Basic directions in psychology

So we saw that psychology can be defined as the science of human experience and behavior.


Behavior is objective (some say: intersubjective). It can also be observed in other people or animals. Behavior includes e.g. B. write, read, scratch your head, say something, cross your feet, frown … In psychology, too, behavior includes all physical processes that can be measured (using a measuring instrument), e.g. B. the pulse (with heart rate monitor), the brain waves on the brain surface (by means of EEG), the blood pressure (by means of blood pressure meter), the brain activity (by means of PET etc.) … Behavior can be observed directly with experiments or field research.


Experience is all subjective. It can only be observed directly and immediately in one’s own person. Experience includes, for example, thinking, imagining, feelings, perceptions, memories, … Scientifically explicable can only be experienced in an indirect, mediated form.

  • Either we have to deduce from behavior to experience (there is, however, the risk of wrong conclusions and misinterpretations)
  • Or we have to ask people in interviews or tests  about their experience (there is, however, the risk of misunderstandings. Or people could intentionally or unintentionally let us know about their real experience)
  • Or we assume that what we experience ourselves also experience other people in similar situations. (Self-observation) However, this method is so error-prone that we tend not to allow it as a scientific method. At least not as the only method. (Although: Sigmund Freud wrote his dream interpretation largely on the basis of the analysis of his own dreams. Today that would probably no longer be accepted in this form.


The problem that experience cannot be observed directly has accompanied psychology from the beginning. And it divides psychology into two camps (to which a third, a fourth and a fifth camp will later be added): the behavioral psychologists (behaviorists) and the experience psychologists (cognitivists, from the Latin “cognoscere” = to know, to know)

Psychology as a science of behavior (behavioral psychology; behaviorism)

Classical behavioral psychology includes psychologists who mostly come from a scientific discipline and want to establish psychology as a natural science. One of them is John Watson. Another is FB Skinner.


For them the only method science can accept is experiment. According to them, only theories that have been tested in experiments can stand up to the demands of a scientific theory. But that only works for behavior. Experience is in a kind of “black box” (in the head) to which, in principle, we have no scientific or objective access. Their conclusion is clear: a scientific psychology must dispense with the concept of experience and the exploration of all experience phenomena. For a scientific psychology there is no thinking, no feeling, no imagination, no experience of fear.


The basic psychological model that can be developed on this basis is very simple: there are only stimuli (stimulus; MZ: stimuli) with which one confronts organisms. That can be observed. Then something happens inside the organism. What that is can be speculatively assumed, but not researched. (Black box). Only the reaction of the organism can be observed again, i.e. the behavior that follows the stimulus. And then we can relate stimulus and response. This is then called psychological theory.


The whole thing becomes clearer with an example: We confront a dog, let’s call it Charly, with a bell tone. Charly doesn’t show any saliva-flow reaction, he probably doesn’t really care about the bell at all. But that’s just the starting point. And that should change soon, because now we are starting our experiment. We combine the bell tone a couple of times with Charly’s favorite meal, a piece of mountain cheese from the Bregenzerwald. Whenever the bell sounds, we show him a piece of cheese that he can then eat. We can now assume that something will be happening in Charly’s “head”. We don’t know what that is. And we’ll never know either. Because we can’t ask Charly about it. He probably doesn’t even know himself. But what we can observe is that Charly’s behavior is changing. If we let the bell ring after a few test runs, we can measure that Charly reacts to the sound of the bell with salivation. Charly has changed his behavior. So he has learned – in the language of psychology – to react to an originally neutral stimulus (bell) with a learned (= conditioned / conditioned) reaction.


This phenomenon is called classical conditioning . It is the most primitive form of learning. Actually, it is nothing more than a learned reflex. This simple form of learning became famous through the experiments that the Russian reflexologist Ivan Pavlov made with his dog (which unfortunately did not go down in the history of science by name). Independently of this, the American psychologist Albert Watson examined the same learning process using the example of fear reactions at the beginning of the 20th century. As a test subject he used a small child named Albert. The experiment he did went down in psychology history as “Little Albert”.


