Freud Or Wundt: Who Is The Father Of Psychology? (And Why It Matters)

Medically reviewed by Andrea Brant, LMHC
Updated April 29, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

If you look up the founders of the field of psychology, you’ll probably come across some well-known names, like Ivan Skinner, known for using positive and negative reinforcement, or Carl Rogers, who’s one of the founders of humanistic psychology. There’s also William James, the founder of American psychology at Harvard University. You might read about Kurt Lewin, the founder of social psychology. There’s also Carl Jung, Ivan Pavlov, Edward Thorndike, and more. However, two names, Sigmund Freud and Wilhelm Wundt, tend to come up the most. Many scholars have contributed to the field of human psychology over the last 150 years, but these two are largely considered two of the most important figures in the birth of psychology as a field. Freud tends to be more well known to the public, but Wundt made some foundational contributions to the scientific psychology field. Below, we’ll explore the contributions of these two researchers and why one is typically considered the father of psychology.

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There are many theories of psychology

Sigmund Freud

Sigmund Freud is well-known for his contributions to human physiology and for developing theories about the human mind and its functioning and founded psychoanalytical treatment for psychological problems based on those theories. He devoted his life to learning, helping patients, and developing theories to further the understanding of the human psyche. 

Freud tended to take copious notes during his sessions with clients, and his observations were mostly his interpretations of one person’s problems at a time. Freud’s theory of the mind and the problems his patients experienced was heavily based on the idea of unconscious motivations or thoughts and stimuli outside the awareness of the person.

While Freud was influential in psychology, he had no means of studying and quantifying the mind or his theories by the scientific method. Since modern psychology is a scientific field, it might be more accurate to look at Wilhelm Wundt as the father of modern psychology. 

Wilhelm Wundt: Father of experimental psychology

From the beginning of his work in the field of cognitive psychology, German professor Wilhelm Wundt approached the study of the mind from a scientific perspective. Wundt’s work would earn him the title as the “father of experimental psychology.

Before Wilhelm Wundt, there was no science known as psychology. People who studied the mind did so by learning about biology and philosophy. Wundt also started with these two subject areas, but he melded these basic elements together to create a separate science of psychology that was more complete than the sum of its parts. Consequently, Wilhelm Wundt founded psychology and was the first person to label himself a psychologist in order to study psychology professionally. He can be considered the beginning in the history of psychology as we know it today.

First experimental psychology lab

In Wilhelm Wundt’s time, there were two experimental psychology laboratories for psychological research, with his lab in Leipzig being the very first psychology laboratory. It was there, in his psychology laboratory, that Wundt and his students carried out experiments to find out how trained observers responded to different stimuli. With Wundt’s new psychological laboratory came the need to develop new techniques for research. There were many techniques already in existence that had been used in other science fields. However, Wundt needed techniques that would help him discover things that physical tests couldn’t always reveal. 

In Wundt's psychology studies and experimental research, he outlined the difference between introspection and internal perception. Wundt believed that introspection psychology wasn’t accurate enough to rely on for scientific experiments. Instead, he preferred internal perception, which trained observers practiced in his research laboratory by reporting significant responses to stimuli.

Publications and psychological journals

Wundt’s book Principles of Physiological Psychology, published in 1874, detailed the psychological experimentation techniques he’d developed for psychology experiments and research at that time. Wundt also established the first psychology journal, titled Philosophical Studies, which reported on experimental psychology findings as well as general concepts of psychology. He also led many lectures on varying topics, ranging from animal psychology to the history of philosophy. 

Contributions of Wundt’s students

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Wilhelm Wundt didn’t start a specific field of psychology—at least, he didn’t give a name to any school of thought or write any works devoted to one school of thought or psychological principles. What he did do, though, was approach psychology, mental processes, and cognitive development in a unique way. By doing so, he laid the foundation for a school of thought that a student, Edward B. Titchener, would later find and call Structuralism.

The psychology of Structuralism involves breaking down the human mind's processes to study them separately. Structuralism was also devoted to studying the overall mind structure and how each individual part worked together to form a conscious thought.

