3 1.3. The good, bad, and ugly aspects of the history of US Psychology

Jill Grose-Fifer

Modern-day Western psychology has its roots in philosophy, medicine, theology, and the natural sciences. However, Western historians often fail to acknowledge that psychology has actually been “studied and practiced” around the world in different ways for centuries. Egyptian, Greek, Roman, Indian, Hebrew, Tibetan, and Chinese texts show us how ancient civilizations across the globe theorized about the mind and behavior. Many texts claim that Freud was the “father of psychoanalysis”, but we know that ancient Egyptians interpreted dreams and practiced hypnotherapy to relieve psychological distress more than two thousand years before Freud was born. Similarly, indigenous and folk practices to ensure physical, mental, and spiritual well-being have passed from generation to generation via word of mouth and through hands-on teaching in many cultures. However, psychology as an academic discipline—a subject studied in a college or university—is relatively new.

European (especially German) psychologists dominated the academic discipline of psychology when it emerged during the 19th century. In 1879, Wilhelm Wundt established the first “modern” psychology research lab in Leipzig, Germany. Wundt was particularly influential because he trained nearly 200 students in psychology; most were from Germany and other European countries, but a few (like Stanley Hall and Edward Titchener) worked in the United States after studying with Wundt (Walsh et al., 2014). White men dominated both in society and in psychology at this time; among Wundt’s many doctoral students, only one, Anna Berliner, was a woman!

Wundt focused on understanding the structure of mental processes by breaking them down into small components, thus, creating the school of structuralism in psychology. Wundt tried to use the scientific method to study basic psychological functions, like vision, and so was one of the first experimental psychologists in the West. Wundt trained his graduate students to be participants in his studies. He asked them to introspect (look inside themselves) to describe their experiences of a stimulus (e.g., a ticking clock). Wundt’s students also went on to train many other influential psychologists. Wundt was influenced by two earlier scientists, Gustav Fechner (a physicist) and Ernst Weber (a physiologist), who established the field of psychophysics. Psychophysical experiments investigate how changing the physical properties of a stimulus (like the brightness of a light) affected people’s perception. Psychophysics is very important in the field of Sensation and Perception, which focuses on understanding how our five senses work. However, it was probably King Psamtik I of Egypt in the 7th century BCE, who conducted one of the first known psychology experiments. Psamtik believed that everyone’s natural language was Egyptian, so to test his hypothesis, he arranged for two newborn babies to be taken from their mother and raised without hearing anyone speak. This cruel study did not support his prediction. The children’s first words were not Egyptian. In fact they only ever babbled in meaningless sounds, which is not surprising given we now know that children need to hear language in order to speak actual words.

Wundt also formally established the field of cultural psychology—since he believed that complex psychological functions like language, traditions, and beliefs needed to be studied within the context of culture. Despite this, critics of Wundt’s cultural work suggest that it is highly ethnocentric, in other words, Wundt was unaware that his own worldview dominated his theories, he apparently believed that his own culture and beliefs were the norm (Walsh et al., 2014). This problem has plagued mainstream psychology for decades.

Early psychologists, both in Europe and in the United States, focused on the study of the mind, rather than behavior. William James taught the first psychology course in the USA in 1875 at Harvard; he taught students about experimental psychology focusing predominantly on sensation and perception. James also found the phenomena of consciousness and metaphysics intriguing, and he acknowledged they were difficult to study within the constraints of the scientific method. His thoughts and theories were published in a very influential two-volume book on psychology in 1890, and helped to establish the school of functionalism. Functionalist psychologists focused on understanding the meaning (or function) of people’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, and how they helped a person to adapt to their environment. One of William James’s doctoral students, G. Stanley Hall (who had studied briefly in Germany with Wundt), was the first person in the US to receive a PhD in psychology from Harvard. Hall set up the first psychology research lab in the United States in 1892 at Johns Hopkins University and was a strong proponent of using the scientific method. In contrast, in 1895, Sigmund Freud (an Austrian neurologist) wrote an influential text about using psychoanalysis for the treatment of mental illness. Psychoanalytic theory relates mental health problems to unconscious thoughts (of which people are unaware) and their early childhood experiences. This was a popular perspective in clinical psychology for several decades (Thorne & Henley, 2005).

