Popular Psychology

Popular psychology (sometimes shortened as pop psychology) is the concepts and theories about human mental life and behavior that are purportedly based on psychology and that find credence among and pass muster with the populace. The mysteries of the human mind and human behavior have been a source of fascination and speculation throughout recorded history, and surely, for a long time before that. Attempts to explain human thoughts, emotions, and behavior, especially when they are disordered, go back just as long; and have often involved magic, evil spirits, invisible entities, and such unusual ideas as stones in the head and memories of previous lives. The scientific field of psychology is less than 150 years old. Most textbooks date its beginning to the establishment of Wilhelm Wundt’s laboratory in Leipzig, Germany, in 1879. Since that time the field has grown rapidly, and the application of scientific method has led to many remarkable discoveries about how the human brain and mind actually work, along with what actually determines human behavior.

Unfortunately, magical thinking and superstition had a head start of 20,000 years on the scientific method, and so their elements still permeate the popular presentation of psychology, or “pop” psychology. We in the academic world probably should not be as surprised as we are that people are still willing to believe in a wide array of bizarre causal mechanisms for mental illness and in the treatments those beliefs inspire, despite a complete lack of empirical evidence supporting them. The realm of pop psychology certainly overlaps the science of psychology, but there are large areas of the two that rarely meet. A central purpose of this section is to explore key areas of both, in hopes of finding what is good science in the popular presentation of psychology, while providing some of the necessary tools for detecting those parts that are unworthy of serious attention.

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  1. Introduction: Who Owns Psychology?
  2. Origins of Popular Psychology
    1. Phrenology
    2. Physiognomy
    3. Mesmerism
    4. Spiritualism
    5. New Thought Movement: Mental Healing and Self-Improvement
  3. The New Psychology
  4. Psychoanalysis Comes to America
  5. An “Outbreak” of Psychology in America
    1. Popular Psychology Magazines
    2. Psychology Clubs
  6. Popular Psychology and Religion
  7. Self-improvement through Home Study of Psychology
  8. Popular Psychology and the Great Depression
  9. Conclusion
  10. References

Introduction: Who Owns Psychology?

The question “Who owns psychology?” reflects the tension between scientific psychology, what psychologists regard as the “real” psychology, which is the validated principles and phenomena of an experimentally based discipline, and popular psychology, which is regarded as pseudoscience and psychobabble by psychologists, yet is embraced as the psychology of the lay public – a popular psychology. This tension is evidenced in an experience that has occurred for anyone who earned a doctoral degree in psychology and, indeed, for most students who at some time majored in psychology. When in casual conversation between two people one person says “I am a psychologist” or “I am studying psychology,” the other individual replies, “Oh, I bet that you can read my mind.” Such a comment reflects the public’s association of psychology with paranormal practices such as mind reading, foretelling the future, reading personal auras, causing objects to move by mental powers, and communicating with spirits.

Popular psychology is rampant in twenty-first century American life and has been for nearly 200 years. Today it is manifested in many forms. It is the mainstay of television, particularly in talk shows, soap operas, and so-called reality programs, but also is paramount in news programs, situation comedies, and dramatic programs. Psychology is the stuff of the internet, radio, plays, country music, movies, novels, sports, newspapers (especially the tabloid versions), magazines, and churches. Stories on human behavior and misbehavior are ubiquitous. The public’s interest in human nature seemingly knows no bounds. Imagine two events occurring on the same day. One story involves the economic collapse of the banking industry. The other story reveals the sexual indiscretions of a popular golfer. Which story will the network and cable news channels lead with? It would be no contest. Although one could argue that the banking industry collapse is a psychological story as well, perhaps the result of unmitigated greed, such national and global events will rarely eclipse the interest value of “who shot who” or “who cheated on whom.”

For the public there is no popular psychology or public psychology, there is just psychology. It is psychology as they understand it. It is their psychology. They own it. Psychologists regularly lament this fact, wondering why the public would not embrace a more scientific psychology. Why the public cannot distinguish between “real” psychologists and those who claim to have psychological expertise yet have no formalized education and training in psychology? Consider the issue of information about romantic relationships, especially about how to have a successful marriage. On this subject many Americans have turned to the advice of John Gray, author of Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus (1992), a book purported to be a guide to helping couples improve their relationships. Gray identifies himself as being a Ph.D., which was earned via correspondence from Columbia Pacific University, an unaccredited college. Gray has no scientific background whatsoever nor has he done any scientific research on couples. Contrast him with John Gottman whose Ph.D. in psychology was earned at the University of Illinois and who has spent his distinguished academic career studying couples’ relationships, especially marital satisfaction. Gottman has offered practical advice based on his work and on the work of other scholars in the field in several books written for the public, including Why Marriages Succeed or Fail (1994). The books often differ in their advice about what makes marriages work, Gottman claiming that his prescriptions come from years of exacting longitudinal research with couples, whereas Gray’s advice comes from intuition and observation. As of 2010, Gray’s Mars-Venus books – there are 16 of them now – have reportedly sold more than 40 million copies, whereas Gottman’s several marriage books have sold fewer than 100,000 copies. Some of Gray’s key advice to couples is in direct opposition to the findings from psychological science. Acknowledging this paradox, Marano (1997) has written that “Gottman is the gold standard, while Gray is the gold earner. Gottman creates top psychology, while Gray mines pop psychology” (p. 28). Science and academic credentials aside, the public has voted with its pocketbook. Gray is the marriage guru.

Who owns psychology? The public does. And the public is not likely to look to psychological science for answers to psychological problems. As a result, pop psychology flourishes via the books, seminars, tapes, cruises, DVDs, newsletters, Web sites, and radio and television broadcasts of John Gray, Melody Beattie, Wayne Dyer, Dr. Phil (McGraw), Tony Robbins, Dr. Laura (Schlessinger), and many others, all of whom are willing to share their psychological expertise with the public, a “calling” that has earned each of them millions of dollars.

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A search of internet sources on popular psychology finds evidence of the lack of a sense of history. Popular psychology is often characterized as having its origins in the 1960s, associated with what has been called the human potential movement, an outgrowth of the humanistic psychology of Abraham Maslow, Carl Rogers, and Rollo May. The 1960s was clearly a decade of considerable social upheaval and change, a time in which the very fabric of American life was questioned. It was a decade of war, race riots, psychedelic drugs, and changing sexual mores, a decade that defined the concept of generation gap. Thus the 1960s can easily be identified as a decade in which psychological issues were or seminal importance; nevertheless, there is a public psychology that predates it by more than a century.

Although the Civil War would tear America apart in the middle of the century, the nineteenth century was largely one of optimism, if not prosperity, for many Americans, at least those of European origins. Many had come to the New World in search of a better life and many had found it in the abundant opportunities of agriculture, commerce, and the trades. Land was still cheap for those adventurous enough to push westward, and dreams of great fortunes to be made were reinforced by tales from the great cities of the East and from the goldfields of the West. Of course there was much poverty and human misery as well, particularly in the cities, but this was America, the land where dreams of riches and success sometimes did come true. In pursuit of their dreams, Americans put their faith in religion and education as a means for personal and financial betterment. Yet other institutions offered hope as well, including a host of practitioners of varying pseudosciences that offered personal counseling promising health, happiness, and success.

Whereas popular psychologies are as old as written records, the first half of the nineteenth century was an especially productive era in which several “systems” of psychology became part of popular culture in Europe and America, producing practitioners who promised a better life. These public psychologies included phrenology, physiognomy, mesmerism, spiritualism, and the New Thought or Mind Cure Movements that gave rise to mental healing and self-improvement. Practitioners in these psychologies were engaged in exactly the kinds of psychological activities in which professional psychologists are engaged today. They sought to assist people in enjoying a better life. One can argue about the validity of their methods, and certainly there was little science as underpinnings. And no doubt some of these practitioners were charlatans whose treatments were a sham intended only to line the pockets of the practitioner. Yet there were many whose motives were laudable, who sought to meet the psychological needs of their clients.


In nineteenth century America, “having your head examined” was big business, largely due to the enterprising efforts of two brothers. Having your head examined meant phrenology, certainly the best known of the applied psychologies of the nineteenth century. Phrenology originated with a German physician and anatomist, Franz Josef Gall (1758–1828), who argued that different parts of the brain were responsible for different emotional, intellectual, and behavioral functions. He believed that talents and defects of an individual could be assessed by measuring the bumps and indentations of the skull caused by overdevelopment or underdevelopment of certain brain areas. Phrenology was popularized in Europe and America by Johann Spurzheim (1776–1832), who collaborated with Gall on anatomical research on the brain and later promoted his own brand of phrenology consisting of 21 emotional faculties and 14 intellectual ones. Spurzheim died in Boston in 1832 on a lecture trip popularizing phrenology. His work was continued by a Scottish lawyer turned phrenologist, George Combe (1788–1858), whose 1828 book, The Constitution of Man, established him as the leading voice of phrenology. Combe continued Spurzheim’s American lecture trip, selling his books, and establishing phrenological societies in the major cities of his travels. Although by 1832 there were critics of the scientific legitimacy of phrenology, Americans, by and large, accepted it, and its proponents, particularly Combe, were praised for the practical benefits to individuals and society that phrenology offered.

Combe (1835) adhered to the categorization of 35 faculties as described by Spurzheim. In describing the basis for his practical phrenology he wrote:

Observation proves that each of these faculties is connected with a particular portion of the brain, and that the power of manifesting each bears a relation to the size and activity of the organ. The organs differ in relative size in different individuals, and hence their differences of talents and dispositions. This fact is of the greatest importance in the philosophy of man. . . These faculties are not all equal in excellence and authority . . . Human happiness and misery are resolvable into the gratification, or denial of gratification, of one or more of our faculties . . . Every faculty is good in itself, but all are liable to abuse. Their manifestations are right only when directed by enlightened intellect and moral sentiment. (pp. 54–56)

What phrenology offered was not only the cranial measurement that identified the talents and dispositions but, more important, a course of action designed to strengthen the faculties and bring the overall complex of emotional and intellectual faculties into a harmony that would ensure happiness and success. This was practical phrenology, that is, phrenology applied.

