The Influence of Freudism on Theoretical Psychology

L. L. Thurstone
Institute of Government Research, Washington, D. C.

It is my purpose to show some of the effects that psycho-analytic writers have had on theoretical psychology. In this discussion I shall group together the psychoanalytic and the related schools of psychology and psychiatry which are known collectively as the 'new' psychology. At different times different meanings have been given to the term 'new psychology.' I shall use the term in its present and current meaning.

If as we read the literature of the new psychology, we stop to recall our psychological reading of only a few years ago, we find that the two kinds of psychology do not even use the same language. The terminology is entirely different. In the psychology which has become established in the colleges and written in textbooks, the discussion is concerned mainly with such categories as sensation and perception, imagination, reasoning, the sense organs, memory, the affective states, and so on. These terms have a familiar sound to any one who has ever taken a course in psychology in a college or a normal school. In the new psychology we read about complexes, rationalization, projection, compensation, identification, symbolism, repression, the wish, and many other categories that do not even occur in the indexes of standard textbooks of the subject. What are the fundamental reasons

( 176) for the disparity between the established type of psychological discourse and the so-called new psychology?[1]

There are several factors that contribute toward this disparity. First we must recall the different origins of the old and of the new psychology. The old psychology was written first. by philosophers and later by psychologists who devoted themselves to the scientific study of mind. The new psychology, and particularly psychoanalysis, has been developed by those physicians who have devoted themselves primarily to -the treatment of mental disorder. Here we have two different types of training for the men who represent the two different types of psychology.

Another factor that partly explains the difference in terminology between the new psychology and the old is to be found in the character of the mental phenomena that are the bases of the two schools. The psychiatrist deals with minds that are abnormal, minds that have broken under distress of some kind. The psychologist deals with normal minds, minds that are sufficiently calm, quiet, and contented to submit to experimentation in the psychological laboratory. Obviously the material on which the two schools of psychology are built up differs at the very source of the observations.

The normal person who has sufficient leisure to serve as a subject of experimentation in the psychological laboratory is not likely to have any major mental disturbance or distress. If, on the occasion of a psychological experiment, he is men-tally disturbed by any serious issue in his fundamental life interests, the financial, sexual, social, professional, or physical, he reports that he is indisposed, and he does not serve as a subject. It is, therefore, relatively. seldom that the college psychological laboratory gets for observation persons who are in an abnormal mental condition of major significance. The psychiatrist, on the other hand, continually observes persons whose mental states are dominated, or broken, by issues that are close to the fundamental mainsprings of life.

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It is only reasonable, therefore, that we should find a fundamental difference between the new and the old psychology as regards the significance of the mental phenomena that they represent. The established forms of psychological discussion relate mostly to the momentary mental states and related phenomena such as sense qualities, color mixture, taste buds, visual illusions, reflexes, fields of attention, visual and auditory imagery, the momentary nature of emotion, and the differences between instinctive and habitual actions. All of these, and in fact most of the discussions in the standard textbooks of psychology, refer to the momentary mental states, situations in which a laboratory experiment may be prepared and in which the subject reports what he at that moment sees, or hears, or feels. There is no criticism to be made against all such scientific experimentation except that it seldom relates to the permanent life interests of the persons who lend their minds to the psychological experiments.

In the new psychology we deal, on the other hand, with a whole series of explanatory categories that have their origin in the psychopathic hospitals where every person observed is giving, vent to a disturbance in the fundamental ,and permanent mainsprings of his life. This' contrast between the new psychology and the old is summarized by noting that the established forms of psychological writing deal mostly with the momentary mental states, while the new psychology deals mostly with the expression of basic and permanent human wants.

In general, a fair-minded student would probably admit that the new psychology deals with subjects that are more generally interesting than those which he may recall from his college textbooks. On the other hand, one must admit also that the psychology of the standard textbooks is written with greater regard for scientific consistency. The new psychology has very little regard for scientific method, and it does not rest on careful experimental work. Nevertheless, the new psychology has a strong appeal to our interests, and in large part its propositions seem to be very plausible. It is only natural that the physicians who devote themselves

( 178) primarily to the treatment of disordered minds should pay most attention to the methods that are effective in practice, while the psychologists, as scientists, should pay most attention to the scientific experimental methods for establishing facts.