In the 20th century, the United States expanded its economic power and became the largest producer of psychological research in the world. Mainstream psychologists in the USA believed that psychology needed to be more objective for it to become a “serious discipline”, and so embraced a reductionist approach focusing on using the scientific method. They largely redefined psychology as Behaviorism–“the scientific study of observable behavior”. Their philosophy stemmed from Russian physiologist’s Ivan Pavlov’s work on learning in animals. Leading behaviorists in the USA, like John Watson and BF Skinner believed that children (and animals) were “blank slates” who could be taught almost anything through a program of rewards and punishments. In contrast, most of European psychology took a different direction during this time. In Europe, psychoanalytical theory continued to be popular and other psychological perspectives emerged. During the 1920s, Lev Vygotsky, a highly influential developmental psychologist in Russia, studied development in children using a new sociocultural framework. This framework hinged on cultural-historical influences on the biological roots of the mind and behavior. In particular, Vygotsky stressed that learning strongly depended on the environment, especially social interactions among peers. He also warned against studying psychology in an overly simplistic way, urging psychologists to consider behavior and the mind as systems, rather than reducing them to individual functions. Somewhat similarly, in the 1940s, Russian-American psychologist, Urie Bronfenbrenner, also emphasized the importance of societal influences, social interactions, and environment on child development.

With the advance of computers and the advent of new technologies to study the brain, US psychologists in the 1960s finally turned their attention again to study the mind. Cognitive psychology, linguistics, and cognitive neuroscience became popular areas of study and this turning point became known as the cognitive revolution, championed in part by psychologists, such as Noam Chomsky. German Gestalt psychologists, such as Wertheimer, Koffka, and Köhler, who immigrated to the United States in the 1930s to escape persecution in Nazi Germany, also contributed to this renewed study of the mind-brain connection. Gestalt psychologists believed that structuralism oversimplified the study of the mind. In contrast, Gestalt psychologists emphasize that the brain interprets information received from the senses in a holistic way, rather than simply adding together the bits of information it receives. For example, if we focus on structure – we could describe a jigsaw puzzle as being composed of multiple different shaped pieces, but our general perception (also known as the gestalt) is the overall “big picture” that we see when the puzzle is completed, such as an animal, or a landscape. Other US critics of behaviorism, like Abraham Maslow and Carl Rogers formed a new school of thought in Psychology in the 1960s, known as Humanism. Humanists emphasized human potential and the capacity to change, with a focus on the “good” in human behavior and often used qualitative methods (rather than the scientific method) in their studies.

Psychology and Eugenics

During the 20th century, Western Psychology placed an emphasis on empirical or experimental psychology. Theories based on studies of participants from Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich Democracies, swept through the world’s universities and became the hegemonic norm, with little regard for individual differences among people. During this time, White upper class men dominated Western Psychology, and members of the discipline often espoused sexist, racist, and homophobic views about humans, condoning the oppression of women and non-White people, as well as other groups traditionally pushed to the margins of society. During the first half of the 20th century, many Western psychologists embraced evolutionary theories promoted by two British scientists, Charles Darwin and Francis Galton. Darwin and Galton believed that genes determined certain traits, such as intelligence, and that environment had little influence on their development. Galton went on to create the very ugly field of Eugenicspromoting the idea that people with “superior” genes should be encouraged to reproduce, while advocating for the sterilization of others with inferior genes. Others in this context, referred to people of color, people with mental illness, and people in poverty.

The eugenics movement, championed by highly influential people (including American President, Theodore Roosevelt), spread like a virus  throughout the world. It was taught in schools and colleges. Notably, between 1842 and 1947, 31 presidents of the American Psychological Association were members of eugenics movements. For decades, US and UK psychologists including Terman, Yerkes, Spearman (among many others), actively promoted the idea that non-Whites, Jews, and Eastern and Southern European immigrants were intellectually inferior to Whites. Similarly, eugenicists expected women of all races and ethnicities to engage in traditional gender roles, such as housework and child rearing, because they believed that women lacked the capacity for more intellectual pursuits. Chapter 8’s section on Intelligence delves deeper into these issues.