In the United States, no one was more strongly identified with applying phrenological “science” than the Fowler brothers, Orson (1809–1887) and Lorenzo (1811–1896), who opened clinics in New York, Boston, and Philadelphia in the late 1830s. They franchised their business to other cities, principally through the training of phrenological examiners, and provided phrenological supplies to the examiners such as phrenology busts for display and teaching, calipers of varying sizes for measurements, display charts for the wall, manuals to sell to the customers, and, for the itinerant phrenologists, carrying cases for tools and supplies. They began publication of the American Phrenological Journal in 1838, a magazine for phrenologists and people interested in phrenology, which enjoyed an existence of more than 70 years. For years its masthead carried the phrase “Home truths for home consumption.”

Some historical accounts have stated that the Fowlers were unconcerned with the arguments over the scientific validity of phrenology, and instead simply accepted it as valid. Their magazine, however, was filled with articles and testimonials intended to attest to the scientific basis of their subject. The Fowlers and others dedicated to phrenology recognized that it was not an accepted science, and there were some efforts aimed in increasing its respectability. For example, several of the phrenological societies, with the support of the Fowlers, sought to have phrenology taught as one of the sciences in the public schools and offered as a subject in colleges. Such efforts were not successful. The rejection of the scientific community notwithstanding, the Fowlers never doubted the validity of phrenology, at least not in public, and they promoted the subject as divine truth, selling its applications. They “did a thriving business advising employers about employees, fiance´s about fiance´es, and everyone about himself” (Leahey and Leahey 1983, p. 64). Their business also included public lectures; classes in phrenology for those wishing to take up the profession, but also classes for ordinary curious citizens, including children; and countless publications including books, pamphlets, and magazines.

Giving examinations or “readings,” as they were often called, was the business of the phrenologist. Some operated from clinics where clients could make appointments for their examinations. A phrenologist might test a potential suitor at the request of an anxious father. Parents also sought out help for raising children, especially children who presented behavioral problems. Couples contemplating marriage might be tested for compatibility. Individuals could be tested for vocational suitability. Businesses might use the phrenological clinics as a kind of personnel department, matching individuals to jobs or selecting workers with managerial skills or sales skills. In areas where clinics did not exist, there were traveling phrenologists who advertised their arrival in advance and rented space for the duration of their stay.

A lack of scientific respectability notwithstanding, phrenologists were not without skills. What they may not have been able to judge from their cranial measurements, they likely determined from their powers of observation, honed by the examination of many clients. In the best empirical tradition, they used the knowledge of their senses to inform their diagnoses and their counsel. Regarding their powers of observation, historian Michael Sokal (2001) has written:

After all, they had great opportunities to practice these powers on the individuals they examined. They spent a fair amount of time with their subjects, often in close physical contact. They spoke with these clients – and, especially, listened to them – as they introduced themselves and took in their accents and use of words. They shook their hands and felt their calluses. They observed their dress, and noted its style, cleanliness, and usage. They observed their subjects’ carriage as they entered and walked about the examining room and read their “body language.” They stood over and behind them as they moved their hands about their heads. And in a less clean age, they especially noted their subjects’ odor. (pp. 38–39)

Thus there was much that could be learned about a client from a discerning phrenologist. Such observations likely improved the quality of the phrenologist’s counsel while at the same time raising the client’s confidence in the skills of the phrenologist. That confidence was important in gaining greater client compliance with the recommendations of the examiner and, of course, in creating good word-of-mouth advertising for the examiner’s services.

Although phrenology came under increasing attack from the scientific community, it remained popular in America throughout the nineteenth century as a kind of counseling, clinical, and industrial psychology. By the beginning of the twentieth century its popularity had declined considerably, as it was being replaced by other methods, many of which were being drawn from the new science of psychology.


There are, no doubt, many people today who would profess to being able to judge a person’s character by looking at the person’s face. The origins of that belief surely date back thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, of years. The system of judging a person’s character from facial features is called physiognomy (sometimes referred to as characterology), and its invention, at least in modern times, is attributed to a Swiss theologian, Johann Lavater (1741–1801). Lavater’s book, Essays on Physiognomy, was published in 1775/1789. It was thus a precursor to Gall’s work, although there is no evidence that it influenced Gall. Lavater’s system emphasized the eyes, nose, forehead, and chin as the chief indicators of intelligence, morality, and many other characteristics. For example, about the nose, Lavater wrote:

Noses which are much turned downward are never truly good, truly cheerful, noble, or great. Their thoughts and inclinations always tend to earth. They are close, cold, heartless, incommunicative; often maliciously sarcastic, ill-humored, or extremely hypochondriac or melancholic. When arched in the upper part they are fearful and voluptuous. (Lavater, as cited in Wells 1866, p. 36)

Lavater’s book, which contained more than 800 illustrations, some of them taken from famous artists, was exceptionally popular. Originally published in German, the book was soon translated into virtually every European language. Physiognomy’s popularity ranged from its use as a parlor game at fashionable gatherings to its claims as the science of determining character. It spread over Europe in the late eighteenth century and to America shortly thereafter. Its popularity continued into the first half of the twentieth century as American businesses used physiognomy in hiring and promoting employees.

The Fowler brothers were also marketers of physiognomy, giving lectures on the subject, including many articles about it in their phrenological magazines, and publishing books and pamphlets on the topic. One of the more successful books was authored by Samuel Wells (1820–1875), a partner with and brother-in-law of the Fowlers. Wells’s book, which appeared in 1866, was entitled, New Physiognomy or Signs of Character as Manifested Through Temperament and External Forms and Especially in the Human Face Divine. Wells’s “New Physiognomy” was an adaptation of a system proposed by James W. Redfield, a New York physician. The system identified 184 separate areas of the face, each corresponding to a different character or trait, for example, kindness, eloquence, sympathy, inquisitiveness, cheerfulness, patriotism, and perseverance.

In addition to being the science of character, physiognomy, like phrenology, was used to “validate” and thus perpetuate ethnic and racial stereotypes. For example, in describing the “Jewish nose,” Wells (1866) wrote, “it indicates worldly shrewdness, insight into character, and ability to turn that insight to a profitable account.” Other facial features led Wells to the following summary of a Jew. “He is religious; he is fond of trade; he is thrifty; he is unconquerably true to his racial proclivities; he is persistent in everything he undertakes. He is the type of stability and permanence – the model of steadfastness; but at the same time he is prejudiced, bigoted, stern, stubborn, irascible, exacting, secretive, and unrelenting.” The sub-Saharan African nose was described by Wells as a “snubnose,” a nose of “weakness and underdevelopment.” He wrote, “Such a shortened and flattened proboscis can not . . . have made any legible mark on the records of the world’s progress. Its wearers have never conquered realms and enslaved nations, like the owners of the royal Roman nose, or built magnificent temples and adorned them with works of high art, like the Greek-nosed children of genius” (p. 196).

The eyes of devout Roman Catholics were said to indicate humility and penitence. Scots were characterized as economical, sensitive, and religious. The Irish were described as patriotic, fond of sport, witty, combative, and generous. The French were said to be vigorous and friendly, but low in moral standards. Spaniards were viewed as cunning, vindictive, and sullen, but also brave, noble, passionate, and courteous. All of those characteristics were, of course, supposedly observed from the features of the face, at least they were observable for anyone who believed in the “science” of physiognomy.

Reading Wells and other similar treatises on physiognomy would allow you to learn that hazel-eyed women were more intelligent than romantic, that large mouths indicated more character than small ones, that coarse lips were a sign of strength and power, whereas fine lips were a sign of mental delicacy and susceptibility, and that murderers always had big necks. The last example ties physiognomy to criminology, a linkage that has a long history, especially in the work of Cesare Lombroso (1835–1909), but will not be covered here (see Lombroso 1911; Lombroso and Ferrero 1899).

You may find yourself wondering how people could have believed in the tenets of physiognomy. To understand that system and phrenology, you must understand them in the context of their times. Science was a relatively new enterprise in the nineteenth century and most people did not have a clear basis for distinguishing science from nonscience. Surveys of scientific literacy today show that many people still cannot make such a distinction. And even if they could, whether these systems were validated by scientific research was not a concern for the great majority of consumers. People had needs, whether it was to find a suitable marriage partner, choose an occupation, hire a worker, or raise a child. They looked to experts for help, and like today, it was not easy for people to make judgments about who was or was not an expert.

Whereas phrenology was organized around the nucleus of the Fowlers’ operations that controlled the American Phrenological Journal and had formal ties to phrenological clubs and societies around the country, there was no such nucleus for physiognomy, which instead operated as a number of independent systems. Likely that is why physiognomy, although in vogue for more than 100 years in the United States, never attained the popularity and visibility enjoyed by phrenology. In addition, phrenology had greater status because it could at least lay claim to some neuroanatomical basis because mental and moral faculties were identified with specific brain areas. No such neural or anatomical claims were made for physiognomy.


Franz Anton Mesmer (1734–1815) was an Austrian physician who in 1774 discovered that he could relieve a number of medical and psychological symptoms in his patients by treating them with magnets. He named his procedure animal magnetism, although later it would be better known by the eponym mesmerism. In treating his first patient with the magnets, Mesmer described a kind of fainting spell, a crisis state, that lasted for a brief time, after which the symptoms abated for several hours. The spell was likely a hypnotic trance. In treating subsequent cases, Mesmer would tell his patients what they would experience, including this trance state, and many of them complied with his suggestions, thus going into a trance. Mesmer believed that the fluids in the human body were magnetized and that they could get out of alignment. The purpose of passing the magnets over the body was to move the fluids around and thus restore harmonious alignment to the body. Soon he abandoned the magnets altogether and just passed his hands over his patients’ bodies, inducing trance states and affecting cures. He assumed that he was now serving as a powerful magnet and could produce the cures without need of the magnets.

Mesmer had become quite the sensation in Paris in the early 1780s, holding group sessions that allowed him to treat a dozen or more people at once (which allowed persons in the group to watch the behavior of others and thus see what they were “supposed” to do) and still charge outrageous fees. His treatments were for the wealthier citizens, and Mesmer found himself ensconced in Parisian high society. Animal magnetism became very popular as other practitioners began to practice this healing art. And, of course, there were those who opposed mesmerism as fraudulent. These opponents, mostly from the medical community, brought pressure on King Louis XVI to appoint a group to investigate its validity. The blue ribbon commission appointed by the king in 1784 included, among others, Benjamin Franklin, as president of the commission; the famous chemist Antoine Lavoisier; and a French physician, Joseph Guillotin, whose invention of the guillotine would soon be used in France’s Reign of Terror to remove the heads of many in the aristocracy, including the head of Lavoisier. The commission’s report was quite damning. It argued that no animal magnetic fluids existed, nor was there any healing due to magnetic forces. The report did not result in any formal actions by the French government and so the fallout was mostly Mesmer’s bruised ego.

