Last Updated 17 Jun 2020

Critically assess the contribution of a Wilhelm Wundt to the development of experimental psychology

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Wilhelm Wundt (1832-1920) was born in a village called Neckarau, situated in Baden. In 1858, Wundt became Helmholtz assistant and took an interest into creating experimental psychology (cited in: Robinson and Rieber, 2001). In 1861, Wundt conducted an experiment to test how his attention was affected during the time a pendulum swung and a bell was rung. He found that his attention was separate for the sound of the bell and where the pendulum swung. He concluded that people are unable to focus on two thoughts at the same time and can only concentrate on one thought at a time, taking roughly 0.1 seconds to change from each thought (cited in: Hergenhahn, 2009)

In 1862, he published a book called contributions toward a theory of sense perception. This book focused heavily on Wundt explaining there was a gap for experimental psychology and therefore he focused on the creation of experimental psychology (Henley and Thorne, 2004). In 1879, Wundt developed experimental psychology and many topics based on this new psychology. He also opened the first experimental psychology laboratory in Leipzig.

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Wundt recognised experimental psychology as a science. His two goals for experimental psychology were; to explore how the law joined complex mental experiences with mental elements and to explore the various aspects of thought (cited in: Hergenhahn, 2009). His laboratory were based on three areas, these were; ‘mental chronometry’, ‘time sense’ studies and psychophysics (Pickren and Rutherford, 2010). Some experiments were based on; attention, reaction times, feelings, sensations and perceptions (Freedheim, 2003).

Wundt used introspection as a technique for gathering data. However, he did not use this technique in the same way as others such as; Descartes (1637). He adopted an experimental introspection that enabled him to gather more accurate data for internal perception. Though, he did believe that introspection could only be used for the fundamental processes of mind and not the complex mental processes (Hergenhahn, 2009).

Wundt split consciousness into feelings and sensations. From using his own internal perception by using a metronome (a time keeper for music), he proposed the tri-dimensional theory of feeling .The three dimensions were; pleasantness-unpleasantness, excitement-calm and strain-relaxation (Sharma and Sharma, 2006).

Wundt described attention as the sensory impression (apperception). He believed apperception was directed by the individual, whereas perception was involuntary. He suggested that an individual could control their attention, he called this voluntarism. He proposed that an individual could reorganize and organize these aspects of attention using their control; he named this creative synthesis (Hergenhahn, 2009).

Cattell (1883) Wundt’s first student conducted an experiment based on apperception and found that apperception took place during individual letters rather than whole words for unknown words in a recall experiment (Henley and Thorne, 2004). Another one of Wundt student’s Kraepelin (1856-1926) conducted an experiment based on schizophrenia patients and the attention theory. He found that people that suffer from schizophrenia struggled with the basic control process and have severe attention focusing (Henley and Thorne, 2004).

Wundt altered the Helmholtz and Donders method of mental chronometry, this in turn created reaction time studies. Reaction time studies allowed him to identify the time it took to respond to sensory stimulus (Bechtel and Graham, 1999). Wundt used the subtraction method when carrying out his reaction time studies; this method was based on Donders experiment. Cattell (1883) carried out an experiment based on letters and words that required the participants to name the words vocally. The findings suggested that the participants took roughly the same time to name both stimulus (the words and letters). He believed that people generally recognised words as a whole rather than letters separately (Henley and Thorne, 2004).

During the 1900 and 1920’s Wundt published ‘Volkerpsychologie’ (ten volumes), it was also known as social psychology. He believed that experimental techniques were good at investigating basic processes such as; perception and sensation. However, the technique was not as useful for high mental processes such as; problem-solving. He proposed that high mental processes could be investigated by ‘Volkerpsychologie’ and language; this was one of the volumes (Sheehy, 2004).

The positive aspects of Wundt’s contribution to experimental psychology were; he was the first to open the first experimental psychology laboratory in Leipzig this enabled others to gain an insight into experimental psychology. He also recognized psychology as a science. He also proposed many theories that set the foundations for many others to build on, such as; Cattell, Scripture (1864-1945) and Titchener (Henley and Thorne, 2004).

Although Wundt proposed some great contributions to experimental psychology, he was criticised for some of them. Some criticisms involved the ‘Volkerpsychologie’ as many people such as; Jahoda (1997) struggled to understand the ten volumes as the majority of it was not translated and as a result of this some of Wundt’s ideas were misinterpreted. Also many of the studies Wundt used were viewed as outdated or old-fashion (Henley and Thorne, 2004). Critics also believed that there was no solid evidence proposing that sensations and feelings existed like an object (Singh, 1991).

Critics also believed that Wundt didn’t put a lot of effort into making his experimental work more accurate. (Robinson and Rieber, 2001). Titchener, one of Wundt’s students criticised Wundt’s methodology as he felt Wundt confused others by mixing introspective psychology and experimental psychology (Nitta and Tatematsu, 1979). Critics also found that the introspection method seemed to obtain different results each time this method was used in different laboratories. Boring (1953) found that many results obtained from various different laboratories using introspection all had different results. This shows that in some ways introspection can be unreliable (Singh, 1991). Another criticism was people felt that some studies were unable to obtain results using the method of introspection. For example; unconscious influences would not be able to use introspection (Singh, 1991).

Wundt’s contribution to experimental psychology was very significant as he was viewed as the ‘father of experimental psychology’ (Singh, 1991). He introduced psychology as a science and set the foundations for experimental psychology. This enabled others to build on his foundations and introduce new theories such as; Edward Titchener. However, many people including some of his students have criticised some of his contributions for a number of reasons.


Bechtel, W., & Graham, G. (1999). A companion to cognitive science. USA: Blackwell Publishing.

Freedheim, D. (2003). Handbook of psychology: Volume 1 history of psychology. New Jersey: John Wiley and Sons.

Henley, T.B. & Thorne, B.M. (2004). Connections in the history and systems of psychology. (3rd edition).Boston: Houghton-Mifflin Company.

Hergenhahn, B. R. (2009). An introduction to the history of psychology. (6th edition). USA: Cengage Learning.

Nitta, Y., & Tatematsu, H. (1979). Analecta Husserliana: The yearbook of phenomenological research. Holland: D. Reidel publishing company.

Pickren, W. E., & Rutherford, A. (2010). A history of modern psychology in context. New Jersey: John Wiley and Sons.

Robinson, D. K., & Rieber, R. W. (2001). PATH in psychology: Wilhelm Wundt in history: the making of a scientific psychology. New York: Plenum Publishers.

Sharma, R. N., & Sharma, R. (2006). Experimental psychology. New Delhi: Atlantic Publishers & Distributors.

Sheehy, N. (2004). Fifty key thinkers in psychology. Oxon: Routledge.

Singh, A. K. (1991). The comprehensive history of psychology. (2nd edition).Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publisher.

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