The research that was conducted by eugenicist psychologists was used to advocate for, and justify social and economic inequalities in the USA, the UK, and the countries they colonized. In the USA, eugenics contributed to the ban on interracial marriages, racial segregation, and increased wealth and resources for Whites. The government passed laws that restricted who could immigrate to the USA, dramatically limiting the admittance of Jews, Eastern and Southern Europeans, and people who were mentally ill. From 1907 to 1932, 30 states in the USA passed laws allowing forced sterilization of people deemed to be “defective” in some way. In many states, this included people living in institutions for the mentally ill, those accused of crimes, and those with disabilities or chronic illnesses, such as epilepsy. By 1944, 40,000 people were subjected to eugenic sterilizations across these 30 US states. Poor Black women and those born in foreign countries were the most likely targets. During the pre-Nazi period, Adolf Hitler and German eugenicists publicly admired the USA for its success in perpetuating white superiority, and its immigration and sterilization laws, which they used as models for their own laws. Germany took eugenics to even greater extremes by mandating the murders of young children with physical or mental disabilities. Eugenics was also the basis for the persecution and mass murders of six million Jews in Nazi Germany during the holocaust. Subsequently, eugenics lost much of its popularity. Over time, psychologists and scientists from other fields discredited the field of eugenics by conclusively demonstrating that it has no scientific basis. DNA studies show us that there is no genetic basis to race, and that the environment strongly influences intelligence and psychological functioning. However, despite public outcry against the inhumanity of the holocaust in Nazi Germany, the USA still carried out about 22,000 forced sterilizations across 27 states between 1943 and 1963. It was not until the 60s and 70s, that USA sterilization laws were largely repealed (Sofair and Kaldjian, 2000; Miller, 2020).

Psychology and Social Justice

The biases of the White Christian men who dominated the early years of psychology in the USA barred other groups from becoming psychologists. Women could not apply to most graduate psychology programs and those who earned a PhD had difficulty securing an academic job. Even by 1970, women accounted for only 20% of psychology PhDs. Similarly, in the 1940s, there were only four Black colleges offering psychology majors and Black students at predominantly White institutions faced exclusion and racism at every step of their studies. Jews were also generally unwelcome in the field of psychology. In the 1920s, Harvard, Yale, and Princeton all had tight quotas to restrict the entry of Jews into their psychology programs. Similarly, psychologists with “Jewish-sounding” names (regardless of faith) were frequently unsuccessful in securing academic positions until they changed their names. Harry Harlow, a well-known psychologist who studied attachment was a protestant, but he changed his name from Harry Israel because he was concerned that people would assume he was Jewish and would discriminate against him.

Very gradually, however, women and members of other marginalized groups began to make inroads into society, and, in turn, the discipline of psychology. The earliest pioneers in particular, fought hard to counter prejudice and discrimination as they struggled to gain admission into the field. Increased diversity among psychologists has forced modern-day psychology to evolve from its early roots, which focused on the study of White men by White men, into a far richer discipline where studies of gender, sexuality, and multiculturalism in general, are not only subfields in their own rights, but are also becoming infused more regularly throughout the discipline of psychology. Please note, there are relatively few copyright-free images of the social justice champions that we are showcasing in the next section. However, if you click on the link on their names you will see a picture of the psychologist.

Mary Whiton Calkins was the first woman in the United States to complete her doctoral studies in psychology. She worked under William James at Harvard University in the 1890s and passed all the requirements for the Ph.D. with distinction. Although she had permission to attend classes, she could not formally enroll in the PhD program because Harvard was an all-male institution. Harvard offered her a degree from Radcliffe College (a women’s college affiliated with Harvard) but, Calkins, a strong advocate for women’s rights, refused it as a form of protest against Harvard’s sexist policies. Even without a Ph.D., Calkins went on to be a professor at Wellesley College and was the first to set up a psychology laboratory in a women’s college in the United States. In 1904, she became the first woman president of the American Psychological Association (APA). Calkins had a distinguished career and published over 100 papers and 4 books on dream analysis, memory, and “self-psychology”—the study of the conscious self (Young, 2010).