Later it turned out that a behavioral psychology that completely renounces experience quickly reaches its limits. Today there is therefore only cognitive behavioral psychology. This is a “softened” form. For them, behavior is still the focus. But one admits that experience processes not only exist, but are often even a prerequisite for us to be able to explain behavioral differences at all. Later we will see that the experiments that Alfred Bandura and Walter Mischel used for model learningmake, make the turn. Because they show that the many processes of experience, such as the subjective evaluation of the model, play a very decisive role in learning by observation. Only when we find the model that shows a certain behavior attractive do we imitate its behavior. And it is precisely this fact that goes beyond the black box model.


In a nutshell …
 Behavioral psychology is based on a scientific paradigm. She wants psychological theories to be experimentally verifiable. It focuses on behavior that can be observed and measured from outside. You can experience it where it is “unavoidable”. 

Psychology as the science of experience. Cognitive psychology

Wilhelm Wundt and his team try to measure the perception of pressure differences at the end of the 19th century. (Source: Wikipedia)

The competition to American behaviorism emerged in Germany around 1900 in the form of cognitive psychology (experience psychology). Their representatives are less scientifically oriented. For them it is clear that for psychology, experience (e.g. thinking, perceiving, …) must be the central subject of research.


It all starts with a scientist named Wilhelm Wundt. who around 1880 wants to clarify the question of how big differences in pressure (e.g. on the back of the hand) have to be so that we know this difference. To do this, he develops an apparatus that increases the pressure in very small steps. The subjects then have to say when they notice a difference. With the help of this simple method, various perceptual phenomena can be investigated, e.g. B. the phenomenon of adaptation: after a certain “initial period” you no longer notice that you are wearing a watch on your wrist or glasses on your nose. Because we get so used to perceptual stimuli with which we are constantly confronted that we no longer perceive them. (Unfortunately, some people, e.g. smokers, do not notice exactly for the reason


Important pioneering work in the cognitive paradigm was done, for example, by the Swiss developmental psychologist Jean Piaget or the American motive researcher Abraham Maslow.


Jean Piaget shows that children’s experience differs fundamentally from the thinking, perceiving or feeling of adults. It works, so to speak, according to different laws and a different logic. For example, children up to the age of 5 live in an “egocentric” world. They only understand a state of affairs in relation to themselves. So you can only describe a path if you can explain the steps you have to take from beginning to end in order to achieve a goal. Or they can only imagine time when they e.g. B. find out how often they still have to sleep up to a certain event. Or children cannot perform formal logical reasoning operations until they are around 10 years old. So, when you do the math, you have to have concrete objects in your head or on paper (e.g.


Abraham Maslow is particularly interested in the needs (or, more psychologically, the motives) that underlie human behavior. He hierarchizes these needs in his hierarchy of needs. But it seems more important to me that it shows that one and the same behavior can be based on very different needs. So someone can z. B. eat something because he wants to be full (hunger as a basic motive / need), but he can also eat for a social motive, i.e. because others at the table also eat (social need, although he is not hungry at all) or he can eat out of a need for security (e.g. because he starved as a child and wants to be on the safe side) or he can eat something out of a need for self-realization (food to reward himself or to do something good for himself). So it is not the behavior that matters, but the motive in the background if we want to understand psychological processes.


In a nutshell …
Experience psychology (cognitive psychology) places subjective experience at the center of scientific interest. In addition to the experiment, it also allows other, softer methods, e.g. B. oral questioning (interview) or written questioning (test). (In some cases, people even work with introspection. But this is controversial!)


She accepts that results may therefore U. could be “less hard”. It also tries, however, to use “tricks” to rule out sources of error (e.g. “trick questions” are always built into psychological tests). 

