that made the application of earlier, more conventional methods of psychology inapplicable. Introspection quickly lost its relevance and was no longer considered as a reliable scientific method. Objective and comparative psychology with the growing emphasis on the measurability and replicability of psychological research and practice facilitated the emergence of behaviorism as a distinct field of study. It was an attempt to close the existing empirical gaps in psychology and strengthen its scientific image.

However, even a theory as scientific and measurable as behaviorism could not satisfy the dramatic quest for knowledge in the 20th century. The growing discontent with the obsessive urges of many theorists to make psychology more objective and empirically verifiable created an entirely new historical landscape, which ultimately led to the rise of humanistic/transpersonal/existential (HTE) philosophies. Although humanism as a branch of human science had been in existence for centuries, it is not before the middle of the 20th century that it came to enjoy particular prominence in the field of psychology. In the 19th century, the growing popularity of Nietzsche and Kierkegaard predetermined the subsequently popularization of the humanistic ideals in psychology. The rise of Husserlian phenomenology and its transformation into Heidegger's phenomenological thought empowered theorists and practitioners in the early 20th century to revisit the importance of non-empirical dimensions of the human personality and lived experiences. For instance, humanism reinforced the importance of spirituality in the study of the human psyche. To a large extent, what happened in the 20th century has forever transformed the entire field of psychology, making it more competitive, controversial, diverse and, for these reasons, more suitable for the development of new ideas about human psychology.

Rationale for Each Movement

That each of the three movements noted above was essential to understanding human behavior and experiences is an undeniable truth. The implications of psychoanalysis for the study of the human psychology were two-fold. On the one hand, it provided novel conditions for treating mentally ill. On the other hand, it reinforced the importance of the past experiences in analyzing human behaviors. As Roth notes, "Freud developed a hermeneutics of memory rather than a tool for some unmediated expression of the past which would pretend to be free of it. That is, Freud developed psychoanalysis as a way of using the past rather than revolting against it". That was a small revolution that prepared psychology for the emergence of other theories and philosophies. It was as important as behaviorism, whose rationale was to address the measurability and validity concerns facing psychology research and practice. It was a revolution against introspection as the mainstream of psychology in the 19th century. At the same time, behaviorism has uncovered the fallacies of the purely scientific, objective, and empirical approaches to the study of the human mind. It was essential to understanding human behavior and experiences in a sense that it failed to produce an understanding that would satisfy everyone. Its reductionist approaches to the study of human experiences also led to emergence of a new neuroscience, whose features have retained their validity and relevance until present.

As the popularity of behaviorism was giving place to humanistic trends, psychologists gradually evolved in their understanding of the holistic human psychology., Humanistic/transpersonal/existential (HTE) psychology "contributed a holistic understanding of the human personality, drawing on European Gestalt principles and giving attention to the human individual's spontaneous movement toward self-actualization and mastery of the environment". All in all, the three movements shaped a new atmosphere in psychology science, theory, and practice, by creating a new, multidimensional story of human experiences and redirecting the theoretical and practice attempts of professional psychologists to capture the complexity of human behavior.

Analysis of Psychoanalysis/Psychodynamic Theory

Psychoanalysis can be fairly considered as one of the best examples of the psychological theory of the past. Psychoanalysis and history are inseparable constructs. The central tenet of psychoanalysis is making sense of the past. It has its roots in the study of hypnosis, which allows hypnotists to access and revisit the hidden memories of the past. However, while hypnosis is mostly about altering and erasing memories, psychoanalysis is all about utilizing such memories as an instrument of sense-making. As Roth puts it, psychoanalysis as a branch of theoretical and practical psychology turns professionals to the historical consciousness of their human subjects. The key assumption underlying Freudian approaches to studying human behavior is that such behavior reflects the centrality and legacy of the secret emotional life of the subject. Every part of the human behavioral activity can be readily related to the hidden personal story, with traumatic experiences affecting humans at each point of their evolution.

Freud was the central theorist in psychoanalysis. However, he also had numerous followers, who reinforced the importance of the philosophical assumptions behind psychoanalysis, including the primacy of the unconscious, the Oedipus complex, and the critical role of early experiences and memories in understanding the causality of human behavior. According to Gitre, 1930 was a landmark year as the story of Freudianism in the United States continued to unfold. The First International Congress on Mental Health that was held that year in Washington D.C. attracted like-minded theorists and researchers, among others Erich Fromm and Karen Horney. Adler, Jung and Erikson came to become some central figures in neo-Freudianism, which signified a retraction from some of the basic values articulated by Freud towards a more interdisciplinary understanding of human experiences. Neo-Freudianism was less about sexual behaviors and more about the role of the unconscious in shaping individual and collective human behaviors. These theories have retained their relevance and importance in present-day psychology.