Figure 1.16. Mary Whiton Calkins was the first female psychologist in the United States

In 1894, Margaret Floy Washburn was the first woman to receive a Ph.D. in psychology in the United States. After her undergraduate studies at Vassar College (an all-women’s college at the time), Washburn began her doctoral studies under James Cattell at Columbia University. Like Calkins, Washburn’s educational journey was hampered because she was a woman. At the time, Columbia was an all-male university and although they allowed Calkins to audit classes, she could not enroll in the doctoral program. Instead, Cattell persuaded Calkins to enroll at Cornell University where she studied under Titchener and was awarded a Ph.D. Washburn became a professor at Vassar College and many of undergraduates worked in her lab. Washburn studied consciousness in humans and animals. In 1921, Washburn became the second woman president of the APA (Rodkey, 2010).

Figure 1.17. Margaret Floyd Washburn was the first woman in the United States to receive a Ph.D. in psychology.

Helen Thompson Woolley was awarded a PhD in psychology (with the highest distinction) from the University of Chicago. Woolley’s PhD dissertation research provided evidence that went against the sexist views that were prevalent in society at that time. Woolley found that men and women performed similarly on sensory, motor, and intelligence tasks, and that there were greater differences within each sex than between the sexes. Her research went against the popular idea of the time that women were less logical than men. Her later work showed the environment and education strongly influenced intelligence scores in adolescents, and that children who left school to go to work were at an intellectual disadvantage. Her work helped to influence labor laws to protect children. Woolley’s work was in direct opposition to the views of the eugenicists, who believed that intelligence was innate, that is, fixed from birth (Helen Thompson Woolley, 2022; Rodkey, 2010).

Leta S. Hollingworth also helped to counteract negative stereotypes about women with her doctoral dissertation (PhD awarded in 1916) from Columbia University in Educational Psychology. Her dissertation showed that menstruation had no effect on women’s decision making abilities, interestingly, her advisor Edward Thorndike, was one of the very psychologists who had helped to popularize the opposite view. Hollingworth taught at Teacher’s College, Columbia University and also worked on intelligence testing and with gifted children for much of her career (Benjamin 1990; Leta Stetter Hollingworth, 2023).

Figure 1.18. Leta S. Hollingworth

.In 1920, Francis Sumner (click on link for photo) became the first African American to be awarded a Ph.D. in Psychology in the United States. Sumner did not attend high school because in Virginia, where he lived, the schools that were available to Black students were of a very low quality. Recognizing this, his father homeschooled him and when he was 15, he passed the entrance exam to Lincoln University. Four years later, he graduated with a degree in English and was awarded a Masters’ degree two years later. His doctoral studies at Clark University were interrupted when he was drafted into the US Army, but he completed his Ph.D. after finishing his service. After working as a professor at two other colleges, Sumner became a professor and Chair of Psychology at Howard University (a historically Black University) where he helped to start and build the reputation of the psychology department. Sumner was no stranger to discrimination, when he was a PhD student at Clark University, he was given his own separate table in the dining hall, with the expectation that no one would want to eat with him. Perhaps, not surprisingly his research focused on trying to reduce racism and bias toward African Americans. Kenneth Clark, another psychologist who fought for social justice, was one of his most well-known students.

In 1933, Inez Beverly Prosser was the first African American woman to be awarded a doctorate in psychology in the United States. In 1912, Prosser attained a teaching certificate from the Prairie View A&M University in Texas, and then taught at various schools for Black children. However, at that time, Texas did not award graduate degrees to Black students and so Prosser had to apply out of state to continue her studies. She completed a Masters’ in Education at the University of Colorado, and then a doctorate in Educational Psychology at the University of Cincinnati. Prosser’s work highlighted the psychological difficulties that Black children experienced in desegregated schools, were they were predominantly taught by White teachers. Prosser taught in small colleges in both Austin, Texas and Jacksonville, Mississippi. Tragically, Prosser died in a car accident, a year after she was awarded her doctorate.