Mesmer’s work is generally viewed as the starting point for the history of modern hypnosis, although one can find written accounts of hypnotically induced states that precede Mesmer. It is not our purpose here to discuss the history of hypnosis. Instead we have presented this discussion of Mesmer because of the popularity of mesmerismin nineteenth centuryAmerica and because of related treatments that involved magnetism and suggestion. Many of these approaches were directed at medical ills, that is, physical ailments, but psychological problems and needed behavioral changes figured prominently in the work of the mesmerists as well.

Mesmerism came to the United States in the 1830s. One of its practitioners was Charles Poyen, a French physician who traveled throughout the northeastern United States in 1836 giving demonstrations of its powers. The following year Poyen immigrated to the United States, settling in Providence, Rhode Island. He was a charismatic figure who drew a large number of converts to mesmerism. He began publication of The Psychodinamist, a magazine for mesmerists in the United States.

What did American mesmerists do? In general, they were involved with healing and encouraging selfimprovement. They lectured widely in America, promoting their science and offering demonstrations of the effectiveness of their methods (Schmit 2005). They relied on techniques that in some way attempted to create a trance state during which suggestions would be made by the mesmerist. Suggestion can be a powerful force. No doubt many clients went to mesmerists, not in a skeptical mood, but with expectations that they would be helped. After all, they often paid considerable fees for that help. Clients went to mesmerists for many different reasons: family problems, problems in the workplace, health problems. After the sessions the clients often confessed to feeling spiritually invigorated. They possessed a new energy and a will to solve the problems that had been plaguing them. Clients often reported that they had been set free by their treatments. Psychologist Philip Cushman (1995) described it this way: “Mesmerism was first and foremost an ideology of personal, inner liberation. It emphasized the inherent goodness of the inner self and led to the development of practices that were designed to expand, revitalize, and finally liberate the natural spirituality” (p. 119). Of course the Fowler brothers would get into this act as well. Toward the end of the nineteenth century they began to promote lectures and courses in “personal magnetism” that promised a pleasing personality; the cultivation of success; how to succeed in love, courtship, and marriage; how to prevent disease; how to build character; and how to become a great power in the world (see, for example, Dumont 1913).

Mesmerism became quite popular in America in the last half of the nineteenth century and persisted as a lesser force into the early twentieth century. Its impact on other nineteenth- and twentieth-century pseudosciences was considerable. It has even been regarded as the beginning of psychotherapy in America. Cushman (1995) wrote, “In certain ways, mesmerism was the first secular psychotherapy in America, a way of ministering psychologically to the great America unchurched. It was an ambitious attempt to combine religion with psychotherapy, and it spawned ideologies such as mind-cure philosophy, the New Thought movement, Christian Science, and American spiritualism” (p. 119).


In the 1850s in a darkened room, people sat around a table, hands joined, with each other and with the individual serving as the medium who was the conduit to the other world, that is, to persons in the afterlife. There would be mysterious sounds – sometimes noises, sometimes voices – and ghostlike forms would appear, and the table would move on its own, and the windows would rattle, and the medium might have a seizure or at least would go into a trance state. These séances were the modus operandi of the practicing spiritualists, and they were part of the psychological scene in America during the last half of the twentieth century. Among those interested in spiritualism was William James (1842–1910), arguably the most important figure in the history of American psychology. James wrote one of the most influential books in psychology’s history, Principles of Psychology (1890), and he established the psychology program at Harvard University. Although he was prominently identified with the new science of psychology, he had other intellectual interests that proved to be an embarrassment to many of his psychological colleagues (see Coon 1992). For more than 25 years, James studied paranormal events in an attempt to provide scientific evidence for a number of psychical phenomena including the actions of spiritualist mediums. In 1885 he met Mrs. Leonore Piper, a famous medium, and over the next 25 years he frequently attended séances she directed. In the initial séances Mrs. Piper is said to have told James and his wife intimate details about their lives, details that the Jameses felt sure no one could have known but them. Such revelations convinced James that Mrs. Piper had paranormal abilities but he was never able to satisfy himself about the origin of those abilities, that is, did her information come from the spirit world, from some kind of exceptional sensory skills, or from mental telepathy? James was apparently convinced that there was no trickery involved in the performances of Mrs. Piper, but that was not the opinion of several other scientists who visited her séances (Murphy and Ballou 1961).

Interestingly, the origin of spiritualism in America can be defined both in time and place – March 31, 1848, at a farm near Hydesville, New York – under what can only be called extraordinarily bizarre circumstances for the beginnings of a movement with such religious overtones. Two young sisters, Margaret (age 13) and Kate Fox (age 12), discovered that they could make weird noises by cracking the joints in their toes, and they used this ability to trick their superstitious mother into believing that a ghost was present.

After several days of this mild poltergeisting, they tried questioning the “spirit” and ascertained that it was the ghost of a peddler who had been murdered in the vicinity of their cabin before they had moved in. Word of these amazing events soon spread. So many visitors came to their cabin that the older sister, Leah Fox Fish, noticed the financial possibilities of going into the ghost business. (Leahey and Leahey 1983, p. 162)

Leah took her two younger sisters to Rochester, New York, where they set up a shop, holding séances, acting as mediums, bringing forth spirits of the deceased to communicate with the paying customers who were eager to make contact with lost loved ones. Initially the spirits were manifested by rapping noises on tables or by movements of the séance table. As those techniques lost their appeal, mediums added a board (the planchette, a forerunner of the Ouija board) that could be used to spell out the messages of the spirits, megaphones for spirit voices, and the spirit cabinet, a large piece of furniture from which sounds could be heard and from which visual apparitions would appear (and in which confederates could sometimes hide).

With so many Americans dead as a result of the Civil War, there were thousands of loved ones who longed to make contact once more. The demand for mediums rose and there were plenty of willing individuals, mostly women, ready to assume the role. In 1888, Margaret Fox confessed her chicanery and that of her sister, an action that diminished interest in spiritualism. Yet there would be another resurgence of interest in 1918 after World War I and the influenza epidemic had taken so many lives. Although the bread and butter of mediums was contact with the dead and the relief and joy that connection could bring to their clients, they also provided other psychological services as counselor and adviser to their clients who might be suffering depression, anxiety disorders, difficulties in marriage, problems in the workplace, and troubles with their children.

Spiritualism was not connected with any specific religion although it may have seemed religious in nature because it was predicated on a belief in an afterlife. Yet organized religion opposed spiritualism and argued that belief in spirits was an act of heresy. “By claiming to produce empirical evidence of survival [after death], Spiritualism denied the need for faith. By claiming that there was no hell, and that a pleasant afterlife was in store for everyone, it denied the fear of God and of hellfire on which organized Christianity depends” (Leahey and Leahey 1983, p. 166). Spiritualism did not diminish in popularity because of the opposition of organized religion in America. Its demise in the 1920s was due, no doubt, to multiple causes, perhaps chief among them that many of the professional mediums were eventually exposed as frauds. Of course spiritualism did not disappear entirely. There are seers, mystics, and mediums working today who offer the promise of contact with the dearly departed. And there are many others – some trained in science and some not – who offer the other counseling psychological services.

New Thought Movement: Mental Healing and Self-Improvement

What is generally referred to as the New Thought or Mind Cure Movements began in New England in the 1850s. Its mental healing origins are attributed to a clockmaker, Phineas Parkhurst Quimby (1802– 1866), who, after studying and practicing mesmerism for a decade, formulated his own theory and method of mental healing. Quimby believed that many diseases had causes that were wholly mental and that other diseases were exacerbated by mental conditions. His experiences with his own illnesses and his treatment by physicians left him convinced of the inadequacy of medical practice. Indeed, Quimby believed that physicians did as much good by what they said to patients and the way they said it as they did through medicines or surgeries.

Quimby was a keen observer and evidently had great powers of concentration. He listened intently as his clients told him about their problems. He established a close rapport with them from the beginning, something that he felt was crucial to affecting a cure. Quimby believed that many physical and psychological problems were caused by negative thinking and that those negative thoughts were often induced in individuals by physicians. Quimby’s task was to help clients see the “truth,” to achieve wisdom about their lives, and to reach a spiritual healing. Quimby believed that disease was:

due to false reasoning in regard to sensations, which man unwittingly develops by impressing wrong thoughts and mental pictures upon the subconscious spiritual matter. As disease is due to false reasoning, so health is due to knowledge of the truth. To remove disease permanently, it is necessary to know the cause, the error which led to it. The explanation is the cure. (Anderson 1993, p. 40)

In essence, Quimby believed that cure resided within the mental powers of the individual and not in the medical practices of physicians. Individuals could cure themselves if they could be shown the way to right thinking.

In 1859, Quimby moved to Portland, Maine, where he spent the last 6 years of his life dedicated to his mental healing practice. He is said to have treated more than 12,000 individuals (Caplan 1998). Among those he cured was a woman who became one of his early disciples. Her name was Mary Baker Eddy (1821– 1910), who in 1879 founded the Church of Christ, Scientist, better known today as Christian Science. Eddy was not only cured by Quimby but she was greatly influenced by his views on illness and healing. They maintained a frequent correspondence until Quimby’s death in 1866.

The growth of mental healing spread throughout the United States in the 1860s. There were many different schools of the “mind cure movement” including Eddy’s. “The movement enlisted the support of tens of thousands of American women and men. Literally hundreds of books and pamphlets in addition to scores of periodicals proclaimed the dawning of a New Age in which mind and spirit would achieve domain over matter and crude materialism” (Caplan 1998, p. 69).