Psychology as a science of unconscious psychological processes: depth psychological theories

Ill. Cover: Ch. Moser: “Sigmund Freud. The whole truth.”

Depth psychology, which today consists of many different “schools”, goes back to the theories of the Viennese doctor Sigmund Freud. He works mainly with women suffering from hysteria, first by hypnotizing them, then by “laying them on the couch”. He developed a theory according to which unconscious psychological content influenced experience and behavior. These unconscious contents arise mainly in the first phase of life through formative psychological experiences, e.g. B. Separation experiences.


In his opinion, unconscious psychological content shows up primarily in dreams, in failures (forgetting, …) and in mental illnesses. But our personality is generally shaped by unconscious psychological structures.


Later Freud then divides the psychic apparatus into three instances, the IT, the I and the ABOVE-I. Unconscious contents mainly contain the ES, which contains the drives, and the I, which can be translated as “conscience”,


Various other directions then split off from the psychoanalysis founded by Freud. A few are well known

  • the individual psychology of the Viennese pediatrician Alfred Adler
  • the analytical psychology of the Swiss psychiatrist CG Jung, who extends the concept of the unconscious by introducing the collective unconscious (a kind of “inherited” unconscious) under the individual (i.e. biographically created) unconscious .
  • the Neo-Freudianism (Karen Horney, Erich Fromm, …), in which the psychological instance of the ICH is more pronounced than in Freud.
  • logotherapy and existential analysis (Viktor E. Frankl, who rejects Freud’s drive theory and focuses on the topic of meaning : “Whoever has a what for in life endures almost every how.” )


So they differ in different ways from Freud’s psychoanalysis. But they all accept the concept of the unconscious.


Not all psychologists believe that depth psychological theories really meet the minimum scientific standards. Some count them to parapsychology. On the other hand, there are many interesting findings from neurological learning research that tend to support the basic assumptions of depth psychology. The memory researcher Eric Kandel (as a neurologist “tough natural scientist”) searches for the unconscious in his research on the level of the brain and neuronal processes.

In a nutshell …
The depth psychology (mother: psychoanalysis; extended family with many children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren) works with the concept of the unconscious. This unconscious cannot even be observed in person, which poses a certain challenge in terms of scientific explorability. However, it can be inferred indirectly, namely through dream content, failures, symptoms of illness, etc. It can also be discovered with certain methods (hypnosis, free association, …). 


Depth psychology – especially psychoanalysis – is controversial as a science because many theories and concepts are “vague” and have almost only been researched in individual case studies. Nonetheless, it provides interesting findings and theories and an exciting look at human experience and behavior. 

humanistic theories

Humanistic theories are based on an idea of ​​”the whole person”. They refuse to look at people like any other thing. (Source: Wikipedia)

“Humanistic psychology” is a collective term for directions within psychology that assume that “man” is essentially shaped by fundamental psychological abilities that animals do not (or only partially) have. They are the “higher forms” of consciousness, above all

  • Self-confidence, an inner idea of ​​who you are
  • individual memory, biographical memory
  • Sustainability; Knowledge of your own mortality
  • Ask about the meaning
  • Freedom, autonomy
  • etc.


Humanistic psychology tries to describe and explain personality (and thus also personality disorders) from these “basic determinants”.


In addition, humanistic theories see people in their “wholeness”. They are therefore rather at war with the experimental approaches in behavioral psychology, which distill individual elements from a larger whole in psychological laboratories and examine them separately. They also question whether findings from animal experiments can “just like that” be transferred to humans. Because they assume that humans are simply not “programmable” because of the “autonomous factors” described. His behavior and experience cannot be reduced to a simple stimulus-response model


Important representatives are, for example, Carl Rogers and Abraham Maslow.

systemic theories

Systemic theories are based on the mobile model. When one element changes, so do all the others. (Image source: Volker Nurk)

Systemic psychology is based on the fact that humans are social beings whose behavior is based on the social environment and on what other people (supposedly) expect of them. Therefore, it does not place the individual person but rather social systems at the center of a theory. Social systems are e.g. B. couple relationships, family systems, groups (school class, kindergarten group, soccer team, work team) and crowds. They all follow their own dynamics and their own laws apply to them.