Figure 1.19. Inez Prosser was the first African American woman to earn a doctorate in psychology in the United States

In 1940, Kenneth Clark was the first African American to earn a Ph.D. in psychology from Columbia University. After graduating from Columbia, Clark became a professor at City College (CUNY) and worked there for many years. In 1960, he was the first Black person in New York City to be promoted to the rank of tenured full professor, and he later became a distinguished professor at the college. He was also the first African American president of APA.

Figure 1.20. Kenneth Clark’s work with his wife, Mamie Phipps Clark, helped to desegregate schools in the United States

In 1943, Mamie Phipps Clark became the first African American woman to earn a Ph.D. in psychology from Columbia University. Phipps Clark’s earlier research for her Masters’ degree at Howard University examined race consciousness in children. This then led to the development of her doctoral research and another set of highly influential research studies she conducted with her husband, Kenneth Clark. After she graduated from Columbia, Phipps Clark found that universities and colleges were unwilling to hire a young Black woman as a professor. Eventually, she became a counselor at the Riverdale Home for Children in New York, where she worked with African American girls who were homeless. Phipps Clark and her husband, Kenneth Clark, later founded the Northside Center for Child Development in Harlem, which provided psychological services to minority children, and she served as the director here for many years. The Clark’s collaborative research studies on racial consciousness in children (often referred to as the doll studies) were used as evidence in Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas (1954). Their work contributed to the decision to desegregate schools by persuading the Supreme Court that segregation was unconstitutional and led to low self-esteem among children of color.

Figure 1.21. Mamie Phipps Clark was the first African American woman to earn a PhD in psychology from Columbia University. Her research was influential in de-segregating schools in the United States

In 1943, Robert Chin (who changed his name from Chen Yuli) was the first Chinese American to be awarded a Ph.D. in psychology. After Chin graduated from Columbia University with a doctorate in social psychology, he joined the U.S. army and worked in counterintelligence in both China and Washington. Chin later joined the faculty at Boston University where his research focused on organization theory, and ethnic and minority group relationships. His work on intelligence testing helped to negate the prevalent idea of the time that non-Caucasians were intellectually inferior to Whites. This evidence was used in the Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas (1954) decision that helped to desegregate schools. Chin was a cofounder of the Humans Relations Center at Boston University, and also helped to bring organization theory to China.

Kurt Lewin was a social psychologist and German-American Jew who sought refuge in the USA during the 1930s. He worked as a professor at the University of IOWA. Lewin advocated that psychological research should result in improvements in the lives of people who are often marginalized in society. Some of his earlier work in the USA focused on productivity in factories. He showed that when workers were involved in decision-making and were giving opportunities to collaborate with managers about their training, they outperformed workers who only received orders from management. Lewin also worked with community members to reduce gang violence towards Jews. He believed that action research (as he termed it) always needed to be collaborative and could bring about meaningful change if community members were intimately involved in designing and carrying out research that related to the social problems in their lives. After his death in 1947, some psychologists, including his graduate students, continued to expand on his social justice legacy, which spread to other fields such as education and business. However, many social psychologists felt that action research was too “messy” and unscientific and so it was not fully embraced by mainstream psychology at the time.

In 1953, Efrain Sanchez Hidalgo (click name for photo) was the first Puerto Rican to receive a Ph.D. in Psychology in the United States. He studied Social Psychology at Columbia University under Edward Thorndike. He had previously earned a Masters’ degree from Columbia University in Educational Psychology and his textbook (Psicología educativa) was widely used throughout Latin America. He also served as Secretary of Education for Puerto Rico. Sanchez Hidalgo worked for many years at the University of Puerto Rico as a professor of psychology.