Mental healing was part of that new age, also called the New Thought Movement, that emphasized the power of mind. Another component of the movement encouraged self-help, stressing especially the power of positive thinking for self-improvement. Scottish author Samuel Smiles (1812–1904) is often cited as the chief impetus of this movement following the publication of his widely popular book, Self-Help; with Illustrations of Character and Conduct (1859). The book sold over 20,000 copies in its first year and was translated into many languages making Smiles an international authority on self-improvement (Richards 1982; Travers 1977). Emphasizing the paramount value of self-help, Smiles (1859) wrote:

Heaven helps those who help themselves’ is a well-worn maxim, embodying in a small compass the results of vast human experience. The spirit of self-help is the root of all genuine growth in the individual; and exhibited in the lives of many, it constitutes the true source of national vigour and strength. Help from without is often enfeebling in its effects, but help from within invariably invigorates. (p. 1)

Smiles’s book had considerable influence on the New Thought Movement in America, principally through the writings of Orison Swett Marden (1850– 1924). Orphaned at the age of seven, Marden’s life was one of bare subsistence and prospects for a grim future. That changed when he discovered a copy of Smiles’s Self-Help in an attic. Smiles’s proscriptions for selfimprovement changed his life. Marden eventually earned a medical degree from Harvard University in 1881, but his achievements were in publishing, both as an author and editor. His first book, Pushing to the Front (1894) added his own ideas about how to achieve success to those of Smiles. And he followed that with a dozen other books touting the powers of positive thinking for self-improvement and success, such as How to Succeed or, Stepping-Stones to Fame and Fortune (1896) and Every Man a King or, Might in Mind (1906). He founded and edited Success magazine in 1897, which is still published today. Marden wrote that he wanted to be the American Smiles, and he likely achieved that, inspiring a self-help industry of books and magazines in twentieth-century America. He is often dubbed the father of the modern self-help movement. Several of his books are still in print today, and his writings are frequently cited in contemporary works on positive thinking, self-help, and salesmanship (Connolly 1925; Parker 1973).

By 1910 the craze of the mind-cure movement had largely ended, although mental healing continued, both in organized religion, such as Christian Science, and in home clinics where mental healers practiced. As mesmerism can be thought of as a precursor to contemporary psychotherapy, so too were the mind cures important in establishing belief in the importance of what today would be called the therapeutic relationship or therapeutic alliance, key concepts in evaluating the effectiveness of psychotherapy today. The self-improvement industry of Smiles and Marden continued to prosper throughout the twentieth century as a part of the public’s psychology.

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The New Psychology

In the universities, psychology had been a subfield of philosophy for centuries. With the rise of British empiricism, beginning with John Locke in the 1600s, psychology would coalesce as an academic discipline labeled mental philosophy, a discipline that covered topics such as sensation, perception, attention, learning, memory, reasoning, consciousness, imagination, emotion, and will, subjects that are still discussed in contemporary introductory psychology courses (Fuchs 2000). In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, this empirical psychology would be replaced by an experimental psychology – the “new psychology” – imported from the German university laboratories in Berlin, Gottingen, and especially Leipzig under the direction of Wilhelm Wundt (1832–1920). This new psychology would bring the methods of neurophysiology, sensory physiology, and psychophysics to bear on the questions explored in mental philosophy. Psychology was, by the 1880s, a science that many of the early pioneers hoped would join with the natural sciences in seeking to reveal the secrets of the human mind (Benjamin 2007).

American psychology laboratories were in existence only a few years after their European counterparts with the first psychology laboratory appearing at Johns Hopkins University in 1883 and others following shortly thereafter at Indiana and Columbia Universities and the Universities of Wisconsin, Kansas, Nebraska, and Pennsylvania. By 1900 there were approximately 40 psychology laboratories in North America, and most of those offered doctoral degrees in the new science (Benjamin 2000).

In an effort to educate the American public about the nature of the new science, psychologists organized an exhibition at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893 and followed that with a smaller public presence at the 1904 World’s Fair held in St. Louis. These early experimental psychologists were all too aware of the public psychology that associated the term psychology with mind reading, phrenology busts, hypnosis, séances, and mental healing (Coon 1992). These public exhibitions were a concerted effort to change the public’s view of psychology, to get the public to acknowledge psychology’s scientific status and university-based psychologists as the arbiters of psychology, and to reject the false claims from the pseudosciences that had long been the mainstay of popular psychology. The new psychologists published their experimental work in newly founded journals that were not really for public access. Yet they also wrote magazine articles, books, and newspaper columns as a means to translate their experimental work for public understanding or to offer their opinions as psychological experts (see, for example, Hall 1901; Jastrow 1900; Munsterberg 1908). No one did this with greater frequency or with greater controversy than Harvard University’s Hugo Munsterberg (1863–1916) who became America’s best known psychologist as a result of his frequent appearances in the popular press.

Munsterberg’s role as a media darling began following his publication of an 1898 Atlantic Monthly article in which he argued that the new experimental psychology had nothing to offer the field of education. This article created a firestorm with his psychologist colleagues but garnered a great deal of public attention for Munsterberg (Benjamin 2006). As a writer, he stirred interest and emotions, a fact that led editors (including McClure’s Magazine’s Willa Cather) to invite numerous contributions from his pen. For the rest of his life, Munsterberg was a frequent contributor to the popular press through numerous magazine articles, newspaper columns, and a series of popular books. These publications established him as America’s psychological expert, and it seems that he never found a topic on which he felt unable to comment. Invitations for public lectures, inquiries from the press, and consulting opportunities in business increasingly came his way. Munsterberg had a knack for sensationalism and he was often quoted in the press, partly because of his willingness to say outrageous things. In essence he was what reporters call “good press.”

In a span of fewer than 20 years Munsterberg wrote on a multitude of popular subjects such as the personality of Americans, school reform, hypnotism, women as unacceptable jurors, lie detection, criminality, democracy, native Americans, African Americans, political parties, the Monroe Doctrine, the Philippines, journalistic inaccuracy, motion pictures, psychotherapy, art and artists, communicating with the dead, murderers, gambling, prohibition, Christian Science, beauty, nervousness, vocational choice, bookstores, patriotism, coeducation, home economics, insanity, the subconscious, and being a scientific expert. Not surprisingly some of these articles and interviews angered and dismayed his colleagues, but Munsterberg loved the public attention and evidently was willing to endure the wrath of his fellow psychologists. At times Charles Eliot, President of Harvard University, probably felt he needed a press secretary just to deal with the trouble caused by Munsterberg’s utterances. He reminded Munsterberg that he should not feel compelled to comment on every question he was asked. In a 1909 letter to him Eliot wrote:

You seem to me to work with too much intensity and too constantly, and to work on topics which are peculiarly stirring and exciting. I hope you will moderate your rate of work and of publication, and will take up some systematic course of interesting out-of-door exercise, with frequent absences from Cambridge between Friday night and Monday morning for change of scene and change of thoughts. (Eliot 1909, April 30)

In addition to translating their science for the public, these pioneering psychologists, such as G. Stanley Hall, John Watson, James McKeen Cattell, and Munsterberg, also openly challenged the pseudopsychologies extant at the turn of the twentieth century. Consider, for example, a physiognomic system that enjoyed popularity in early twentieth century American businesses.

Katherine Blackford was an American physician who marketed her system to businesses, principally as a selection measure for employees. Blackford wrote several books in the first quarter of the twentieth century, almost all directed at personnel issues for business (Blackford and Newcomb 1914, 1916). This was a time in America in which there was great interest in vocational guidance. The urbanization of America, new waves of immigration, industrialization that created more factory jobs, changes in labor laws protecting children, and advertising and marketing strategies that were national in scope changed the nature of American business, creating a greater diversity of occupations. Thus occupational choice had a meaning that it had not possessed before. Frank Parsons’ landmark book on vocational guidance, Choosing a Vocation, appeared in 1909; the National Vocational Guidance Association was established in 1913; and the National Vocational Education Act was passed in 1917, a law designed to ensure better guidance counseling in public schools. Vocational aptitudes and vocational choice were not new issues; they had been a chief part of the phrenologists’ business success in the nineteenth century. In the early twentieth century, however, there was widespread public concern that young people have access to quality vocational guidance and thus there was widespread interest in America regarding career choices. Blackford wrote that her books were intended “to add our voice to those of many others in calling for more scientific vocational guidance of the young. . . [and] to arouse interest among all thoughtful people, and especially among parents, employers, teachers, and workers, in the possibilities of character analysis by the observational method” (Blackford and Newcomb 1914, p. vii). Blackford’s methods were very popular judging by the number of reprintings of her books. She caused concern among psychologists who noted her appeal to businesses and were dubious of her techniques. Yet for many American businesses in the early twentieth century, the science of psychology didn’t hold any more authority in solving the problems of business than did the “science” of characterology (Blackford’s preferred label) or physiognomy. Blackford stressed the importance of the hiring decision. She claimed that businesses wasted too much time and money in hiring people who should never have been hired, or placed people in jobs for which they were ill suited. Blackford’s system began by looking at the shape of the face as a whole, viewed in profile. From these profiles she identified some faces as convex, some as concave, and some as plane (meaning a flat plane). She wrote that the possessor of a convex face has:

Superabundance of energy. . . [is] keen, alert, quick, eager, aggressive, impatient, positive, and penetrating . . . will express his energy in a practical manner. . . He will demand facts, and will act upon facts quickly and rapidly, being too impatient to wait for reasons and theories. . . [this type will] speak frankly and at times even sharply and fiercely, without much regard for tact or diplomacy. As indicated by his type of chin, the pure convex is impulsive, expends his energy too rapidly for his limited endurance, and, owing to his lack of selfcontrol and disinclination to deliberate and reason, frequently blunders, and expends his energy uselessly or unprofitably or even harmfully. (Blackford and Newcomb 1914, pp. 154–155)

The concave face is, of course, the opposite. This individual would be characterized by mildness, slow thought, careful-thinking, reason-seeking, sometimes daydreaming, deliberateness, determination, and persistence. “What the convex wins or gains by his aggressiveness, keenness, and superabundance of energy, the concave wins or gains by his diplomacy and unwavering persistence and endurance” (Blackford and Newcomb 1914, p. 156). The plane face was a balance of the other two and was the most common of the three types of faces.