Analysis of Behaviorism

Unlike Freudian psychoanalysis that reinforced the importance of the unconscious and early memories, behaviorism emerged as an antipode to everything subjective and non-empirical in the study of human psychology. The central tenet of behaviorism is that "a science of behavior is possible". It exemplifies a radical retreat from introspection as the foundational component of psychological analysis. In their striving to objectify and measure human behaviors and psychological experiences, behaviorists rejected earlier assumptions related to human memories and inner drives, choosing instead to focus on externally acquired experiences, acquired habits, and learning. Behaviorism dismissed the power of instinct and sacrificed it for the sake of acquired behaviors. Behavioral psychology came to symbolize a triumph of learning as the fundamental activity crossing the boundaries of human and animal species. Pavlovian conditioning stood at the heart of most, if not all, behaviorist inferences. Behaviorists utilized the advances in neurobiology and neural science to back up their research and theoretical findings. Of course, Watson was the author of behaviorism, with the study he published in 1913 becoming a hallmark in the evolution of behavioral psychology. His landmark study opened the gateway for introducing behaviorism as an alternative to Freudian psychoanalysis. According to Healy, the significance of behaviorism was in its emphasis on the physical and social determinants of human behavior. Later behavioral theorists included Edward Tolman, Clark Hull, Edwin Guthrie, and Ivan Krechevsky. With time, due to the failure to produce a common behavioral concept or construct, the popularity of behavioral theories gradually waned. However, their findings informed the evolution of new cognitive and information processing ideologies that would facilitate the provision of high-quality psychological care to clients.

Analysis of Humanistic/Transpersonal/Existential Psychology (HTE)

Unlike behaviorism and psychoanalysis which logically emerged from the historical conditions surrounding the evolution of science, humanistic psychology represented an opposition to more conventional, physiology-oriented and reductionist approaches to understanding human behavior. Not surprisingly, Goodwin writes that "humanistic psychology started as a revolt". The principles underpinning HTE made a difference in scientific, theoretical, and empirical psychology, as long as they rejected the cold, hierarchical, impersonal, and mechanistic beliefs behind behaviorism and related theories. HTE theorists criticized the validity of the reductionist and deterministic beliefs about human psychology and insisted that responsibility and free will were the primary determinants of human behavior. Instead of relying on Pavlovian concepts of reinforcement and the inner sexuality drives described by Freud, HTE theorists created an entirely new picture of human psychology, based on the inherent tendency of humans to grow and develop continuously throughout their lifespan.

The principal humanistic theorists were Carl Rogers and Abraham Maslow. Maslow's self-actualization theory was an attempt to shift the focus of psychology from psychological disorders towards health, wellness, and personal growth. Rogers further placed the human to the center of psychology research and practice, giving rise to the emergence of client-centered therapy. Contemporary researchers do not lack any agreement as to whether HTE is a reliable approach to studying human behavior. Geller proposes that Maslow's vision of human lifespan development is inherently reductionist and profoundly flawed. In contrast, Sheldon and Kasser demonstrate that the concepts of goal-setting and well-being promoted by humanistic psychologists may have solid empirical support. Despite the contradictions surrounding all three theories, they have a promising future and can readily shape the direction of future activities in psychology research and practice.

Evaluation of Applications of the Theories and Next Steps

All three theories have been successfully applied in practice. Psychoanalysis as the theory which explains the patterns of maladaptive development has proved to be particularly valuable in treating depression. Behavioral theories have been extensively applied in a diversity of clinical settings to explain and translate the patterns of learning into comprehensive strategies of behavior change. Humanistic psychology resulted in the development of client-centered therapies, which empower clinical psychologists to treat every client as an integral, holistic personality.

Despite the conceptual distinctions among these theories, their future depends on whether clinicians, theorists, and researchers in psychology will manage to incorporate their best components into a single, multidimensional theory of human behavior. Such integration will also be essential for revitalizing the spirit of humanistic psychology, which seems to have lost its vigor in the 21st century. Elkins argues that marginalization of humanistic psychology has been a result of multiple political chasms in the middle of the 20th century. Therefore, a strong political will is needed to reverse these trends. Putting political concerns aside, the proposed integration of theories will work in the best interests of clients, as it will allow for a more holistic analysis of each situation and the creation of strategies for achieving the best clinical outcomes. Besides, it will also inform the development of new theoretical constructs and propositions, as well as a more profound and structural analysis of human behaviors across behavioral situations and settings.


At the turn of the 19th century, psychology rapidly evolved to become one of the most challenging fields of study for theorists, empirical researchers, and practitioners. As its story unfolded, new theories came to existence. They informed the direction of most, if not all, major achievements in psychology throughout the 20th century. Prominent theorists faced recognition and criticism, as they sought to refine their perspectives on human behavior. The 21st century creates the most favorable conditions for the gradual integration of behaviorism, psychoanalysis, and HTE into a single, holistic theory of human psychology. Such theory will empower psychologists to create a multidimensional picture of human personality and guide their future attempts in research and practice.

Related essays