Evelyn Hooker was one of the first psychologists to receive a grant from the National Institute of Health (NIH) to study homosexuality. Hooker was awarded a PhD in psychology from Johns Hopkins University in 1932, and went onto be a professor at UCLA. At the time, homosexuality was considered to be a mental illness by psychologists and members of the medical profession. In the 1950s, one of her gay students at UCLA asked Hooker to do a study to help fight against those beliefs and Hooker took action. After applying for and being awarded an NIH grant, Hooker collaborated with a gay-rights organization who helped her to find participants for her research study. Participants responded to three personality tests (including the famous Rorschach inkblot test). Hooker reported that experts found no differences in the personality test results of homosexual and heterosexual men. In 1956, Hooker presented her research findings to the annual convention of the American Psychological Association. Her findings helped to pave the way forward to normalizing homosexuality. In 1973, homosexuality was removed as a mental health diagnosis from the next edition of the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM II), which helped to reduce some of the stigma associated with being queer. However, the DSM II had a new diagnosis—same sex orientation disorder—which applied if a person was attracted to people of the same sex and was distressed by it. This loophole meant that sex conversion therapy continued to be practiced by psychologists and psychiatrists after 1973. It was not until 1987, that homosexuality was properly removed from the DSM. In 1990, the World Health Organization also removed homosexuality from its list of illnesses. These changes helped to decriminalize homosexual acts (sodomy laws) and create laws protecting LGBTQ+ rights. Psychologists moved away from research that questioned what caused queerness and how to “cure” it, to investigations focusing on wellness in LGBTQ+ populations.

In 1962, Martha Bernal was the first Latina to be awarded a Ph.D. in psychology in the United States. Her doctorate was in clinical psychology from Indiana University. Bernal’s parents were originally from Mexico, and Bernal was born and grew up in Texas, but she was not allowed to speak Spanish in the segregated schools she attended. She also struggled to persuade her father to allow her to go to graduate school because he believed she should get married and stay home to raise children. Bernal’s mother and sister helped to persuade him. Bernal faced a lot of sexism and racism, especially in her early career and  she had difficulty finding a faculty position after she graduated. However, Bernal did not give up and was given a post-doctoral research position at UCLA. She later held academic appointments at the University of Denver and at Arizona State University. Bernal’s research focused on multiculturalism using learning theories to help children with behavioral issues. Bernal was deeply committed to helping other women, especially Latinas and women of color, to succeed in graduate school. She was a founding member of the National Hispanic Psychological Association (NHPA).

In 1964, Marigold Linton became the first Native American woman (Cahuilla-Cupeño nations) to earn a PhD in psychology.[1] Linton grew up in poverty on the Morongo Indian Reservation in Southern California and graduated from UCLA as a cognitive psychologist. Her first job as a professor was at San Diego State University, where she campaigned for equal pay for women professors. She later worked at Arizona State University as the Director of American Indian Programs, and the University of Kansas as the Director of American Indian outreach. In addition to her cognitive psychology research, where she used diaries to study how her own memory changed over time, Dr. Linton received millions of dollars in grants to promote the advancement of American Indians in higher education.

In 1975, indigenous psychologists in the United States formed the Native American Psychological Association. Logan Wright became the first Native American (Osage Nation) President of APA in 1986. Wright was awarded a Ph.D. in clinical psychology from Vanderbilt University in 1964. He began his academic career at Purdue University and then moved to the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center, where he worked for many years in the department of pediatrics. Indeed, Wright has often been credited with being the “father of pediatric psychology”; he helped to found the Society for Pediatric Psychology and his research focused on behavioral interventions for children.

In 1999, Richard M. Suinn was the first Asian American president of the APA. Suinn earned his doctorate in counseling psychology from Stanford University in 1959. Suinn is an emeritus professor at Colorado State University where he worked tirelessly to increase recruitment and retention of ethnic minority students at the university. Suinn’s research focused on ethnic minorities, behavior therapy, and sport psychology. Before he became the president of APA, Suinn served on APA’s committee on ethnic minority affairs. He also helped to establish the Society for the Psychological Study of Cultural, Race and Ethnicity (APA Division 45).

In 2009, Melba Vasquez became the first Latina president of APA. She was awarded a doctorate in counseling psychology from the University of Texas in 1978. Like Bernal before her, Vasquez was Mexican-American and grew up in Texas where her early public school experiences were fraught with racism. Vasquez’s life improved dramatically when she started Catholic school in 4th grade. Vasquez was an English major as an undergraduate and then went on to earn a teaching certificate, but she soon realized that teaching children was not her passion. She wanted to learn more about human behavior, especially prejudice and discrimination. Vasquez met Martha Bernal when she was a graduate student, and became one of the many students that Bernal mentored. Vasquez was one of the first people to receive an APA Minority Fellowship to support minority students. Vasquez works as an independent counseling psychologist in Austin, Texas. Her work focuses on multicultural issues in psychology and feminist psychology.

