The two decades between 1890 and 1910 constituted a crucial time for the professional foundation of psychology. Americans were coming to recognize the value of science, notably its apparent utility in enhancing commercial productivity and health. Science, including psychology, ultimately was portrayed as a practical pursuit, and American psychologists adopted this utilitarian attitude. The reformism of the progressive era held that experts were a necessary component in rectifying social injustices and aiding less fortunate members of society gain a healthier status. In terms of the management of these individuals, many social problems were deemed in need of psychological expertise. World War I provided a compelling case for psychologists’ involvement in social policy and a unique opportunity to demonstrate psychology’s scientific efficacy.
In the first decade of the century, psychology had yet to devise sophisticated techniques that could be applied to social reform agendas, but psychologists both benefited from and contributed to a discourse about expertise that was to set the stage for later applications of psychology to human welfare. Psychologists rehearsed the thesis that people needed expert guidance. As Robert Yerkes (1876–1956) put it, “Millions of human beings—unfortunate but all unconscious of what they are missing—go through life blind to the psychological world” (1911. p. 13). Yerkes’s observation that humans needed psychological guidance found its test site in the entrance of the United States into World War I. In fact, Yerkes, although trained as a comparative psychologist, was a leader in mobilizing psychologists to contribute to the war effort. Twelve committees of the American Psychological Association were established for these ends, and psychologists quickly developed a rating scale for selecting suitable candidates for officer training and an intelligence test for detecting those individuals who were mentally unfit for service in the army. The actual efficacy of these tests is debatable, as are psychologists’ overall effects on the war effort. However, psychologists’ war involvement elevated the status of the science in general and mental testing in particular. Historians now generally concur that while psychology did not contribute significantly to the war, the science benefited tremendously from psychologists’ involvement.
After the war, psychologists eagerly extended their skills to the resolution of human problems: they brought newly honed scales and fresh if technical language to the worlds of business, education, law, and social welfare. Professional organizations, like the Psychological Corporation, were established in the 1920s to foster commercial uses of psychology. This expansion of psychological expertise was not limited to formal institutions, as psychologists also disseminated their skills and knowledge directly to the public via popular articles and books. These writings enlightened readers about psychological thinking just as it proffered notions of expertise. Psychology could explain the stock market crash of 1929, as well as marital discord, racial prejudice, and the adolescent’s misbehavior. It was used to argue for certain immigration laws just as it was employed to guide parents in toilet training their children.
Psychology extended its new theories and findings to an eager populace. Psychologists’ engagement in applied ventures as well as their popular writings in magazines and newspapers fueled America’s fascination with psychological interpretations of everyday life. Ordinary domestic routines, individual idiosyncrasies, and major life passages as well as national politics and economic conditions were analyzed in psychological terms. Concepts such as personality, self, and motivation became key to these interpretations. So phenomenal was this interest in psychology that historians have referred to the preoccupation as a “national mania.” a “cult of the self,” and the beginning of the “culture of the therapeutic” (Morawski, 1982). Psychology thus became a dominant interpretive tool, and perhaps the greatest influence of the discipline was its nurturance of emotional life in America (Pister & Schnog, 1997).
By the end of the 1920s, psychology had made a place for itself in the academy, in commerce, and in the minds of many middle-class Americans. These applied and popular psychologies still reflected the pluralist spirit of the beginning of the century. However, psychology as it was being developed within universities was constricting, not expanding, its analytic scope, scientific methods, and theory. The first three decades of the century saw the ascendancy of experimental methods of inquiry and a small assortment of theories, with one perspective—behaviorism—dominating.
In this welcoming cultural environment psychology flourished, grew, and eventually became deeply involved in the management of social welfare. The American Psychological Association was founded in 1892 with only 31 members and by 1929 had 1,000 members and associates; after this period an exponential growth in members began, reaching almost 20,000 in 1950 and 50,000 in 1980. In 1900 approximately 40 psychological laboratories had been established in universities and colleges; 25 years later there were over 115 such research sites. During this time psychologists’ duties and demographics shifted notably. One change was occupational: whereas in 1916 76% of the APA membership was classified as being employed as professors and only 8% as applied psychologists, by 1938 the percentage of teachers had dropped to 50% and applied psychologists had risen to 28% of the membership. Throughout this time psychology remained a primarily White profession. In its early years, however, it outranked all other sciences in the number of women who attained Ph.D. degrees, although few gained access to academic opportunities. As a group, women were over-represented in applied work.