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Looking Back at a Century of Psychology

Do you have a background in psychology?

Do you find human behavior interesting?

Then join us in taking advantage of what we know today to look back at the story of psychology. There is a reason it unfolded the way it did over the past century.

What We Know Today

Consider Planet Earth. We know it is a sphere. But early humans thought it was flat. Mind boggling today, but very real to them. It’s nearly impossible for a modern-day person to even put themselves into that early perspective. It just doesn’t make sense to us.

The same is true for psychology. The ability to see inside the human brain (neuroscience) has so significantly transformed our understanding of human intellect that it is increasing hard to put ourselves into the shoes of the psychology titans. Consider that the psychology titans didn't  know what we know:

  • We know the human brain has three processing centers (cognitive, emotional, instinctual) that work together to drive human behavior
  • We know that humans are innately social creatures who need safe attachment bonds
  • We know that undesirable experiences can send our pattern-matching brain into hyperalert and start to see threats where they don’t exist
  • We know that emotions and trauma are stored in the body, not the brain

But there’s an opportunity to learn from and even appreciate the early psychology titans. Their work is still referenced today because it helped get us closer to the truth. They didn’t have the benefit of the fMRI to peer into the human brain. All they had to go on was human behavior and imagination. Their work was flawed, but it is also impressive if we can remember they didn’t know what we know today.

Everything Seems to Go Back to Freud’s Interest in Trauma

It seems nearly impossible to look at modern psychology and not intersect with Freud. There’s a reason for that.

Freud (Austrian) initially was interested in abnormal human behavior, called neurosis back in the 1890’s and today called trauma. He found it fascinating, wanted to understand what was happening inside the person, and wanted to return them back to normal. 

The sexually abused cohort gave him a place to understand trauma, and he was confident there was something invisible driving their behavior. He used the psychology terms “conscious” and “unconscious” to make sense of the behaviors, and pursued ways to move repressed memories out of the “unconscious” to heal the mind. We know today that these traumatized people felt unsafe and detached, but Freud didn’t have Attachment Theory. So it makes sense that he focused on the sexual aspects of human development to better understand the sexually abused.

Freud observed a tendency for sexually abused people to abnormally protect themselves. He connected that heightened focus on self to the concepts of narcissism, which arose out of Greek mythology. The Greeks would have recognized that some humans had an excessive tendency towards self-absorption, and today we know this comes from the roughly 9% who have “success” at their core. Freud recognized that his patients were different, and even labeled their condition as “vulnerable narcissism”. Today, narcissism is a hot-button word, and that stems from Lasch’s 1970’s work that explored how US culture influenced people to unnaturally exhibit narcissistic tendencies. Lasch was doing the same thing as Freud...noticing self-absorbed behavior and seeking to understand it.

Adler’s Individual Psychology Reaches for a Holistic Understanding of the Human Mind

Adler (Austrian) was a student of Freud’s trauma work, but in the 1910’s shifted his focus away from the traumatized. While Freud was more focused on nurture (what happened to you) and extracting those repressed memories from the unconscious, Adler suspected that a person’s nature (their traits at birth) combined with nurture and thus were both important to explain a person.

His work includes some of the earliest references to the three-dimensional brain (logic, emotion, instinct), and he suspected this somehow drove a person’s desire to grow. A generation later, Maslow would pick up this theme. But first, we need to turn to Jung.

Jung’s Personality Traits Tries to Unify Freud and Adler

Jung (Swiss) was also interested in Freud’s work around the unconscious and how it influences human behavior, but like Adler he was more interested in all of humanity, not just the traumatized population. As he expanded the focus, Jung knew the unconscious mind (and humanity) was broader than only the sexual explanations of Freud. He tried to align both Freud’s trauma work and Adler’s holistic approach through his exploration of personality traits.

First and most important, Jung noticed that some people saw the world as fixed. The world is not fixed, but these people wanted it to be that way. Meanwhile, the rest of us saw the world as shapable because that’s what we wanted it to be, even though there are things about this world we cannot change.

Next, Jung noticed how some people gathered information by taking it at face value while the rest of us preferred to study a piece of information before accepting it.

Finally, Jung observed how some people made decisions based on feeling their way while the rest of us wanted to think our way into the decision. When he put these three traits together, he started to see patterns of human behavior that could be grouped into definable segments of people.

Jung was not interested in personality typing, but Meyers & Briggs would come along a generation later and turn Jung’s work into 16 personality types. Their MBTI model remains popular, even though it has inaccuracies that can hurt people.

Freud Explores WWI & Grief and Defines the Ego

Freud, Adler, and Jung initially were colleagues but turned into rivals. And that rivalry influenced each other’s work. So back to Freud.