In 2018, Jessica Henderson Daniel was the first African American woman to become an APA president. Daniel earned her doctorate in Educational Psychology from the University of Illinois-Urbana. She works as a professor of psychology in the Department of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. Daniel has dedicated her life to instruction and mentoring, especially helping students of color to succeed. She developed and garnered funding for a very successful mentoring program for early-career Black women psychologists in academia with other more senior Black women serving as mentors. Although funding for this project was short-lived, Dr. Daniel’s insights about effective mentoring strategies have been widely disseminated.

Lillian Comas-Diaz was the first person of color to receive a gold medal for lifetime achievement in the practice of psychology from the American Psychological Association. Comas-Diaz was born in Chicago to Puerto Rican parents; she then grew up and went to college in Puerto Rico. She moved to the USA in her twenties to go to graduate school and was awarded a PhD in clinical psychology from the University of Massachussetts, Amherst, in 1979. Comas-Diaz pioneered the use of ethnocultural approaches to mental health and is a specialist in racial trauma and the use of liberatory, decolonial therapeutic practices. Liberatory psychology stems from work by Frantz Fanon, a psychiatrist from the French colony of Martinique and by Brazilian educator, Paulo Friere, and later, Ignacio Martin-Baro, a Spanish-born psychologist and Jesuit priest, who worked most of his life in El Salvador. Liberatory psychology focuses on practices that fight against systems of oppression and bring about social improvements. Comas-Díaz worked for the American Psychological Association and played a critical role in creating Division 45, the Society for the Psychological Study of Ethnic Minority Issues. She is a practicing psychologist and a professor at George Washington University.

Figure 1.22. Lillian Comas Dias


How psychologists have helped to promote social justice in the United States (click here for more information)

This is a brief summary of some of the events that psychologists have played a role in helping to promote social justice in the United States. This list is by no means exhaustive (it does not, for instance, include any mention of multiple participatory action research projects that have brought about social change in many communities across the country). Many of the events described below focus on the role of APA, including the formation of special interest groups that came about because APA itself was not addressing the needs of its members.

In 1936, the Society for Psychological Study of Social Justice Issues (SPPSI) was formed. In 1945, SPSSI became part of APA (division 9)

In 1954, evidence from psychologists, especially Dr. Kenneth Clark, was used in reaching the decision that segregated schools were unconstitutional and needed to be dismantled as quickly as possible (Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas).

In 1962, APA submitted an amicus brief (a document that is designed to educate legal decision makers) in the case of Jenkins vs. United States, which contributed to the ruling psychologists were competent to serve as expert witnesses and to testify about the nature of mental illnesses in court cases. Psychologists also testify in court cases on other issues, including factors that impact the reliability of eyewitness testimony or lead to false confessions.

In 1968, shortly after the assassination of Martin Luther King, the Association of Black Psychologists (ABPsi) was formed at the annual APA conference amid frustration that APA was not addressing the issues facing Black psychologists and the Black community ingeneral. ABPsi asked APA to stop exploiting the Black community by viewing them only as research subjects and to instead use their power to address social problems, such as poverty and racism. They also asked APA to commit to increasing the number of Black psychologists. Influential figures in the development of the Black Psychology movement included Dr. Joseph White and Dr. Robert Williams. Williams developed the Black Intelligence Test of Cultural Homogeneity (B.I.T.C.H.) to demonstrate racial biases in testing. The test asked for definitions of words that were predominantly used in Black communities and so Blacks outperformed Whites, this helped to highlight the fact that most standard IQ tests were biased to favor White middle class people. Leaders of the ABPsi helped to highlight the importance of research on race in psychology, and established new academic journals devoted to publishing work on racial issues. They also promoted increased access for Black students wanting to become psychologists.

In 1970, the National Hispanic Psychological Association was formed. This was later renamed the National Latina/o Psychological Association (NLPA). The mission of NLPA is to advance the field of psychology to benefit Latina/os.

In 1972, the Asian American Psychological Association was formed with the goal of using psychological knowledge to advance the mental health and wellbeing of Asian Americans.