When it comes to mental illness, systemic theories go e.g. For example, it is assumed that it is not the individual (e.g. a child) who is mentally ill, but the family system has a problem. From their point of view, the child is the symptom carrier “who wants to stabilize or” defuse “the family system through the illness. When the sick system” heals “or changes positively, the symptoms also improve.


Systemic theories are rooted in other psychological directions. They often have integrated depth psychology, learning psychology, and cognitive elements.


A well-known representative is Virginia Satir.

Behavioral biology, ethology

the behavioral biologist K. Lorenz researches behavioral phenomena such as imprinting, key stimuli, and child schema, especially in gray geese. He also developed a theory of aggression.

Behavioral biology moves on the border between biology and psychology. She researches mainly with animals. She also transfers parts of the researched behavioral programs to humans. The founder, Konrad Lorenz, discovered fundamental behavioral phenomena, especially during research with gray geese. For example, he notes that shortly after the hatchers have hatched, there is a time window in which these animals are imprinted on the first moving object (usually the mother, in the experiment mostly himself). You then follow this object unconditionally everywhere. And later they look for their sexual partner according to the basic pattern on which they have been shaped. 🙂


Some imprinting phenomena can also be demonstrated in humans:


  • Children recognize their mothers by their smell shortly after birth.
  • Children are shaped to have certain tastes even before they are born; these depend on the mother’s diet
  • Even before they are born, children are imprinted on certain groups of sounds. They pay more attention to these sound groups after birth than to “unfamiliar” sounds
  • There are temporal development windows in which certain learning steps (e.g. language development) have to take place. If these development windows are “missed”, deficits can no longer be compensated (at most mitigated).


Key stimuli that influence human behavior:

  • Little child scheme
  • Aggression inhibitors (crying; body language signals such as placing hands over your head; gestures of humility) usually have an anti-aggression effect. However, they can be over-learned through learning experience (training) and thus become ineffective.


Eric Kandel researches memory with the help of the sea snail Aplysia. For this he received the Nobel Prize.

Neuropsychology is a very young discipline on the border between psychology and brain research. The modern methods of watching the brain work (PET, CT, MRT) have revolutionized this research. It is about the question of how certain psychological phenomena such as memory, thinking, fear and stress are biologically “anchored”. The main question is which regions of the brain are associated with certain psychological processes. It was only in the last few decades that people realized how networked the brain works and how “plastic” it is. (This refers to the malleability of the brain and its ability to reorganize itself over and over again). And it is about the question of what happens at the contact points between two nerve cells (synapses) during certain processes.


The neuropsychological research has z. B. revolutionized our ideas about memory or about feelings such as fear.


If you want to know more about these fascinating research approaches, you can go to: B. deal with the Nobel Prize winner Eric Kandel and the memory research that he is doing with the sea snail Aplysia.


Modern brain research provides very interesting insights and discussion approaches for many psychological questions, e.g. B.

  • What happens in the brain when we feel, e.g. B. Feel fear or joy? (e.g. Antonio Domasio: “Descartes error”)
  • Is personality (or: are personality disorders) biologically based? What is the meaning of the genes? What importance do environmental factors play? How can we better understand the interactions using epigenetics? (e.g. Gerhard Roth, Alberto Damasio)
  • What happens in the brain with mental illness? How does “the brain” change when people become depressed, become manic or develop a schizophrenic psychosis? What happens in the brain when people become addicted to certain substances? But what also happens in the brain with non-substance-related addictions (e.g. gambling addiction). (The case stories of Oliver Sacks, for example, are fascinating)


Leave a Comment