For Blackford, these faces defined different types of people, and that information could be put to good use in hiring, or what Parsons had preached as the first law of vocational guidance, matching the person’s talents with the job requirements. Thus a businessperson might want to hire an aggressive person for a sales job but not for a customer service job. So for Blackford, individuals with blond hair, because they were more likely to have convex faces, were to be preferred for sales jobs, where their qualities of aggressiveness, impulsiveness, persistence, and high energy would pay off. Blonds and brunettes also figured in Blackford’s views on criminal physiognomy:

Prison statistics show that the blond is most frequently guilty of crimes of passion and impulse, crimes arising from his gambling propensities and ill-considered promotion schemes; while the brunette is more likely to commit crimes of deliberation, specialization, detail, such as murder, counterfeiting, forgeries, conspiracy, etc. Because the blond is healthy, optimistic, and naturally good-humored, he eliminates anger, hatred, melancholy, discouragement, and all other negative feelings . . . easily. . . Because he is naturally slow, cautious, conservative, and inclined to be serious and thoughtful, the brunette is far more liable to harbor resentment, to cherish a grudge, to plan revenge, to see the dark side of life, and often to be melancholy and pessimistic. (Blackford and Newcomb 1914, pp. 140–141)

With the rise of the status of science at the beginning of the twentieth century, pseudoscientific practices came under greater criticism. Psychology, as a science, benefitted as well from the public’s perception of science as a source of validation, and practices such as phrenology, physiognomy, and spiritualism declined. As the applied specialties of the new psychology developed – clinical psychology, counseling psychology, school psychology, industrial psychology – they successfully challenged some of the public psychologies, such as Blackford’s system, eventually convincing businesses to adopt some of the selection practices developed by industrial psychologists as a better means for hiring.

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Psychoanalysis Comes to America

Perhaps psychologists felt they were making progress with public understanding of their new science. And then Freud came to town! Sigmund Freud (1856–1939) made his only visit to America in 1909 at the invitation of G. Stanley Hall. The occasion was the 20th anniversary celebration of Clark University where Hall was president. Freud gave five lectures at Clark on the subject of psychoanalysis (Evans and Koelsch 1985; Rosenzweig 1994). Before his arrival, few in America knew much about his work. Arguably his most important book, The Interpretation of Dreams (1900), had not been reviewed in any American journal, and none of his books had been translated into English. His visibility in America would change radically following his visit. Freud’s Clark lectures were published in Hall’s journal, the American Journal of Psychology, in 1910. This publication stirred considerable interest in Freud’s ideas and led to English translations of his most important works including The Interpretation of Dreams in 1913 and The Psychopathology of Everyday Life in 1914 (Fancher 2000). The American Psychoanalytic Association was founded in 1911, only 2 years after Freud’s visit, and the first of many American psychoanalytic journals, Psychoanalytic Review, began publication in 1913. Psychoanalysis was alive and well in America, even if still in its infancy. Although experimental psychologists largely rejected Freud’s ideas as unscientific, the American public showed a growing fascination with psychoanalysis. A battle was underway.

Psychologist and historian Gail Hornstein (1992) has written that it was a battle to determine “which field would ultimately dictate the ground rules for a science of the mind?” (p. 254). She described the opening salvos as follows:

Psychoanalysts thrust themselves directly into the middle of this scene, brazenly trying to supplant the new psychology at the moment of its greatest promise. At first psychologists stood aside, astonished, as the analysts, bursting with self-importance and an almost frightening zealotry, pronounced themselves the real scientists of the mind. By the time psychologists began to take this threat seriously, psychoanalysis had so captured the public imagination that even its pretensions could not be ignored. (p. 254)

As Hornstein noted, many psychologists ignored psychoanalysis, perhaps assuming that the public would reach a similar conclusion about its scientific legitimacy, and it would go the way of phrenology, losing any scientific credibility it had achieved, perhaps continuing in some marginal existence as a parlor amusement. Yet other psychologists attacked it in print, especially during World War I when anything identified with Germany was a ready target for Americans. Writing in The Nation in 1916, Christine Ladd-Franklin referred to the absurdities of the Freudian doctrine calling psychoanalysis “a prostitution of logic” (p. 373) and warning that “Unless means can speedily be found to prevent its spread. . .the prognosis for civilization is unfavorable (p. 374). Robert Woodworth (1917) in discussing psychoanalysis as treatment argued that not only was the treatment art and not science, but it was decorative art at that. Increasingly strident criticisms of psychoanalysis were published by psychologists in the 1920s and 1930s including books and articles by leading psychologists such as James McKeen Cattell, Joseph Jastrow, John Watson, and Knight Dunlap. Nevertheless, by the 1930s mainstream psychology found itself at odds with a popular psychology infused with dream interpretation, repression, neuroses, Oedipal complexes, and sexual frustration. There were psychoanalytic movies (The Cultural Psychology of Motion Pictures: Dreams That Money Can Buy), psychoanalytic plays, psychoanalytic novels, and even psychoanalytic music such as the 1925 ballad Don’t Tell Me What You Dreamed Last Night (For I’ve Been Reading Freud) written by Franklin Adams and Brian Hooker.

Although psychoanalysis was a visible part of American popular psychology in the 1920s and later, it was by no means the defining system. The growth of applied psychology following World War I; the public euphoria sweeping America in the 1920s; the changing social mores of the 1920s, especially regarding sexuality; and a search for spiritual fulfillment outside of the church were all factors that saw an explosion of interest in psychology in the 1920s.

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An “Outbreak” of Psychology in America

The 1920s in America were called the “Roaring Twenties,” “the Jazz Age,” and, by politicians, “the New Era.” The economy was soaring, industrial production was up 64%, nearly six times as much as the previous decade; automobiles were more affordable than ever; after nearly 150 years as a nation, American women finally had the right to vote; Babe Ruth was swatting home runs; Rudolph Valentino and Mary Pickford were thrilling moviegoers; and booze was still available in gin joints, speakeasies, and from moonshiners, despite the 18th Amendment to the US Constitution (Dumenil 2001). In the midst of these post-war good times, everywhere Americans turned they heard the message touting the importance of psychology in their lives.

Popular science writer Albert E. Wiggam (1871– 1957) was one of many individuals in the 1920s who promoted the value of psychology. In a 1928 newspaper column he wrote:

Men and women never needed psychology so much as they need it to-day. Young men and women need it in order to measure their own mental traits and capacities with a view to choosing careers early and wisely . . . businessmen need it to help them select employees; parents and educators need it as an aid in rearing and educating children; all need it in order to secure the highest effectiveness and happiness. You cannot achieve these things in the fullest measure without the new knowledge of your own mind and personality that the psychologists have given us. (p. 13)

British historian and author, H. G. Wells (1866– 1946), was similarly enamored about the prospects of psychology for the public good. In a 1924 article in American Magazine Wells wrote:

The advances that have been made in psychology . . .have been enormous. The coming hundred years or so will be, I believe, essentially a century of applied psychology. . . It will mark a revolution in human affairs altogether more profound and more intimate than that merely material revolution of which our great-grandparents saw. . . and amidst whose achievements we live. (p. 190)

Psychologists too, overly impressed with the significance of their contributions in World War I, joined in the promotion of their discipline, touting the myriad ways psychology could benefit everyday life. Writing for the public in 1925, behaviorist John Watson offered parents a guarantee on the value of psychology for child rearing.

Give me a dozen healthy infants, well-formed, and my own specified world to bring them up in and I’ll guarantee to take any one at random and train him to become any type of specialist I might select – doctor, lawyer, artist, merchant-chief and, yes, even beggar-man and thief, regardless of his talents, penchants, tendencies, abilities, vocations, and race of his ancestors. (p. 82)

In making this promise, Watson was offering every parent the American Dream, made possible by the science of psychology. No matter one’s race, no matter one’s social station, no matter one’s wealth, if someone had access to the right environmental circumstances, then there was no limit to what that individual could achieve. And psychology was the science that understood how to arrange the environmental conditions in such a favorable way. With messages such as these directed at an upwardly mobile public ready to secure their place in the Promised Land, is it any wonder that psychology was the subject of the hour? But not everyone was on the psychology band wagon. There were those who were wary of the promises and guarantees.

One of the doubters was Canadian humorist Stephen Leacock who, in a 1924 article in Harper’s magazine, lamented that America was suffering from an outbreak of psychology. He wrote:

In the earlier days this science was kept strictly confined to the colleges . . . It had no particular connection with anything at all, and did no visible harm to those who studied it. . .All this changed. As part of the new researches, it was found that psychology can be used. . .for almost everything in life. There is now not only psychology in the academic or college sense, but also a Psychology of Business, Psychology of Education, Psychology of Salesmanship, Psychology of Religion. . . and a Psychology of Playing the Banjo. . .For almost every juncture of life we now call in the services of an expert psychologist as naturally as we send for an emergency plumber. In all our great cities there are already, or soon will be, signs that read “Psychologist – Open Day and Night.” (pp. 471–472)

Leacock’s skepticism, although offered tongue-in-cheek, was shared by a number of psychologists as well who believed that the discipline was promising far more than it could deliver. The American public, however, was not interested in hearing from these doubters. Health, happiness, and success were just over the horizon, and psychology was the vehicle needed to get there.

Leacock was right about the outbreak of psychology in America in the 1920s. It may not have included signs advertising the availability of psychologists day and night, but it was evidenced in many other ways. For those individuals who wanted psychological training or credentials there were “schools” of psychology, short courses, home-study courses, and bogus mail-order doctoral degrees. Popular psychology books and, especially, popular psychology magazines appeared with much greater frequency. And if you wanted to share your interests in psychology with like-minded individuals, cities all over America were establishing psychology clubs.

Popular psychology magazines began publication in the nineteenth century. There were magazines for phrenology, physiognomy, mesmerism, spiritualism, and especially for the New Thought Movement. Perhaps the first American popular magazine to have the word “psychology” in the title was Suggestion: The New Psychology Magazine that began publication in August, 1898. A year later Price’s Magazine of Psychology appeared. Its masthead indicated that it was “Devoted in General to Psychic, Scientific, and Philosophic Research.” Articles focused especially on spiritualism, mental telepathy, mental suggestion, and hypnosis. The editor was W. R. Price who used the magazine to promote his school of psychology located in Atlanta. The Dr. W. R. Price’s School of Psychology was a mail-order business that offered courses of instruction in a variety of popular psychologies as indicated in an advertisement for the school that read as follows:

The New Psychology, Hypnotism, Mesmerism, Animal Magnetism, Telepathy, or Mind Reading, Suggestive Therapeutics, Scientifically Explaining Christian Science, Mental Science, Spiritism, Witchcraft, Osteopathy, Divine Healing And all mysterious phenomena, teaching you how to control yourself and others by learning a profession that will enable you to make from $2 to $5 per day the balance of your life. (Price 1900, inside front cover).

