Psychology after World War II

Cognitive Psychology

Psychology in the pre-World War II era was on the threshold of becoming both a major academic discipline and an applied profession. It had some unresolved problems, particularly involving mind-body issues, but in the main the academic wing of psychology had adopted British empiricism as its philosophy and was therefore behavioristic in orientation. The professional wing had been struggling to achieve its unique identity. We will survey the post-World War II era in terms of these academic and professional developments. Our focus is on the United States, which was actually the leader in psychological studies before the war.

Academic Developments

Although behaviorism had dominated academic circles since the 1920s, there were significant variations in outlook within this camp.

Behaviorism vs. Gestalt Psychology

John B. Watson (1878-1958), the father of behaviorism, was no longer active in academia, but there were three major figures vying for leadership: Clark L. Hull (1884-1952), E. C. Tolman (1886-1959), and B. F. Skinner (1904-1990). All of these men were committed to psychology as a science, which at that time meant Newtonian science. The philosophical outlook of Newtonianism was realism. A scientist was someone who not only sought to empirically validate his or her theory through a “control and prediction” logic of a hypothesis corresponding to “observed reality,” but a restriction was placed on the kind of theory a “genuine” scientist might use to explain any observed findings. All causal analysis had to be done in terms of mechanistic or “efficient” causation—the sort of thing that takes place when one billiard ball bumps into another; the first ball thrusts the second along. The stimulus-response (S-R) sequence in Watsonian behaviorism is conceived in a similar antecedent-consequent fashion. Read more about Behaviorism vs. Gestalt Psychology.

A Cognitive Revelation

Beginning in roughly 1960 the term cognitive changed from a Kantian (continental) to a Lockean (British) interpretation. This was to have an influence on the development of behaviorism, as reflected in the theorizing of Albert Bandura (1986). Trained in the Hullian tradition, Bandura added significantly to this style of S-R explanation by postulating a triadic form of causation—including a person’s (1) internal cognitions, affects, and biology; (2) external, overt behaviors; and (3) environmental pressures to perform or believe in certain ways. Each of these sources of causation influenced the other in a reciprocal manner. An important cognitive influence on a person’s performance in life’s challenging circumstances is self-efficacy. This is the sense of conviction that a person has regarding whether he or she can execute the behavior required to produce some outcome—such as passing an examination, or hosting a party. As it is a learned behavior, achieved by accomplishing challenging tasks as well as modeling the behavior of others. Bandura’s self-efficacy is seen by some as a further development of mediational theorizing. Bandura believes that agency (producing desired re-suits) can be understood through triadic causation and the development of efficacy both in persons and social groups. Read more about Cognitive Revelation.

Humanistic Psychology

The rise of humanistic psychology was led by Carl Rogers, Abraham Maslow (1908-1970), and others, also in line with Kantian precepts. This was called a “Third Force” in academic circles, adding to the first force of behaviorism and the second of psychoanalysis. Psychoanalysis has been continually and roundly criticized for its lack of grounding in empirical research. No academic department in the United States adopted a lasting Freudian or Jungian outlook, although most of them offered some course-work in these theories. Psychoanalysis was tied to institutes established outside of academia. Read more about Humanistic Psychology.

Professional Developments

It should be evident at this point that psychology has had more than its share of challenging problems in trying to maintain a scientific posture in academia while facing the growing demands of a service profession in the larger society. Before World War II the American Psychological Association (APA) was slow to grant unqualified membership to applied disciplines like clinical psychology. In reaction to this, many of its members broke away in 1938 to form the American Association of Applied Psychology (AAAP). It was not until 1944 that a reconciliation was achieved and the applied psychologists returned to the fold. Read more about Professional Developments.