One of the basic differences between the old and the new psychology is in the treatment of the stimulus or environment. Writers of the scientific schools of psychology treat the stimulus as the datum for psychological inquiry. They put their subject into the laboratory and confront him with stimuli of various kinds—colors, noises, pains, words; and with the stimulus as a starting point they note what happens. The behavior of the person is interpreted largely as a function of the stimulus or environment. The person's own inclinations are, of course, recognized as constituting a factor in the situation, but only as a modifying factor. The stimulus is treated as the datum or starting point, while the resulting behavior or conduct is treated as the end point for the psychological inquiry. The medical writers on psychology state or imply a very different analysis of conduct. Here, the starting point of conduct is the individual person himself. He wants certain things, he has cravings, desires, wishes, aspirations, ambitions, impulses. He expresses these impulses in terms of the environment. The stimulus is treated by the new psychology as only a means to an end, a means utilized by the person in getting the satisfactions that he intrinsically wants. This is a very basic contrast. In the older schools of psychology we have the characteristic formula: the stimulus—the person—the behavior. Behavior is thought of mainly as replies to stimuli. In the newer schools of psychology we have a different characteristic formula: the person—the stimulus—the behavior. The stimulus is treated merely as the environmental fact that is used to express purposes.

In the psychology which is current in the colleges and normal schools, we teach a stimulus-response formula about which everything else psychological revolves. The contributions of the newer schools of psychology are certain to

( 179) modify the rigidity of this formula. By the stimulus-response formula is meant the constant resolution of every psychological problem into three conventional parts; the stimulus, which is treated as a first cause, the mind or central nervous system, and the behavior, which is treated as a reply to the stimulus. After some practice this formula becomes so thoroughly ingrained that every psychological question is habitually broken up into a search for the provocative stimulus, a description of the resulting mental states, and a description of the responsive behavior. Often only the first and last of these facts are looked for.


Every scientific problem is a search for the functional relation between two or more variables. This can be seen very clearly in the exact sciences, but it becomes more obscure as we enter the biological sciences, and it is frequently lost sight of in the social sciences. In physics we have, as typical problems, the search for the relation between the length of time that a body has been falling and its speed, the pressure of a gas and its temperature or volume, the curvature of a lens and its focal distance, the resistance of a wire as determined by its cross section and length, the pressure on a turbine as determined by the head in the penstock, the sag of a beam as determined by the load and the cross-section of the beam. Physicists and engineers come to look upon the search for relations between variables as the typical task of science. The attitude of looking for these relations becomes second nature to them. They reach habitually for a piece of cross-section paper in order to make a graph of their observations, and in order to visualize the nature of the relation , that they are seeking.

In the biological sciences we have the same logic in the biometric methods. In the social sciences we are dealing, usually, with variables that are not quantitative, but there is no good reason why thinking in the social sciences should not follow the same logic even though the variables are often non-quantitative.

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If every scientific problem is an attempt to state the relation between two or more variables, it should be profitable to note what the variables are that constitute scientific psychology. If we look over the field of experimental psychology, as it is represented by standard textbooks in the field, and by the work in college psychological laboratories, we find that most of the relations into which the experimenters inquire classify themselves in the following types: (1) relation between anatomy of the sense organs and conscious sense experience, (2) relation between stimuli and sense experience, (3) relation between stimuli and muscular adjustment.

Totally different is the fundamental nature of the relations that the medical writers in psychology are dealing with. They are constantly searching for the relation between the fundamental cravings and wants of people and the ways in which these wants are expressed and satisfied. A patient talks and behaves as though he were an emperor, a millionaire, a person with power and fame. Let us contrast the two different scientific approaches of the old and the new psychology to this problem. What are the variables involved in the problem? The psychologist of the established academic schools would ask about the stimuli, the environment, and he would state or imply in his solution that the patient is merely responding to stimuli. There might be some difficulty in specifying just what the stimuli are to which the patient is responding by talking like an emperor. The academic psychologist would list on one side of his scientific ledger the stimuli and environment to which the patient has been exposed, and on the other side of the ledger would be recorded the behavior of the patient. The conduct, would be described as a function of the environment, modified, to be sure, by the characteristics of the patient himself.