Even if none of Wilhelm Wundt’s students had ever done anything significant in the new field of psychology, Wundt’s contributions to establishing psychology as a field would have been enough to earn him the title as the father of modern psychology. However, that wasn’t the case. His students became significant contributors in their own right. These included:

  • Edward Titchener: founder of structuralism
  • James McKeen Cattell: the first person with the title “professor of psychology” in the United States
  • Charles Spearman: early theorist on various psychological subjects, including statistics, intelligence, and factor analysis
  • Stanley Hall: first American to earn a Ph.D. in psychology and first president of the American Psychological Association
  • Charles Hubbard Judd: founder of educational psychology
  • Hugo Munsterberg: an early pioneer of applied psychology in clinical practice, industrial organizations, and forensics

Wundt differed from Sigmund Freud in many respects. Wundt believed psychology should study only conscious thought. Wundt’s students tended to agree with this approach. Munsterberg and other students that Wundt worked with went so far as to say the unconscious didn’t exist—a clear departure from Freud’s emphasis on the unconscious.

The influence that Wundt had is felt to this day. He trained a number of students who founded experimental psychology programs of their own. This is in stark contrast to his contemporary William James, who was also breaking ground with contributions to the field but never engaged in experimental research or graduate teaching.

Wundt’s contributions to psychology: A summary

Known as the father of psychology, German psychologist Wilhelm Wundt accomplished much in the field of psychology and made several novel contributions.

  • He established psychology as a field separate from biology and philosophy.
  • He named the new field “psychology” and its practitioners “psychologists.”
  • He founded the first psychology research lab.
  • He devised some of the earliest techniques for studying psychology in a lab setting.

Wundt also made contributions that weren’t necessarily unique to psychology but helped establish him as an important force in this new field. These included:

  • Writing a scholarly book on his methods and findings
  • Founding a psychology journal
  • Teaching students who went on to impact psychology significantly, including Stanley Hall and James McKeen Cattell

Psychology and its use in therapy today

Wilhelm Wundt helped us see the study of psychology as a scientific discipline. Since his time, the field of psychology has evolved significantly and contributed to the growth of therapy as a way to help people navigate mental health challenges. Experimental psychology, or sometimes known as scientific psychology, has been used to develop specific therapeutic strategies that provide proven results.

If you’re considering talking to a therapist about your own challenges, many options are available to you. Some people may be hesitant to reach out to a mental health professional because they’re afraid they’ll be unable to find someone with a compatible approach. But whether you’re looking for positive or negative reinforcement, CBT, or something else, with online therapy at BetterHelp, you can be matched with one of thousands of licensed counselors from around the country. If you discover your therapist isn’t the best fit, you can change therapists until you find a good match. 

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There are many theories of psychology

Online therapy

Research has shown that online platforms are helpful for matching people seeking help with qualified psychologists. In a report detailing the relationship between psychology and the internet, the flexibility of online therapy was considered a primary benefit. The report lists the variety of ways internet-based tools can be used to provide therapy treatments: email, messaging, video calls, etc. According to the authors, this flexibility is highly advantageous, as it increases availability for those who might not seek out treatment through traditional in-office therapy. Additionally, they note that participants perceive online therapy as a more discreet method of treatment.

Online therapy can be effective for working through a diverse array of mental health concerns. The licensed therapists at BetterHelp offer online counseling when and where you choose to have it, and you can make scheduling changes easily through the BetterHelp app. Among the more than 25,000 therapists at BetterHelp, you can be matched with one who suits your views, your situation, and your concerns in a way that resonates with you. 

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The fields of applied psychology and counseling have grown considerably over the last 150 years. The science that drives these fields has produced methods and techniques that have been proven through scholarly research. If you’re experiencing stress, anxiety, or other challenges related to mental health, you may benefit from talking to a licensed therapist with training in these methods. To learn more about psychology and how it can improve your mental health, reach out to BetterHelp today.
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