Study Notes

Wundt’s Contribution to Psychology

AS, A Level
AQA, Edexcel, OCR, IB

Last updated 22 Mar 2021

In this study note we consider the origins of psychology and outline the contribution of Wundt - generally considered the father of experimental psychology.

The origins of psychology

Although the term psychology meaning “study of the soul” had been in use since the 16th century, its modern use arose in the 19th century when philosophers, physiologists and physicians applied the scientific method to studying the mind.

The key step in this was the acceptance that conscious mental life was linked to biological processes in the body - a consequence of Darwin’s theory of evolution.

This implied that the same methods used in the natural sciences could be used to study mental phenomena.

By the end of the 19th century:

  • Psychology acquired a new definition: “the science of mental life, both of its phenomena and their conditions” (James, 1890)
  • Introspection was developed to expose the mind to scientific research
  • The first experimental psychology laboratories began to appear in universities


Wilhelm Wundt (1832-1920) is generally considered the father of experimental psychology.

After studying medicine, he worked as a physiologist at Heidelberg University and later at Leipzig University. While at Heidelberg, he delivered the first university course on scientific psychology and went on to write the first textbook on psychology, “Principles of Physiological Psychology” (Wundt, 1873-4). In 1879, at Leipzig University, he set up the first laboratory dedicated to experimental psychology.

In doing so, he separated psychology from philosophy and biology and became the first person to be called a psychologist.

Wundt’s approach became known as structuralism because he used experimental methods to find the basic building blocks (structures) of thought and investigate how they interacted. To do this, he studied sensation and perception, breaking participants’ observations of objects, images and events down into constituent parts in the same way that an anatomist would study a body trying to find its constituent parts and how they interact.

At first he did this by studying reaction time - systematically changing the stimuli he presented to participants and measuring how long it took them to respond - inferring that the longer it took to respond, the more mental processes must be involved.

Later, he adapted and developed a process called introspection to infer more about the nature of the processes involved.

Wundts contribution to Psychology:

  • Wrote first textbook of psychology (Principles of Physiological Psychology, 1873-4)
  • Set up first laboratory of experimental psychology (1879)
  • Used the scientific method to study the structure of sensation and perception
  • Showed that introspection could be used to study mental states in replicable laboratory experiments.

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