There were other early twentieth century popular magazines such as Mind, Personality, and The Psychogram: A Magazine of Christian and Practical Psychology. Even though these magazines appeared after the establishment of the new psychology laboratories in America, their content did not reflect the science of psychology. That would change in the 1920s, or at least it was alleged to change.

The 1920s, a decade that James Steel Smith (1963) has labeled the “decade of the popularizers,” witnessed the publication of nearly a dozen new popular psychology magazines, many of them with the word “psychology” in their titles: Golden Rule Magazine: The New Psychology (which actually appeared in 1919), Popular Psychology: The Magazine of Straight Thinking (1920), Herald of Psychology (1921), and Psychological Review of Reviews (1923). Yet none of these magazines sought to deliver the findings of scientific psychology. Although psychology was part of their title, thus capitalizing on the growing popularity of the subject, their content was similar to the popular psychology magazines of the previous century. There was one other magazine founded in the 1920s, however, that claimed to be different. It announced to its readers that psychology was the most practical of all sciences, that great strides were being made in this field, and that the purpose of the magazine was to translate this science into language and prescriptions that would be of use to laypersons. Psychology: Health, Happiness, Success began publication in April, 1923, and appeared monthly, with a few exceptions until its demise in 1939. The publisher and founding editor was Henry Knight Miller (1891–1950), a Methodist minister in Brooklyn, New York, who, after realizing some popularity from his self-help sermons, decided to leave his pulpit and launch a new magazine. Miller, echoing the popular writers of his time, touted the value of scientific psychology for health, happiness, and success. He wrote:

In Psychology magazine we have been applying the principles of scientific psychology to the actual problems and needs of human life. We have sought to build up a sound synthetic psychology, taking what is valid from all schools of psychological thought, simplifying it in expression and applying it to the problems of personal life. (Miller 1928, p. 11)

In actuality there was very little of scientific psychology that found its way into the pages of Miller’s magazine. Academic psychologists did not write for this magazine, nor did they write for the other popular psychology magazines of the time. They wrote articles for popular magazines, such as Harper’s, Cosmopolitan, Atlantic Monthly, and Collier’s, but not for these “psychology” magazines.

When the stock market crashed in 1929, the public euphoria of the 1920s gave way to the Great Depression that had profoundly disastrous consequences both economically and psychologically. Psychology received some negative press in the 1930s from writers who were especially critical of the field, noting that psychologists had plenty of advice to offer during the heady times of the 1920s, but now in times of trouble, they were conspicuously silent (Adams 1934; Stolberg 1930). A 1934 New York Times editorial criticized psychology as the only trade or profession that had not made public its solutions to the problems of the Depression (as cited in Napoli 1981). Napoli has argued that psychologists seemed content to resume their research “and watch the economists and other social scientists try to solve America’s problems” (p. 64).

One might assume that the public lost faith in psychology as well, and that the psychology magazines would disappear. Yet the message of psychology’s value for self-improvement, for the betterment of one’s life, was evidently well engrained in the public’s psyche. These were times when psychology was needed more than ever. And even though two or three dollars might not be an insignificant sum for many Americans down on their luck, it was a small price to pay for a year’s subscription to a magazine that might put them on the road to economic and psychological recovery. At least 13 new American magazines began publication in the 1930s with “psychology” in the title, for example, Current Psychology and Successful Living, Practical Psychology Monthly, Psychology and Inspiration, and Self- Help Psychology.

Several of the psychology magazines of the 1920s and 1930s had ties to other entities, some real and some fictitious, yet always designed to promote the credibility of the magazine and increase its circulation. Some magazines advertised themselves as the “official organ” of some society or institute. It is likely that, in most cases, perhaps all, these societies did not exist. These liaisons were typically announced on the magazine’s cover or appeared on the table of contents pages. Thus the magazine Current Psychology and Successful Living was the “Official organ of the Psychology Institute of America,” and the Psychological Review of Reviews was the “Official organ of the International Society of Applied Psychology.” The home-study courses used a similar ploy.

Warren Hilton (1920), a lawyer and psychology popularizer, wrote 12 small volumes, each around 100 pages, entitled Applications of Psychology to the Problems of Personal and Business Efficiency. The books, intended as a home-study course in psychology, were published “under the auspices of . . .The Society of Applied Psychology” (title page) of which Hilton was president. The purchaser of these 12 books received a large certificate from the Society with the person’s name added in attractive script: “This certifies that _______________ has been accepted as an Associate Member of the Society for Applied Psychology and is entitled to all the privileges of such Membership.”

Psychology Clubs

The other tactic employed by the psychology magazines was designed to increase circulation of the magazines and often to sell other products, typically books and pamphlets that were associated with the magazine. In the 1920s, psychology clubs emerged in cities all over America. In fact, there were some in existence in the previous decade, but in the 1920s their numbers expanded considerably. The magazines sought to establish ties with the various clubs. If all members of the club agreed to purchase subscriptions to a particular magazine, then the magazine would be sold at a discount to all members. Further, the magazine included a regular section that reported “news” from the psychology clubs, which gave visibility and publicity to the activities of the clubs while cementing the magazine–club relationship. Henry Knight Miller’s magazine was particularly successful in building such relationships. Some clubs organized within states or with clubs in nearby states. For example, the psychology clubs of Texas and Oklahoma joined together in a federation. The pamphlets describing their activities announced on their covers that the magazine Psychology, Miller’s magazine, was “Adopted as the Federation’s Official Organ.”

Not much is known about these clubs because about the only records that have been located are the news items that appeared in the magazines. Thus we know from the March 1924 issue of Psychology: Health, Happiness, Success that Bret Barber was the President of the Fort Worth, Texas Club of Applied Psychology. He reported that the club’s recent programs included lectures on the effect of anger on digestion, how temperature affects mood, personality in selling, why deafness depresses, and exercises that build happiness. These topics were typical of the content of the club meetings.

Some of the larger clubs met in some kind of meeting hall, but most were small in membership and typically met at someone’s house. Programs usually featured a lecture (rarely from a psychologist) and discussion, or discussion of a book or article. Miller was a great organizer of the clubs in America and often traveled to larger cities speaking at joint meetings or conventions of the clubs. Based on the entries in magazines, these clubs may have been composed equally of males and females in the 1920s, but by the 1940s, membership was likely heavily female. This trend appears to have been mirrored in Great Britain as well where popular psychology was labeled practical psychology (Benjamin 2009).

The practical psychology movement in Great Britain began in the early 1920s, partly stimulated by the organizing activities of an American, Anna Maud Hallam, who began her practical psychology program in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1921. She assisted Miller in the early years of his magazine, and her photograph appeared on the cover of his fourth issue (August, 1923). Hallam spread her practical psychology to Canada (Bengough 1923) and to Great Britain reminding her listeners that “your heritage from God is health, happiness, and success” (Hallam 1925, p. 4). The mantra that became a feature in her inspirational lectures and a rallying cry for her audiences was – You can be well! You can be happy! You can be a success! Hallam (n.d.) wrote:

It is possible for you to learn how to make life a complete success. The reason why so many people are deficient, unpopular and failures at the present time is because they do not understand the law of life. The science of human life has not been taught in the schools, the home, the clubs, or anywhere else, and so people have had no chance to learn it. . . I am putting into the common language of everyday life the knowledge of the great university class rooms and laboratories. My Psychological Lesson Course covers everything which you need to know to enable you to live up to the perfection of your special type of personality. (p. 5)

In 1925 Hallam founded the second of the practical psychology magazines in England, a monthly magazine entitled The Practical Psychologist. She was the author of several books on practical psychology (Hallam 1922a, 1922b) and the founder of the International Anna Maud Hallam Clubs of Practical Psychology which gathered annually in North America for a congress. She made trips to England and Scotland in 1922 to establish clubs and made later trips to South Africa and India to organize clubs there as well. News of activities of these clubs was published regularly in the pages of the British magazines. Historian Matthew Thompson (2006) has described the clubs as a central feature of the practical psychology movement noting that these clubs “provided a site for regular lectures and meetings, libraries of psychological literature, courses of self-improvement, and perhaps even therapeutic attention” (p. 32).

It is not known how long these clubs lasted. The last reports for the American clubs appeared in the late 1940s and for the British clubs in the early 1950s. Several of the magazines that were affiliated with the clubs, including Miller’s and Hallam’s magazines, ceased publication, but the clubs continued their meetings, sometimes with new magazine partnerships. The popularity of psychology remained strong through those decades with new psychology magazines appearing in each. No doubt these clubs served a social function, bringing people together who likely were well educated and who saw in psychology a means for self-improvement. There is no evidence of the existence of these clubs in the 1960s, a decade that can be seen as one in which psychological questions were paramount.

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Thomson (2001) has written that the appeal of practical psychology was that it made itself “attractive to a broad spectrum of people, ranging from convinced Christians to those looking for a wholly secularized religiosity” (p. 121). It was thus offered as a religion to the churched and to the unchurched as well. The movement’s religiosity was often veiled; it seemed secular but could also be seen as non-secular. This was a fine line that magazine editors and club organizers walked on both sides of the Atlantic (Cheshire and Pilgrim 2004). Thomson (2006) noted that practical psychology distanced itself from the clearly religious emphases of the New Thought Movement, reminding recruits that practical psychology was based on science. Hallam reinforced this position: “Applied psychology does not affect your religion. It is equally applicable to all classes of people. Psychology is a science, and as such, keeps within the bounds of demonstrable fact and repeatable phenomena” (n.d., pp. 6–7).

But the various popular psychologies of the 1920s and 1930s were certainly sympathetic to religion, and especially so to Christianity. In one of the British magazines in 1924 a columnist made the connection between practical psychology and Christianity even more explicit, describing practical psychology as the “sane exposition of Psychology from the definitely Christian standpoint as the basis upon which the whole structure of human character must rest” (Anonymous 1924, p. 3). A. Myddleton, editor of the first of the practical psychology magazines in Britain, described practical psychology’s role with respect to religion: “Modern Practical Psychology is an enlargement of Christianity to the point that it may minister to every human need both spiritual and temporal. . . The fundamental truths of Christianity were faith, love, peace, joy, power, truth, spiritual healing; and Psychology came along to show us how to turn these ideals into realities” (Myddleton 1925, p. 3). In the United States, religious messages, especially Christian in nature, were common themes in the popular magazines, and in the 1930s three popular magazines began publication whose content was popular psychology as seen in the framework of Christianity.

