EXPERIMENTAL SOCIAL PSYCHOLOGY BEGAN WITH WUNDT; SOCIAL PSYCHOLOGY WITH PYTHAGORAS
by Monroe Mann, Esq
PhD Candidate, Capella University
Written October 12, 2011
Psychology itself is argued to be a relatively new science, as encapsulized in Herman Ebbinghaus' observation that "psychology has a long past, but only a short history." (Kassin, Fein, & Markus, 2008). Further, social psychology itself is argued to have an even shorter history, with researchers such as Kassin, Fein, & Markus (2008) stating that the field was created in the late 19th century by psychologists such as Triplett and Ringelmann.
On the contrary, it was William Wundt, the founder of experimental psychology (Hergenhahn, 2009) who in fact should be credited as the founder of experimental social psychology (Greenwood, 2003). According to Greenwood, the term 'social psychology' was in fact first promulgated by Wundt in his 10-volume Volkerpsychologie.
While it is clear that Wundt did not make the 'leap' that Triplett and Ringelmann made by finding correlations between the social variable and the human behavior variable, to claim that social psychology only began in the late 1890s is to discount Wundt's clear contributions to the field, i.e. by laying the experimental foundation upon which others built the field.
While it is true that Wundt did not believe that social psychological phenomena could be measued experimentally (Greenwood, 2003), the fact that he even made such a statement shows that he was indeed thinking of social psychology many years before anyone else in the field. Greenwood (2003) believes that Volkerpsychologie is in fact an early form of social psychology.
While Kassin, Fein, and Markus (2008) do recognize that Plato potentially discussed some social psychological phenomena, I posit that social psychology's foundation itself began even earlier than Plato. While Wundt may have been the foundation of experimental social psychology, I argue that social psychological phenomena (or at least the foundation for them) were--long before Plato--being considered by philosophers such as Pythagoras, Protagoras, Xenophanes, and Socrates. (Hergenhahn, 2003).
First, I believe that Pythagoras laid the foundation for correlational research with his postulation that everything could be explained with numbers. Next, Protagoras helped to show the unique psychological makeup of human beings with his statement that "man is the measure of all things". Later, Xenophanes concluded that religion was a human invention (certainly one of the world's first social psychological hypotheses: that the human condition encouraged humans to fabricate the idea of 'God' as a way to make this life more bearable). And finally, Socrates perhaps made the biggest contribution of all to social psychology with his statement: "Know thyself". That statement is so profound that indeed it seems to be the modern battle cry of social psychological research, which focuses on the study of... the individual.
In conclusion, while more modern researchers such as Triplett and Ringelmann certainly marked the definitive codification of experimental social psychology, the actual establishment of experimental social psychology clearly rests with Wundt, and the foundation with the early Greek philosophers. Perhaps the history of psychology (and therefore social psychology) is not as short as Ebbinghaus believes.
Greenwood, J. D. (2003)., Wundt, Völkerpsychologie, and experimental social psychology. History of Psychology, 6(1), 1093-4510.
Hergenhahn, B. R. (2009). An introduction to the history of psychology., Belmont, CA: Cengage Learning.
Kassin, S., Fein, S., & Markus, H. R. (2008). Social psychology, Belmont, CA: Cengage Learning.