As Adler and Jung were putting their ideas forward, WWI captured Freud’s attention. His focus remained on trauma, and the war gave him a new way to look at it. Not only did he study people affected by the war, but he also wanted to understand the behavior that drove people to be so destructive. This took him beyond individual psychology and into group psychology. Freud was breaking important psychology ground by exploring how group culture influences an individual.

To explain both the aggressors and the traumatized of WWI, Freud developed his most famous and enduring model: id, ego, superego. When we look at his creation in context of modern-day awareness and put it in context of his rivals, then everything starts to make sense. Freud labeled our natural intellectual diversity the id. This was his explanation of how birth-origin traits programmed to seek fulfillment drives our behavior. Freud labeled our cultural conscience the superego. This was his explanation of how what happens to us and around us shapes our behavior. And Freud labeled our efforts to create an individual reality the ego. This was his explanation of how a person shaped their sense of identity and found either peace or struggle. Freud was basically reaching for a model that would explain how a person was torn between their natural desires and the cultural pressures. Unfortunately, his work did not have the benefits of Bowlby’s attachment theory, so Freud leaned heavily on his roots, which were his sexual explanations for human development.

During this period, Freud explored what we today call “grief”. As he sought to understand the WWI population in context of the id-ego-superego, he needed something to explain the deep sense of loss he observed in people. This was different than the trauma he had initially explored in the sexually abused. He reconciled grief by looking at competing forces inside a person that he labeled the love instinct and death instinct.

Freud described the id’s love instinct as the fuel that drives growth. And yet the superego’s awareness of cultural realities would be working against the id. In essence, the id would eventually want things that the world says it cannot have. The world asks the id to be something it doesn’t want to be. Freud suspected this creates feelings of guilt and shame inside a person. Freud suggested the pressure would eventually shift the expansive love instinct to a protective death instinct that was aggressive and destructive. 

Using modern day awareness, we can see that Freud was speaking to the need for alignment between a person and their surroundings. When a person is not in a good position based on their natural traits, then the ego works harder to navigate the pressure. The harder the ego works, the more frustration the person will feel. When the ego sides with the superego and tells the id to adapt, then the person will unconsciously repress trauma into the body. When the ego sides with the id and tells the superego that it will not conform to societal expectations, then the person will consciously express aggression outward as a form of self-protection.

This is especially noteworthy for modern-day couples. When one person feels their "id" is being denied at the expense of the relationship, their "death instinct" will eventually lash out and destroy the relationship as a way to protect themselves.

Freud had the right idea but didn’t have our modern-day awareness.

Marston’s DISC Theory Explores Human Sexuality

Meanwhile in the 1920's, Marston (USA) was a very early advocate of feminism and sexual liberation. He wanted to start a conversation regarding normal (healthy) human sexual behavior. He observed healthy individual preferences towards dominance, inducement, submission, and compliance. A key difference between Marston and Freud was that he focused on adult behavior patterns whereas Freud was focused on human development based on a sexual model. Marston developed his DISC Theory to try and shift societal norms, but was largely rejected by an industry that didn't want to discuss taboo subjects.

Marston was not interested in personality typing, but Clarke picked up his work a generation later to explain workplace data that revealed patterns of aggressive, sociable, stable, and avoidant behavior. Clarke then used Marston’s original ideas to build the DISC personality assessment.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

A generation earlier, Adler had explored innate traits that seemed to fuel humans towards growth. Maslow (USA) picked up these themes in the 1950’s. His work was inspired by the horrors of WWII, which left him seeking a vision of peace and the idea of self-actualizing. He set out to understand human potential, and a growth-oriented consciousness was far more interesting to him than psychology’s fixation on what’s wrong with a person.

To help people reach their human potential, he outlined a hierarchy of needs, encouraging people to meet their personal needs first, then their social relational needs, and finally expand into self-actualization. Maslow pioneered a new positive approach to psychology that rippled across the profession and included a focus on the present (instead of the past or future), the inherent goodness of people, and a sense of personal responsibility. He observed a correlation between self-improvement and fulfillment. He said: “Freud gave us the sick half of psychology and now we must fill in the healthy half.”

Bowlby’s Attachment Theory

Bowlby’s (British) interest was primarily in child development, shaped by his own challenging childhood. His family was upper class, and as such he was raised by nannies and experienced several instances of separation from various caregivers during his childhood.

His professional life started during WWII, where he focused on children and the trauma they experienced during the war. His own stories of separation intersected with his patients. This guided him for the rest of his life to understand healthy child development. His career lasted long enough that he was able to analyze attachment difficulties from one generation to the next. He came to understand that attachment is a survival strategy for humans.