American society was a contradiction in religious terms in the 1920s. Immigration in that decade was heavily from Ireland and Italy, adding more Catholics to a predominantly protestant America. The Ku Klux Klan, professing their need to carry out the will of God, grew in numbers and power, opposing African Americans, Catholics, and Jews. Sexual mores loosened in a country that banned the production and sale of alcohol. Urban centers grew in economic and political power over their country cousins. There were battles between science and religion that came to a head in Dayton, Tennessee in 1925 in the Scopes trial challenging the teaching of evolution in public schools.

A number of historians have characterized the 1920s as a decade of individualism that began long before Herbert Hoover gave his famous rugged individualism speech in 1928. Sociologist Irene Thomson (1989) has argued that the individualism of the 1920s fostered the development of “new religious movements and flourishing popular psychologies” (p. 851). The double tragedies of the flu pandemic and World War I had led many Americans to question their religious faiths. They were not ready to abandon belief in a God but they were searching for something that promised betterment of the human condition. For many, science was seen as the provider of new truths, but it could not be a godless science. The new popular psychology fit the bill in all ways. It was said to be grounded in science but despite its adherence to experimental methods and its break with moral philosophy, it had not lost its soul. Pickren (2000) has written that the early experimental psychologists, for example, Hall, James Rowland Angell, and John Dewey, took pains in their writings for the popular press to state explicitly a role for religion in their new science: “The popular press became an arena in which psychologists sought to gain support for their science, to allay public fears about its materialistic implications by emphasizing its harmony with religious faith, and to stress the moral qualities of their work” (p. 1024).

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Self-improvement through Home Study of Psychology

Popular psychology promised self-betterment, arguing that the improvement of the self was a holy pursuit. Self-improvement was not a goal to be pursued for selfish reasons, for material wealth, or increased popularity. Self-improvement was about achieving one’s God-given potential, about striving for perfection, about achieving a personal state of ability, purpose, and confidence that not only bettered the individual but those who came into contact with that person. Hallam promised self-improvement from her lectures and books, Miller proclaimed it as the focus of his magazine and as the central purpose of his lectures and books. He published Practical Psychology (1924) a home-study course in “Human Efficiency, Health, Happiness and Achievement” in seven pamphlets, 14 lessons. The goal of the lessons was to help the reader achieve a “more abundant life” through self-improvement, for example, improving memory, dealing with negative emotions, being a better parent, cultivating optimism, using constructive autosuggestions, and increasing powers of observation.

Besides Hallam and Miller, there were others who marketed their versions of practical psychology such as two attorneys, Daniel A. Simmons and Edwin C. Coffee, who, on their letterhead, identified themselves as “Psychologists, Psychotherapists, Psychoanalysts.” Their address indicated that the home-study product came from their American Institute of Psychology in Jacksonville, Florida. Their program was entitled “The Realization System of Practical Psychology.” It bore some relationship to a system by the same name that was developed by Robert Heap in Britain, editor of one of the popular psychology magazines, but it does not appear that Simmons and Coffee were using materials developed by Heap. Instead, they wrote their own lessons, distributing them first in 1921. The advertising emphasized personal happiness and success: “You can be anything you want to be, have anything you desire, and accomplish anything not in violation of natural law that you wish to accomplish” (American Institute of Psychology 1927, p. 8). The 12 lessons were mimeographed and mailed to subscribers individually with a cover letter for the lesson, culminating with a series of questions. These lessons were billed as “private lessons” indicating to the subscribers that each one had been assigned an individual tutor (Simmons 1936). Subscribers completed the tests and mailed them to the American Institute. The student papers were marked and returned to them along with the next lesson. If students had questions, including those of a personal nature or those regarding how to apply the lessons of the course, they were encouraged to contact their tutor.

One of the most successful of the popularizers, arguably the most successful, was Sidney A. Weltmer (1858–1930) who studied mesmerism as a boy, medicine as a young man, and later became a minister, hypnotist, and faith healer in Nevada, Missouri. He established The Weltmer Institute in 1886, a 17-room facility for his treatments of “suggestive therapeutics.” The motto of the Institute was “Where every known disease is cured without medicine or surgery.” By 1901 the Institute was seeing as many as 400 patients per day, and another 150,000 individuals per year were being advised by Weltmer and his associates by mail. Notable visitors to the Institute included President and Mrs. William McKinley, Harry Houdini, Luther Burbank, and John Philip Sousa (Brophy 1997). Weltmer also developed a 16-lesson home-study course entitled “Suggestotherapy” (1921) that offered lessons on such subjects as thinking, practical healing, concentration, suggestion, prayer, and forgiveness. One source says that he awarded a half million diplomas from the Institute for his home-study graduates as well as those who attended his many seminars (Brophy 1997).

Even some psychologists got in on the home-study programs. A very ambitious course of 40 lessons was published beginning in 1932 under the editorship of psychologist William Henry Mikesell (1887-) of the University of Wichita. The course, intended for 2 years of study, was entitled “Psychology and Life,” and was published in 10 attractively bound volumes, averaging 320 pages per book or about 80 pages per lesson. The editorial board included a number of identifiable psychologists: Edmund Conklin, Adam Gilliland, Coleman Griffith, and Abraham Roback. The argument for the validity of the course contrasted the authorship of these lessons with what was labeled false psychology written by non-psychologists: “Much of what has appeared under the name of psychology in magazines and in correspondence courses takes its place alongside fake medicines sold on the street corner” (Mikesell 1932, p. 2 of preface).

The purpose of the course, as explained in the preface to the first volume, sounds no different from that of the other popular psychology offerings:

These ten volumes present comprehensive discussions of the workings of the human mind. Anyone who reads them will have a splendid working basis for understanding himself in order to correct the inefficient elements of his mind. . .Every practical problem of the mind that affects the average human being is presented. . .This comprehensive course enables one to sweep clean the dark, ugly, and troublesome corners of the mind, and to find hope, buoyancy, optimism, and success. (p. 3 of preface)

These volumes do not constitute an introductory psychology course. They draw more heavily on the science of psychology than the other home-study programs discussed but they also offer some of the questionable psychology they criticize in other sources. Consider some of the titles of the lessons: the fulfillment of the individual’s greatest need, the fundamental need of the human being (which, according to the author, is happiness), the all around human being, how to get rid of our faults, the human being as machine, the slave driven human being, the psychology of the as if, and types of human beings (which includes poetical and practical types, endocrine types, the persevering type, the resolving type, and so forth). The intent was to sell this series to the public, and the writing style and content were consistent with that goal. This home-study program mimicked the others in another way as well. Inside the front cover of the first volume was a colorful certificate on parchment, with Mikesell’s actual signature, a space for the student’s name to be added, and suitable for framing.

In truth, psychologists who ventured into writing for the popular media were not able to stay within the bounds of their science. Consider the case of University of Wisconsin psychologist Joseph Jastrow (1863–1944) who wrote a daily newspaper column in the 1920s entitled “Keeping Mentally Fit.” His columns, more often than not, described a psychology that was indistinguishable from that offered by the non-psychologists. In a column on the sporting instinct, Jastrow (1928) wrote:

Sport is rather definitely a masculine need. Perhaps some women take to flirtation and bargain-hunting as indoor sport. For hunting is pursuit and that is the second trait in the sporting make-up. When the business man grows tired of chasing dollars in the office because the routine of it gets dull and wearing, he takes his recreation by chasing a golf ball. (p. 220)

And another column on “The art of being happy” offered this explanation:

You are happy when your mental or emotional going is with the grain of your make-up; when themindmachine is running free. There are some common cross-grain disturbers of daily happiness. There is fatigue, which puts you out of gas, and makes slow, jolty going to the next filling station. There is obstruction, which is the other fellow getting in your way. There is worry, which is one of a hundred kinds of engine trouble. (Jastrow 1928, pp. 19–20)

Along with Mu¨nsterberg, who died in 1916 before the golden era of popular psychology, Jastrow was one of the psychologists most involved in translating psychology for the public. He wrote approximately 10 books on popular psychology including such titles as Piloting Your Life: The Psychologist as Helmsman (1930) and Effective Thinking (1931), many of them authored when he was retired and living in New York City. Donald Laird, a psychologist at Colgate University, produced a similar number of books, written principally for the business community on topics such as leadership, increasing personal efficiency, and supervising women in the workplace (e.g., Laird and Laird 1942).

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The Great Depression, the only depression that gets capitalized, marked one of the bleakest periods in American history. If you read histories of that Depression – and there are many – you will find them focused on banking policies, politics, business practices, economic theories, and agricultural production. Too often these histories omit the people in the story, the people who lost their jobs (more than 25% of Americans were unemployed at one time), lost their farms, lost their homes, lost their families, and lost their dignity and self-respect. The human cost was unlike anything anyone could remember, certainly worse than the recognized tragedies of World War I. How did the average American, if there was such a person, react to such a dramatic change in life? One view argued that:

People were sullen rather than bitter, despairing rather than violent. They sat at home, rocked dispiritedly in their chairs and blamed conditions. Some argue that the unemployed blamed themselves for their plight. Imbued with the success ethic and the American Dream, the unemployed felt that they, not the system, had somehow failed. . .There is in the average American a profound humbleness. People seem to blame themselves. (Badger 1989, p. 38)

An opposing view argued that the conditions of the Depression produced mass rebellions among the unemployed. These people were dismayed with failed government policies that they believed had produced the Depression and, of greater significance, they were angered by agencies that seemed not to care about the millions of people who were now disenfranchised. Some historians have written that it was the violence from the riots that “eventually coerced welfare concessions from the New Deal” (Badger 1989, p. 38). Either explanation could be seen as supporting a self-help popular psychology, although the self-blame attitude would be particularly in need of something that would promise self-betterment.