The psychiatrist would look for a different set of variables. He would list on one side of his ledger the wants and cravings of normal people, assuming that these wants, are also a part of the self of the patient, and on the other side of the ledger he would list the patient's conduct. 'The scientific problem

( 181) would be to state how it comes about that the patient expresses in his particular way wants that are universal. The psychiatrist would treat the environment as merely the means by which the patient seeks to express wants and cravings that are universal. This procedure is much more powerful and illuminating. It shows us more about human nature, but it is not subject to the exact quantitative technique of the older sciences because the wants and cravings of normal people have not yet been classified and isolated in a measurable way.

Since incentives and desires are not readily measured we rest content with describing the. relations that we can measure. It would not be subject to criticism if it were not for the fact that we have come to forget the individual person altogether. Experiments of this type have come to be the rule and we have taken for granted that psychology is primarily concerned with the incidental relation between the response and the response-modifying stimulus. We have gone so far as to assert that psychology studies the stimulus-response relation, and we have forgotten the person himself who may or may not want to do the responding.


The contribution of psychoanalysis to theoretical psychology may be summarized under two heads that we may interpret as implied criticisms of us.

1. We have devoted ourselves almost exclusively to the phenomena of momentary mental states and momentary behavior whereas the psychoanalysts have given their labors to the phenomena of basic and permanent tendencies in human nature. Our analyses of instincts are superficial and merely descriptive. The study of our psychology does not gain for us, and for our students, any greatly increased understanding of human nature. The psychoanalysts at least work consciously for such insight as their objective.

2. We have devoted ourselves to the scientific study of .the relation between stimulus and response, environment and conduct. This is an incidental relation. It is not the

( 182) basic one for the understanding of mind and behavior. The psychoanalysts devote themselves to the study of the more fundamental relation between the demands of the organism which constitute the essence of its life on the one hand, and the behavior by which the organism satisfies these demands. The stimulus or environment is then only the momentary means by which the organism lives at any particular moment.

As an example of the effect of psychoanalysis on theoretical psychology consider the social and emotional phenomena of compensation which have been discussed at length by Adler and other psychoanalytic writers. I turned to the indexes of twenty standard textbooks of psychology and I found the term 'compensation' in two of them. In one of these text-books the term refers to olfactory and gustatory compensation, and in the other it refers to the compensatory reflexes controlled by the semicircular canals. Not one of these textbooks mentioned compensation as of social or emotional significance.

The psychoanalyst uses the term 'compensation' not only for such momentary phenomena as the reflexes, but he applies the same concept to understand compensatory effects in the formation of personality. These social interpretations of compensation are beginning to receive the attention of scientific psychologists, in respectable psychological journals. 'While we disapprove of the unscientific methods of the psycho-analysts, we should not deny that many of our most useful ideas in social and theoretical psychology have their origin in psychoanalysis. Other psychoanalytic concepts are gaining admission to scientific psychology, and we should be fair enough to, acknowledge the source from which we are taking them.

The psychologist is frequently disgusted with the psycho-analysts and with the psychiatrists because these men seldom have any regard, for scientific method. It is true that they often let their imaginations run wild. They seldom express themselves clearly. They rarely define their terms. They almost pride themselves 'on loose thinking. They know nothing about controlled experimentation. No wonder that

( 183) scientists are disgusted with them. The psychoanalyst or the psychiatrist to whom these criticisms do not apply is a rare person.

But let us not be so petty that we refuse to acknowledge merit even though it be closely associated with gross defects. The psychoanalysts have made a contribution to theoretical psychology in calling our attention to gross deficiencies in what we call the subject-matter of psychology. The content of psychoanalysis, psychiatry, and of the so-called new psychology is much more important than the content with which we have busied ourselves as scientific psychologists. The underlying relation between the life demands of the organism and the behavior by which these life demands are satisfied is the subject of psychoanalytic study, and that relation is more important as a determinant of mental life, personality, and conduct, than the stimulus-response relation to which we as scientific psychologists have given most of our effort.

Let us turn to the effects which the psychoanalysts and the psychiatrists have used on an empirical basis in their medical practice and apply to these phenomena the methods of controlled scientific experimentation. It is certain that both medical practice and psychology as a science will profit from such a venture.


  1. Sections of this paper are quoted from 'The Nature of Intelligence' (in press) Thurstone, The International Library of Psychology and Philosophy, Kegan Paul, French, Truber & Co., London.

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