Bowlby theorized that a child’s environment shaped their development and attachment behavior, while others suggested the opposite: a child’s innate attachment style would shape how they would engage the world. Today, we know Bowlby had it backwards, and that natural attachment style shapes how we engage the world. However, Bowlby was instrumental at putting attachment theory on the map. He recognized deficiencies in Freud’s sexual explanations for human development, and nailed it when he replaced them with attachment theory.

Thanks to Bowlby's pioneering efforts, we now know that if a child doesn’t have safe, consistent attachment bonds throughout their childhood, then this will affect their ability to form these critical attachment bonds as an adult.  Humans are programmed to attach to their parents, then break those bonds when entering adulthood and form a new bond with a spouse. When all goes well, they repeated healthy attachment to their children and the necessary safety passes down from generation to generation.

Clifton's Strengths

Clifton (USA) advanced Adler and Maslow’s focus on what’s right with people. He left the psychology world in 1969 and entered the business world by helping companies use a strengths-based approach to hiring. Eventually, his company became known as Gallup, and they published the popular StrengthsFinders assessment in 1999 that ranks your top 5 “strengths” out of 34 themes.

This was a major break from the DISC and MBTI assessments that produced a behavioral personality profile. However, Clifton’s work isn’t measuring specific human traits. Instead, it is more of a skills-based view into people, in line with the numerous competency models developed by corporations to guide professional development.

Neuroscience Changes Everything

The fMRI came onto the scene in the early 1990’s and allowed us to see inside the brain like never before. Until the fMRI, psychologists had to guess about the WHY behind human behavior. We had to study people and animals and look for behavior patterns that would then hold up to further testing. Human behavior is as complex as the human brain, so psychology had it’s work cut out.

But with the fMRI, we could see a lot more than behavior. We could see what was happening inside a person’s brain under certain circumstances. What we saw was three processing centers. Logical thought happened in the frontal lobes called the Neocortex. Emotional drivers originated in the internal Limbic System. And instinctual behaviors came from basal ganglia. We’re still learning about the brain and it’s myriad of components, and will certainly be expanding our understanding of how the human brain works.

Goleman’s Emotional Intelligence

Goleman (USA) was a journalist, not a psychologist. But he was instrumental in disseminating the advancements from neuroscience to the public. His 1995 book captured the initial breakthroughs and catalogued numerous studies in a way that non-scientists could follow. His book brought forth the awareness that he labeled emotional intelligence.

In a nutshell, what neuroscience was discovering and what Goleman wrote about was the interplay between the logical mind (Neocortex) and emotional mind (Limbic System). Both systems are processing information and sending signals to the person. Both minds are telling the person to do something, and the person has to reconcile both voices in their head.

The Body Keeps The Score

Next, trauma specialists were rethinking trauma thanks to neuroscience. They now had an explanation for the repressed unconscious memories of Freud’s early work. It turns out the brain cannot hold this information, and instead shoves it down into the body. In a way, Freud's “unconscious mind” is actually in the body, not the head!

The body can hold some trauma and emotions, but as modern humans were increasingly overloaded, the body suffered. Trauma specialists were recognizing the connections between physical health and emotional health. Every year new psychosomatic modalities were put forth to remove trauma from the body. The most popular include EMDR and Breathwork, but there are so many more out there being explored today.

Emotional Safety

Johnson (British) was a practicing clinical psychologist and couples therapist. With the awareness of neuroscience, she picked up Bowlby’s attachment theory and flushed out the importance of emotional safety.

Her therapy experience serving couples inside an attachment bond uncovered that emotional safety lies at the heart of healthy attachment. Couples consider themselves emotionally safe when they can share how they feel with one another, talk through the difficulties with sensitivity to each other’s feelings, and know the other person is there for them.

While Bowlby gets credit for documenting attachment bonds, it is Johnson who emphatically stated the importance they play in adulthood. Specifically, she noted how adults break the parental bond and replace it with an adult partner bond. This aligns with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, which also emphasized the importance of relationship needs to self-actualization.

100+ Years of Psychology

Looking back, we can see how major themes connected.

  • Adler and Clifton brought us insights into normal human behavior. They sought to give us glimpses into the power of the human mind.
  • Jung and Marston brought us insights into personality. Their work was shaped by later generations into the popular MTBI and DISC behavioral personality models.
  • Maslow, Bowlby, and Johnson brought us insights into the importance of relationships for individuals to feel safe enough to invest in themselves.
  • Freud was the pioneer of trauma and understanding why abnormal human behavior emerged. Much of the psychology field has been advancing his work, and we now know a lot about how the mind’s pattern-matching design can be hijacked by unpleasant memories that are shoved down into the body.