A Little History of Psychology – 50 Years in 50 Books

In A Little History of Psychology, leading expert Nicky Hayes tells the story of psychology across the centuries and around the world. Due to be published in April 2024 as part of Yale’s Little Histories series, Nicky Hayes’s book is a rich and engaging guide to psychology, the science devoted to understanding human nature.

In this blogpost, part of the 50 Years in 50 Books series for our 50th Anniversary, Nicky Hayes shares why writing A Little History of Psychology has been her favourite project yet.

Article by Nicky Hayes

Writing this book has been a fascinating and enjoyable project. I first began studying psychology fifty years ago. At the time, it was a very different discipline – more limited, in many ways, but still offering some very real insights into everyday understanding. But during the past fifty years, there have been so many changes that psychology now would be almost unrecognisable to a psychologist limited to the discipline of that time. This book has allowed me to reflect on those changes, and to tease out those which I believe to have left a lasting impact, both on psychology and in society in general.

It’s also allowed me to delve a bit deeper into psychology’s past. Like most students of my generation, I had an outline of psychology’s history – psychology as a separate subject was only about a century old at that time – but writing the book meant I found out a lot more about the details: the people, the issues, and the debates involved – and it clarified how, right from the start psychology was never a single, unitary discipline. Different perspectives intermingled and developed side by side.

Phineas Gage

From its beginning, too, psychology was international. Wundt’s first psychological laboratory in Leipzig was visited by interested scholars from across Europe, from America, and even from China and Japan, and the same went for William James’ initiatives in the US. In the modern age, it’s easy for us to underestimate how much international interaction there was in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Information travelled more slowly, of course, but travel it did, and ideas were freely shared. It wasn’t until the great World Wars that travel restrictions appeared: passports were introduced after WWI, and international travel was considerably curtailed during and after WWII. But even so, academics continued to exchange ideas, to visit one another’s universities, and to discuss new concepts.

Inevitably, as a British psychologist, I approach psychology’s history from an Anglo-European perspective. Much of mainstream psychology in Britain drew from American research, so the larger part of the book reflects the psychological perspectives which emerged in Western societies: in America, Britain and Europe. But my own personal interests have always strayed far beyond those boundaries: back in the early 1980s I took a master’s degree in education which allowed me to explore educational initiatives and practices in India and Africa as well as in Eastern and Western Europe (as it was then). Those insights and my wider reading expanded my awareness of the international aspects of psychology as well as education. So I have tried to incorporate global perspectives in the book – how successfully I have managed it, others will judge.

Those interests also expanded my awareness of the ideological underpinnings of theory, which has become an expanding area of interest in psychology in recent years. Even in the West, though, psychology has never adopted one single perspective. Different frameworks, different ideas, and very different epistemologies have all combined to form the psychology we know today; and there is no time in psychology’s history when it adopted a single unitary approach. Psychology has its origins in philosophy, in medicine, in physics, in evolutionary biology, and in what we now call psychotherapy; and that combination of very different disciplines has meant that psychological knowledge never provides just one single picture. But as psychologists, we regard that as a strength, not a weakness. People themselves are not simple: the human being is probably the most adaptable animal that has ever lived on the planet (I discount microbes), and human cultures are multidimensional. Our abilities, assumptions and concerns vary at individual, social and societal levels, and even after a century and a half, we have yet to plumb the depth and abilities of the human mind. So for a subject which is all about trying to understand the human mind it would be unrealistically simplistic to claim that any single approach could be sufficient. One of the “rites of passage” for a student studying psychology is getting to grips with the way that there are no straightforward answers: no objective truth, just an awareness of several different possible truths when it comes to human interaction. Students often find this hard to deal with at first, but as they settle into the discipline, they come to accept these insights at a level which makes it hard for them to remember that they ever thought differently.

I think that of all the books I have written I enjoyed writing this book more than any other. In many ways, it is a culmination of my career in communicating psychology – something I have been doing for the past forty years. What has driven me to do this?  Like many others of my generation, I sort of “fell into” psychology, but when I attended my first lecture at University I was fascinated. And have continued to be so ever since. I began writing about psychology some ten years later, and my books have allowed me to keep up to date with changes in the discipline – effectively, to remain a perpetual student but without the exams!

Pavlov and his dog

But what really inspired my belief in the need to communicate psychology was taking up a job as a residential social worker after my degree – and finding just how much difference even an elementary knowledge of psychology could make in everyday living! Psychology in those days was a very different and much narrower discipline than it is now, but even the simplest knowledge of learning theory showed why it just wasn’t a good idea to punish a five-year-old with “early bed” when it misbehaved at breakfast time. The child had totally forgotten any misdemeanours when the (different) member of staff came to call it in from whatever game it was playing, so the punishment was totally ineffective and just generated unnecessary stress all around. After a few years I moved into teaching A Level psychology, mainly in evening classes with adult students, which I enjoyed very much. Most chose psychology because they hadn’t done it at school, and therefore hadn’t failed or had teachers telling them they were too stupid to understand it. That work allowed me to help those students to build their confidence in their abilities, as well as letting me communicate psychology’s valuable concepts.  

