Ask an Expert: Who Invented Psychology?

Who Invented Psychology?

Turning to a subject matter expert is the best way to get answers to difficult questions. In our blog series, Ask An Expert, National University faculty take turns answering challenging questions in their areas of expertise.

In this post, we find out who invented psychology from Dr. Maureen O’Hara, professor of psychology and academic program director of organizational behavior at National University. With more than 40 years’ experience in the field, Dr. O’Hara highlights some of the major milestones that have transformed the field into what we know today.

Answering the question, “Who invented psychology?” isn’t as straightforward as it might seem. The brain is the most complex organ in the body, so it follows that studying its inner workings would be just as involved. Different psychologists endorse different schools of thought, so one might say that who invented psychology depends on which scientific theory you believe to be true.

Dr. Maureen O’Hara, professor of psychology and academic program director of organizational behavior, has studied psychology for 45 years and has witnessed firsthand its rapid evolution.

“Psychology is not just one field,” she explains. “It’s an umbrella for lots of different approaches to understanding how our minds, consciousness, behavior, and emotions work. It’s a very complicated field that’s changed philosophically over the years.”

The Chronology of Psychology

Long before the days of earning a bachelor in psychology online, the field didn’t even exist. Modern psychology didn’t come into existence until the late 1800s. Many label Germany’s Wilhelm Wundt as the father of psychology; however, American William James had the most influence over its surge in popularity and ultimate acceptance in academia.

During the late 1870s, academics became interested in the scientific study of topics that were usually taught in schools of theology or philosophy. James had the drive and experience to give psychology the legitimacy it needed. A Harvard graduate and professor of physiology, James was uniquely positioned as someone who could bring psychology to prominence.

“If you want to build a field and have legitimacy and respect from the public, universities, etc., you need to have a professional association,” says Dr. O’Hara. In 1892, John B. Watson did just that by establishing the American Psychological Association (APA). The APA is now the largest professional organization in the world.

After James gave psychology the boost it needed among scholars, the field developed into more specific areas of study.

Different Schools of Thought About Human Behavior

“Psychology as a field covers everything from what’s going on in individual nerve cells all the way to what’s going on in society at large, and even — in my field — what’s going on in the future,” Dr. O’Hara explains. As more people began studying psychology, it evolved to encompass a multitude of beliefs, often with competing ideas about how we think, feel, and behave.

For example, Watson’s behavioral psychology approach dictates that behavior is controlled by its consequences: What happens to a person after they do something determines whether or not they will repeat the behavior in the future.

But in the mid-1950s, Carl Rogers and Abraham Maslow developed a new theory called humanistic psychology. Rogers and Maslow believed that humans are not only free to make their own choices but that when left to their own devices, people will usually make pro-social, positive decisions.

The cognitive revolution soon followed in the 1980s. Aaron Beck was key to establishing cognitive therapy as a clinical means to treat depression and anxiety. This type of therapy is also responsible for understanding things like “cognitive slips” and why one would make a cognitive mistake.

Psychologists even have conflicting opinions about what constitutes legitimate scientific research. Behavioral psychologists and positive psychologists, for example, prefer empirical approaches while humanistic psychologists use more qualitative methods. In short, psychology is a multi-faceted, complex field that is, in many ways, still evolving due to its relative infancy in the realm of scientific study.

Psychology Today and Tomorrow

Presently, cultural psychology and neuropsychology have come to prominence. Up until recently, most psychological theories learned in school were developed by looking only at middle-class, educated Caucasians. Cultural psychology deals with understanding how people think, feel, and act differently based on their socioeconomic backgrounds and geographic location. Neuropsychology, on the other hand, deals with how the brain functions.

Technology is also having an impact on the field. With the advent of online psychology and apps alleging to treat depression, futurist psychologists like Dr. O’Hara are working today to overcome the psychological challenges of tomorrow. It’s fascinating work that involves considering things like the type of certifications required of future professionals; the legitimacy of certain sciences over others; and the obstacles humans will face as technology continues to further complicate how we learn and grow.

Psychology Programs at National University

National University currently offers the following undergraduate programs for both on-campus and online degrees:

  • Bachelor of Arts in Psychology
  • Bachelor of Arts in Sports Psychology
  • Bachelor of Arts in Integrative Psychology
  • Bachelor of Science in Organizational Behavior

Students choosing to pursue the on-campus degree or the online psychology degree have the option to take electives across the four programs for a truly interdisciplinary approach.

Psychology is so much about who we are, and National University strives to include students’ real-life experiences as part of the learning process. According to Dr. O’Hara, this is a starkly different approach than other curriculums. Additionally, the university’s comprehensive library has digital components that allow students to do things like virtually conduct cognitive labs online — something that once required an on-site lab.

“I emphasize that a psych degree does prepare students — even those not going off to become a psychologist — for anything you might want to do in the human field,” says Dr. O’Hara. “It’s a long haul if you want to be a clinical psychologist because clinical psychology in America is a doctorate-only profession. But there’s a lot you can do with a master’s. Many of our master’s students run agencies for developmental disorders in children; the organizational folks go into human resources management and careers in training and team building. It’s a great degree to do.”

California currently employs the most psychologists in the country, earning an average of $109,600 annually (more than the national average of $93,440). Employment in psychology is expected to grow by 14 percent by 2026, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

To find out more about potential careers after earning an online degree in psychology, download Psychology: A Degree that Opens Doors or read more about National’s psychology programs on our website.

About Our Expert

With 45 years of experience in the field, Dr. O’Hara has seen firsthand the transformation of psychology as scholars find new ways to approach human emotion, thought, and behavior. An expert in the field of humanistic psychology and futures psychology, Dr. O’Hara expresses a deep interest in understanding how people interact with the world differently based on their socioeconomic and ethnic status. As a futurist, she is also passionate about finding new ways to understand how technology and changing world-views alter our psychology and change the dynamic of our society. After 30 years studying and teaching humanistic psychology all over the world with her dissertation mentor world renowned psychologist Carl Rogers; serving as President of the American Psychological Society for Humanistic Psychology and as President of a San Francisco psychology university Dr. O’Hara joined the staff at National University ten years ago to help develop doctoral programs. She is now the academic program director for organizational behavior and a professor of psychology at the university.

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