In 1974, APA established a Minority Fellowship to providing funding for doctoral psychology students who were members of minority groups.

In 1975, the Society of Indian (American Indian and Alaska Native) Psychologists was formed to promote the mental health of Native Americans.

In 1975, Division 35 of APA, which later became the Society for the Psychology of Women, was finally formed. Attempts to form a women’s division within APA had been turned down three times previously (in 1948, 1958, and 1959). The Feminist Psychology movement critiqued traditional psychology studies as male-centric and lacking insights into the psychology of women. Pioneers, like Karen Horney, paved the way for research looking at gender differences and promoting women’s rights. Horney critiqued Freud’s psychoanalytical theories; Freud suggested that women’s issues were often centered on the fact that they were not male (e.g., penis envy). Instead Horney put forward the idea that men may experience feelings of inferiority because they could not give birth (i.e., womb envy).

In 1975, APA released an update to its publication manual stating that sexist language should not be used in psychology articles and papers.

In 1978, the Office of Ethnic Minority affairs was established at APA with the goal of working toward diversity, inclusion and empowerment

In 1979, a U.S. district court in California used research evidence provided by psychologists to rule that standard IQ tests were discriminatory (Larry P. v. Wilson Riles; 1979). Large numbers of Black children had been placed in remedial programs on the basis of these tests.

In 1986, psychologist Susan Fiske provided evidence as an expert witness in a U.S. Supreme Court case that ruled that gender-stereotyping had prevented a woman gaining promotion to partner in the law firm in which she worked (Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins).

In 1990, APA Society for Peace Psychology was formed (now Society for the study of Peace, Conflict and Violence)

In 1991, SPSSI became consultants to the United Nations

In 2000, APA released treatment guidelines for LGB clients.

In 2001, New Jersey was the first state to control the way in which police lineups for eyewitnesses of crimes were conducted. This was informed by research on eye witness testimony by psychologists.

In 2003, APA provided an amicus brief to the U.S. Supreme Court to provide support for the University of Michigan’s affirmative action admissions policies to increase recruitment of minority students.

In 2004, APA adopted a policy in support of same sex marriage.

In 2005, Roper vs. Simmons abolished the juvenile death penalty in the United States (APA provided an amicus brief with neuroscience evidence that documented the immaturity of adolescent brains, which was presented to court as supporting evidence for reduced culpability).

In 2007, APA taskforce published a report showing that sexualization of girls in the media leads to mental health problems.

In 2010, Graham vs. Florida banned life without parole for all juveniles (except those found guilty of homicides), APA provided an amicus brief with neuroscience evidence about the immaturity of adolescent brains.

In 2012, Jackson versus Hobbs banned life without parole for all juveniles (regardless of type of conviction), APA provided an amicus brief with neuroscience evidence about the immaturity of adolescent brains.

In 2015, psychologists contributed to evidence used in the President’s Taskforce on 21st Century Policing, which urged police departments to implement implicit bias training

In 2016, SPPSI members gave a congressional seminar on the impacts of climate change on people around the world, particularly those who are poor and/or socially marginalized. They gave another congressional seminar on LGBTQ discrimination.

In 2017, SPPSI members gave congressional seminars on criminal justice reform as well as health disparities research. The American Arab, Middle Eastern, and North African Psychological Association (AMENAPsy) was formed.

In 2018, SPSSI members hosted a congressional seminar on the psychological effects of genocide, and gave a congressional briefing on human trafficking.

In 2021, APA issued an apology to people of color in the United States for APA’s role in promoting, perpetuating, and failing to challenge racism, racial discrimination, and human hierarchy in the U.S.

In 2022, APA issued a resolution on policing advocating that police departments should expand training programs for officers to learn about de-escalation techniques  and how to reduce the use of force,  as well as learning how to minimize targeting people of lower socioeconomic status. APA also highlighted the need for the police force to build stronger relations with mental health service agencies.

  1. Carolyn Attneave earned a PhD in psychology from Stanford in 1952. Attneave’s mother was Lenni-Lenape and her father from Scandinavia.


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Introduction to Psychology (A critical approach) Copyright © 2021 by Jill Grose-Fifer is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.