As noted earlier, academic psychology received some criticism in articles and editorials during the 1930s, principally faulting psychology for failing to live up to its many promises given the economic and psychological depression that had engulfed the nation. There is evidence (based on article counts in the Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature and Psychological Abstracts) that during the decade, academic psychologists reduced their writings for the public and greatly increased their output in their professional journals. It seems obvious that they retreated to the safety inside the ivy covered walls. Whereas psychologists might have been reluctant to write for the public, that was not true of the popular psychologists. Their presence was everywhere in books, magazine articles, home-study courses, and lectures. Recall that there were more than a dozen new popular psychology magazines that began publication in the United States in the 1930s.

Popular psychology books that had multiplied in the 1920s continued to be a major genre throughout the Depression with a newer emphasis, perhaps, on preventing or curing psychological disorders. Leonard Bisch’s (1936) book Be Glad You’re Neurotic informed his readers that virtually everyone is neurotic, and it included a test they could take to find out just how neurotic they were. He urged his readers to follow five simple rules: “study yourself, stop reproaching yourself, be proud of what you are, turn your handicaps into assets, profit by your neurosis – then BE GLAD!” (p. 201). Beran Wolfe’s (1933) book, Calm Your Nerves: The Prevention and Cure of Nervous Breakdown, counseled the afflicted to “Grit your teeth at symptoms, and go on. Remember that the pain and the adversity of today make your happiness sweeter tomorrow. Throw off the shackles of the past, and don’t worry about the future. Live today. Live now. I give you courage, hope and the will to get well!” (p. 240). Frank Whitesell’s (1932) The Cure for Depression warned readers that “the writings of men leave the reader hungry and dissatisfied. Only one book satisfies – The Bible. . . All who trust in Him are partakers of His Joy, and their depressions will soon be everlastingly ended” (pp. 123–124).

Still there were hundreds, no doubt thousands, of books, on self-improvement, that would have been especially attractive to those people “imbued with the success ethic and the American Dream.” There were books on improving one’s personality, on being more assertive (or using the language of the time, having “spunk” or “gumption”), on getting rich, on raising children, on sex in marriage, on succeeding in business, on training for other jobs, and all the other topics that had defined the core of popular psychology since its inception. There were, however, two 1930s books in the self-help genre that became popular, no doubt, beyond their authors’ wildest dreams. Both are thought to have sold between 15 and 30 million copies today, and both have been continuously in print since their original publication dates. The first was a book by Dale Carnegie (1888–1955) entitled How to Win Friends and Influence People (1936) and the other followed a year later, Napoleon Hill’s (1883–1970) Think and Grow Rich (1937). Both offered Depression sufferers the promise of self-improvement that could lead to a better life and perhaps to riches. These books are very much in the tradition of the New Thought Movement and what would become known as positive thinking movement, wrongly attributed to Norman Vincent Peale’s (1898– 1993) best-selling book, The Power of Positive Thinking (1952). The idea of positive thinking was at the heart of New Thought and, as noted earlier, embodied as well in the self-help writing of Samuel Smiles nearly a century before Peale (see Ehrenreich 2009, for her thesis on how positive thinking has undermined America).

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The story of popular psychology continues into the twentieth century, of course, but is beyond the space limitations of this account. The popular psychology of today, and indeed of the past 70 years, is not very different from the versions offered in the 1920s and 1930 s. The psychology clubs may have disappeared but the other components remain in place. Popular psychology books are abundant, offering success in six easy steps, creativity in five, optimism in nine, and happiness in seven, a genre of self-help books that psychologist Leigh Shaffer (1981) has referred to as recipe knowledge. Psychology magazines still exist, with Psychology Today, founded in 1967, being the best known. Popular psychology is found in many other magazines as well, whether labeled psychology or not. Home-study courses have been replaced by on-line courses from legitimate universities as well as bogus ones. And sometimes it is difficult for the consumer to tell the difference. Public lectures and symposia are abundant, a billion-dollar industry today, providing thousands of motivational speakers whose lectures promise to teach you:

How to get everything you want, how to embrace your struggles and come out on top, how to project a powerful and confident image, how to be recognized and rewarded for your effort, how to score often and big, how to make yourself a valuable asset, how to overcome unforeseen challenges, how to balance your personal and professional priorities, how to rapidly expand your circle of influence, how to develop take-charge leadership, and how to have grace under fire. (Houston Chronicle, 2010, p. A9)

It is the public’s psychology, and its general nature has not changed much in the past two centuries. People want to improve their relationships, they want to be more successful in the workplace, to be healthier, to raise their kids well, to be popular, to be optimistic, to be positive, to be happier, and to be rich. Samuel Smiles and others who promoted self-help and positive thinking established the model still used by most pop psychologists today, that of personal testimony and case study anecdotes.

Megachurches have enjoyed a phenomenal growth in America in the past several decades. They are Christian, evangelical, and boast huge congregations. Many of these charismatic pastors, like Henry Knight Miller 80 years earlier, offer a gospel of health, happiness, and success. They are among the new generation of pop psychologists. Many preach what has been called prosperity gospel, the belief that God wants his believers to be wealthy, to enjoy an elegant lifestyle. No one demonstrates that better than Joel Osteen, pastor of the Lakewood Church in Houston, Texas, an evangelical Christian church that enjoys a weekly attendance of more than 40,000 and whose services are broadcast to millions of viewers via television in the United States and many other countries. Osteen’s message is relentlessly positive – “God wants you to be happy, God wants you to be healthy, God wants you to be successful, Gods wants you to have a nice home and a fine car.” A time magazine poll in 2006 found that “17% of all American Christians of whatever denomination or church size, said they consider themselves to be part of a ‘prosperity gospel’ movement and a full 61 % agreed with the statement that ‘God wants people to be prosperous’” (Ehrenreich 2009, p. 124). And how is that prosperity to be achieved? “Not through the ancient technique of prayer but through positive thinking” (p. 124). Popular psychology and religion continue to have strong ties.

As noted at the beginning of this article, psychology is everywhere today. Arguably the field has never been more ubiquitous, even in the golden era of the 1920s. Psychologists today mirror their colleagues of more than a century ago by decrying the many psychologies that they see as bogus, especially all of the invalidated therapies: energy breathing, past-life regression, primal scream therapy, facilitated communication, neural organization techniques, thought field therapy, hypnotic age regression, neuro-linguistic programming, and many, many others. Oh, and don’t forget, rebirthing therapy. Labeled psychobabble and biobunk by psychologist and author Carol Tavris (2000), these therapies are a part of the public psychology that cast doubt on the validity of the science of psychology. Rarely, if ever, are these therapies endorsed by any legitimate psychologist, and, sadly, most are never broadly condemned by the psychological community. Instead, they are mostly ignored. Perhaps psychologists have concluded that they can do no harm, or that they would disappear if people would only use their intelligence, recognizing the bogus therapies for what they are.

The perceived credibility of psychology as a science was a concern for the pioneering psychologists in the 1880s who established the first laboratories in America. And it remains a concern today for contemporary psychologists who can be found as second-class scientific citizens in their universities, housed in colleges of liberal arts or social sciences and rarely grouped with the “real” sciences of physics, chemistry, and biology. There are many examples of a lack of confidence in psychology as a science. When President Ronald Reagan assumed office in 1980 he called for an elimination of all National Science Foundation (NSF) funds for psychology, a field that he viewed as a pseudoscience (then why did he listen to his wife’s advice based on her astrologer’s reports?). Through some lobbying efforts, Congress was able to restore 50% of that funding immediately. But it would be years before psychology reached the level of NSF funding it had enjoyed before the Reagan presidency. In 2006, Senator Kay Bailey Hutchinson from Texas introduced an amendment to an appropriations bill that called for an elimination of all funds for psychology and the other social sciences for the NSF budget. Fortunately for psychologists (and sociologists, economists, anthropologists, and political scientists) that amendment was defeated. In another show of psychology’s status in the scientific community, the year 2009 was declared “The Year of Science” in the United States. To celebrate that designation, the National Academy of Sciences featured a different scientific emphasis on its website for each of the 12 months of the year. Not one of the 12 features was about any one of the social sciences, all of which belong to the National Academy of Sciences.

The public may not be able to distinguish the science of psychology from a host of pseudopsychologies but Congress, the Executive Office, and federal agencies need to be able to do so. If psychology is to receive its fair share of federal funding, if psychologists are to be involved in national policy decisions where human behavior is a key concern, if psychology is to be a player in health care where most of the leading killers today (heart disease, cancer, stroke) have important behavioral components as part of their etiology, if we want to get people to behave more ethically, reduce violence, improve parenting, improve education, prevent and cure addictions, reduce pollution, improve communication networks, and reduce prejudice, then psychology has to be respected and supported as a science that can be a key player in the twenty-first century where so many of the problems that face America and the world are behavioral problems.

In the past decade both the American Psychological Association and the Association for Psychological Science have established programs to improve the public’s understanding of psychology. But as should be abundantly clear by now, this is not an easy task. Indeed, it may be a hopeless task (see Burnham 1987). Jill Morawski and Gail Hornstein (1991) have wondered why psychology has had such difficulty in “establishing themselves as the arbiters of psychological knowledge” (p. 127). Other disciplines have succeeded in becoming experts in their own fields. So why not psychology? Morawski and Hornstein suggested that:

… part of the problem has to do with the subject matter of psychology. People seem to feel acutely ambivalent about giving the analysis of their private experience over to outsiders, alternatively seeking and rejecting the opinions of these “experts.” For psychology to succeed in garnering for itself hegemony over the psychological realm, it would have to persuade people that they were entirely incapable of understanding the conduct and meaning of their own lives. (p. 127)

So acknowledge that the public owns its psychology. Given the explanation offered above and the various reports on scientific illiteracy in America the situation is unlikely to change.

A better strategy for organized psychologists within APA, APS, and other psychology organizations would be to target the policymakers and funding agencies in government, health, science, and education, helping them understand the potential of psychological science and practice, and translating the research in ways that are useful to those and other entities. As psychologist George Miller (1969) said more than 40 years ago, “The most urgent problems of the world today are the problems we have made for ourselves. They have not been caused by some heedless or malicious inanimate Nature, nor have they been imposed on us as punishment by the will of God. They are human problems whose solutions will require us to change our behavior and our social institutions” (p. 1063). The need for psychological science is great, but there has to be recognition of its validity if it is to realize its potential. Psychologists can do something about that, and they need to do it now.

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