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K-State Today

September 1, 2011



Thinking back: During past 60 years of psychology department, field has embraced new methods, role of technology in research

By Communications and Marketing

Glance through the research topics of the early faculty who taught psychology at Kansas State University, and two words repeatedly jump out: rats and mazes. While research topics then may be similar to today's, the methods and theoretical perspectives vary greatly.

This is reflective of the changes the psychology department and the field have seen since K-State made the department official in 1951, said Jerry Frieman, professor and head of the department of psychology. The department is preparing to celebrate its 60th anniversary Sept. 15-17.

"The things we talk about in textbooks now are the same as they were then, but the context has changed," Frieman said. "The ideas have been around for awhile, but nothing is static."

The first class in psychology at K-State was mentioned in the University Bulletin in 1880, Frieman said, and by 1911, psychology courses were taught in the department of philosophy and located in Anderson Hall. The courses were then moved to the newly created department of education. The two departments split in 1951 and the psychology department became official.

Psychology at K-State began to follow a similar course of progression as the field surrounding it, including a shifting interest away from stimulus-response approaches to studying behavior. This shift helped lead to the cognitive revolution of the 1960s.

At K-State, this became evident when the first psychology department head, Arthur Brayfield, was hired. Brayfield was among the 31 faculty members from the University of California who were fired because they refused to sign a loyalty oath when fear of communism ran rampant. Then K-State hired him, Frieman said, and the department began to take shape.

"The topics are the same, but the way we study them is different," Frieman said. "Our faculty in the '60s reflected these changes. They looked at novel ways to conduct experiments, ways people had never thought about."

Experiments in these disciplines represented further movement from big, inclusive theories -- like those of Sigmund Freud -- to a much more focused approach within psychological disciplines. For example, industrial organizational psychology used to focus only on work performance, Frieman said. Now, the discipline focuses on work and family life, as well as women in the work force.

"They apply it to not only the workplace, but to the relationships that surround it, like family life," he said. "The relationship between work and family is a hot issue now, but 60 years ago they never thought about it."

It was also a popular belief among psychologists of this era that environmental factors were the main cause of mental illness, said Richard Harris, a K-State psychology professor.

"There were many popular theories, like the thought that an individual became schizophrenic because of conflicting messages given by parents," he said. "Now we know that all mental illnesses are traceable to something going wrong in the brain. There may be environmental concerns to some degree, but not much."

Technological advances have enabled psychologists to increase their studies of the brain, Harris said, allowing them to research what may not be new problems, but examine them in new ways.

"A lot of things couldn't really be studied because they weren't observable behavior -- things like attention and language use," he said. "Psychologists could look at the response that a person had to a stimulus, but it left out what was in the middle. Today, that's the most interesting part -- what is going on between the stimulus and the response."

Another K-State psychology professor, Mark Barnett, said there is a greater emphasis now than in the past on the physiological basis or personality and emotions, largely due to tremendous advancements in technology.

"Rather than asking individuals how stressed or anxious they feel, researchers can now infer their emotions by assessing biochemical reactions and observing patterns of activity in the brain," he said.

According to Barnett, personality psychology has experienced resurgence among researchers. Many personality psychologists are interested in assessing the extent to which individuals possess the "big five" personality traits: open to experience, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness and neuroticism. The personality and social psychology are now more integrated than they were in the past, he said, with considerable emphasis on examining how individuals with particular personality patterns tend to respond to particular situations.

Psychologists, professors and students are applying these new ways of thinking to many new disciplines and topics. Today, even clinically oriented psychologists are trained to undertake research.

"It's an empirical science," Frieman said. "Publishing and research is expected now, and that is reflective of how the field has grown."

While many practices in the field have changed, Harris said many have stayed the same. The general logic of using experiments to conduct research hasn't lessened in importance, and the necessity of controlled research to reach valid conclusions is still recognized as extremely important.

The psychology department's 60th anniversary will include alumni presentations and panels, as well as presenting the department's first distinguished alumni award to Gary Wells for his work on eyewitness identification in police lineups. For more information on the department's celebration, contact Joy Knutson at 785-532-6850 or jaknutso@k-state.edu.