A continuing debate in clinical work has to do with just how successful psychotherapy is, and whether or not we really can train people to be effective therapists. The evidence suggests that psychotherapy per se does help people to adjust (Lambert & Bergin, 1992). But there is little proof that having advanced training in clinical work makes a great difference. Therapists with master’s degrees do as well as those with Ph.D. degrees (Dawes, 1994). Some Ph.D. clinicans seem therefore to want their clinical practice to be raised a notch. That is, they believe they should have the right to prescribe certain medications. Others think this should remain the responsibility of a physician. It was mentioned in the section on academic developments that biopsychology has been making great strides. Despite serious questions concerning the ultimate value of drug treatment (Fisher & Greenberg, 1997, pp. 115-172), emotional disorders such as depression are increasingly treated with pharmacological agents. But if psychology is being engulfed by biology (“socio-” or otherwise) in the academic realm and by medicine in the professional realm, what does that leave for it to do on its own?


  1. Bandura, A. (1986). Social foundations of thought and action: A social cognitive theory. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
  2. Breland, K., & Breland, M. (1961). The misbehavior of organisms. American Psychologist, 16, 681-684.
  3. Brewer, W. F. (1974). There is no convincing evidence for operant or classical conditioning in adult humans. In W. B. Weimer & D. S. Palermo (Eds.), Cognition and the symbolic processes (pp. T-42). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.
  4. Bruner, J. S., Brunswik, E., Festinger, L., Heider, E, Muen-zinger, K. E, Osgood, C. E., & Rapaport, D. (1957). Contemporary approaches to cognition. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
  5. Dawes, R. M. (1994). House of cards: Psychology and psychotherapy built on myth. New York: Free Press.
  6. Fisher, S., & Greenberg, R. (1997). From placebo to panacea: Putting psychiatric drugs to the test (pp. 115-T72). New York: Wiley.
  7. Greenspoon, J. (1955). The reinforcing effect of two spoken sounds on the frequency of two responses. American Journal of Psychology, 68, 409-416.
  8. Griffin, D. R. (1981). The question of animal awareness: Evolutionary continuity of mental experience (Rev. ed.). New York: Rockefeller University Press.
  9. Kuhn, T. S. (1970). The structure of scientific revolutions (2nd ed.). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  10. Lambert, M. J., & Bergin, A. E. (1992). Achievements and limitations of psychotherapy research. In D. K. Freedheim (Ed.), History of psychotherapy: A century of change (pp. 360-390). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
  11. Lowe, H. (Ed.) (1990). National Conference on Applied Master’s Training in Psychology. Proceedings. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press.
  12. Miller, G. A. (1969). Psychology as a means of promoting human welfare. American Psychologist, 24, 1063-1075.
  13. Newell, A., & Simon, H. A. (1972). Human problem solving. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
  14. Page, M. M. (1972). Demand characteristics and the verbal operant conditioning experiment. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 23, 372-378.
  15. Raimy, V. (Ed.). (1950). Training in clinical psychology. New York: Prentice Hall.
  16. Rosenblueth, A., Wiener, N., & Bigelow, J. (1943). Behavior, purpose and teleology. Philosophy of Science, 10, 18-24.
  17. Schofield W. (1966). Clinical and counseling psychology: Some perspectives. American Psychologist, 21, 122-1 3 1.
  18. Shakow, D. (1965). Seventeen years later: Clinical psychology in the light of the 1947 committee on training in clinical psychology report. American Psychologist, 20, 353-367.
  19. Shannon, C. E., & Weaver, W. (Eds.). (1962). The mathematical theory of communication. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press.
  20. Simon, H. A. (1985). The science of the artificial (2nd ed.). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
  21. Skinner, B. F. (1931). The concept of the reflex in the description of behavior. Journal of General Psychology, 5, 427-458.
  22. Tryon, R. C. (1963). Psychology in flux: The academic-professional bipolarity. American Psychologist, 18, 134143.
  23. Turing, A. (1950). Computing machinery and intelligence. Mind, 59, 433-460.
  24. Urbach, T. (1997). From brain to mind: Event-related potential evidence for sentence comprehension processes. American Behavioral Scientist, 40, 754-781.
  25. Wilson, E. O. (1975). Sociobiology: The new synthesis. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.