I wrote my first textbook after my first year of teaching, as a resource for my students – and was amazed to discover that I had a talent for communicating psychological ideas in writing, as well as verbally. My very dear friend Pyrrol McKone, sadly no longer with us, typed the manuscript for me (no word processors in those days, and my own typing, though fast, was far from accurate). She encouraged me to persist despite the rejection letters from over 50 publishers, who insisted that there was “no market” for elementary psychology, until one brave editor eventually decided to put a toe in the water. The book called, appropriately enough, “A First Course in Psychology” was published in 1984, and became instantly popular – mainly because of its straightforward language. Since then I’ve been writing about psychology in various ways – in textbooks, both specialist and general; in academic research-based papers and books, and in books designed for the general public. A number of those books have gone into several editions, and keeping them up to date has kept me up to the mark as well. Writing “A Little History of Psychology” has allowed me to bring together how the various changes have emerged, and also how our whole focus of understanding has shifted over time.

So much has changed. Psychology has broadened out, acquired more relevance in areas of everyday life and understanding. New areas have opened up, and older areas have been revived and made relevant to the modern world.  Also, and importantly, we have finally shed that obsession with finding a universal theory which so dominated the first half of the twentieth century, from Watson to Piaget. Oh, and Freud too. We have come to accept pluralism, in recognition of the complexity of people’s individual natures. So we can use insights from behavioural learning theory, from Gestalt psychology, from ethology, cognitive and social psychology and from psychotherapy without feeling that they need to be forced into a single “one-size-fits-all” explanation.

The Four Humours

Society has changed too, in that time. Even finding information is a very different process now. I remember days spent in the University library, hunting through the massive books which indexed citations of papers, or searching for one particular paper among rows of bound volumes of journals. I remember the sense of deep satisfaction when I followed up a reference and found the exact paper I was looking for: I don’t think it ever really died away. And I recall one very famous academic who regularly cited his own work giving the page numbers of the adjacent article in the journal. It was his way of finding out whether people citing it had actually read the original. If you had really looked for his paper you would have found it because it was on the next, or previous, pages. So you’d give the correct reference in your own citation. But if you hadn’t actually read the paper and just copied his citation, it showed.

That sort of thing isn’t possible now, of course, as electronic access leads us directly to specific articles, and it’s made academic research a lot more thorough. I think we lost something, though, by no longer leafing physically through unfamiliar journals. So often you would find yourself reading research papers you didn’t know about. But we gained in other ways: the information we can access nowadays is much more extensive, and search engines have made sure that we can find relevant research easily. That was a different time, when academic research took longer and the academic world in general was smaller. But still, it was huge, and growing rapidly. People talked about the “information explosion”, and it was very real. I don’t believe those old systems could deal with the amount of information available to us now. So much for reminiscence. The world is different now, and psychology has changed with it. The simplistic theories of the modernist era gave way to the growing complexity of post-modernism; wars extended psychological knowledge into new areas, including communication and propaganda, cognitive processing, and of course trauma and PTSD; the consumer society focused attention on the individual and the self.  Psychology developed new areas: some survived as interest in them grew, like positive psychology; others fell by the wayside as their popularity declined, like catastrophe theory – fashionable in the 80s but not proving to be of much interest to psychologists in the long run. It’s only by looking back that we can really see things in perspective, and that’s why I have found writing this book so fascinating.

About the Author:

Nicky Hayes has been involved in psychology for 50 years and is the author of over 25 celebrated books, including What Are You Thinking?Your Brain and You, and Fundamentals of Social Psychology. She is currently the president of the British Psychological Society.

About the book:

A Little History of Psychology
Nicky Hayes

A rich and engaging guide to psychology, the science devoted to understanding human nature. In this fascinating history, leading expert Nicky Hayes tells the story of psychology across the centuries and around the world. Hayes introduces key thinkers, including Carl Jung, Anna Freud, Frantz Fanon, and Daniel Kahneman.
This Little History shines a light on the ever-advancing study of psychology, how the field has evolved over time—and how much more we need to learn.

Find out more

Further reading:

Yale University Press is celebrating 50 years of publishing in London. To celebrate, we have selected 50 important Yale London books from our past, present and future to tell the story of our publishing through a series of articles and extracts.

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