Recent History in History Textbooks


Introduction: History of the histories

The historiography of psychology has always involved the writing of recent history, with its writers at least partially embedded in the dynamics they elucidate and interpret. As such, it is a normative endeavour. The establishment of narratives about the ‘doing’ of psychology created a space for meta-discourse among psychologists and historians to reflect upon, assess, and perpetuate the values and politics of the discipline. Volumes about the history of research disciplines cross the range of purposes that other kinds of textbooks serve: like topic handbooks and manuals, they help current researchers stay up to date with their fields and produce informed and rigorous work; like theoretical monographs, they can help move the field forward and translate its knowledge to readerships beyond the disciplinary fold; and crucially, like introductory textbooks, they can help teach and train future generations of researchers by providing them with foundational insight about the circumstances and developments of the thinking into which they are being inculcated.

In 1912-14 a number of topical ‘proto-histories’ emerged virtually simultaneously. These works (Hall, 1912; Rand, 1912; Dessoir, 1912; Brett, 1912; Baldwin, 1913; Klemm, 1914) were part of processes of self-definition and self-determination within the fledgling discipline (see Griffith, 1921; see also Ash, 1983). They served various purposes depending on the authors’ priorities and circumstances—to parse out psychological content from philosophical literature, to exposit the methodological headway being made in Germany and France, to assert a lineage from ancient Greek origins through Europe’s esteemed philosophical chronology, to fill the needs of growing American classrooms for relevant texts that included guides to seminal and contemporary works, or to trace out the development of psychological theories. Along with the establishment of laboratories, these books were intended to help distinguish psychology from its disciplinary precedents, namely philosophy and physiology, and none can be said to have been comprehensive. Rather, they laid the groundwork for the later authorship of increasingly generalized and detailed histories of the discipline. A second iteration of historical works that strove for greater synthesis of the broad ranging field preceded directly from those first efforts (Brett, 1921; Warren, 1921; Woodworth, 1923; Murphy, 1929; Boring, 1929; Boring, Langfeld, & Weld, 1935). The historiographic priorities demonstrated in these can broadly be said to have focused on the promotion of individuals considered to be influential in the field, and on the differentiation not only of the modern experimental tradition from its philosophical origins, but also as distinguished from the growing practical applications of psychology, which were considered by those experimentalist authors to be derivative and thus of less relevance (see O’Donnell, 1979; Samelson, 1980). Given the history of psychology’s status as ‘companion’ discipline to its subject of study, it’s unsurprising that historical accounts have been part and parcel of psychology’s pedagogy and professionalization—along with the foundation of graduate programs, associations, and journals, the publication of history texts has indicated the achievement of successful institutionality.

In short, the earliest beginnings of historical writing on the subject derived from psychologists themselves, rather than from established historians, thus the perspectives provided reflected the priorities and assumptions of psychology proper. This continued to be the case through the middle of the 20th century, when historiography began to be differentiated as a subdiscipline unto itself, leading to more nuanced and in-depth consideration of what it means to conduct historical analyses (see Richards, 1987). The newly established, active community of psychologists-cum-historians and specialized science historians produced work in stride with the broader developments in historiographic theory and methods. This climate led to reappraisals of previous efforts and the stories that had been carried forth about the early history of the discipline, as well as deliberation about how to approach recent historical developments that were not yet steeped in received wisdom but rather framed by vested contemporary interests. Over the mid-century decades, the organizing principles that had predominated, such as a focus on eminent individuals (a.k.a. the ‘Great Man’ theory; see Carlyle, 1841), a focus on intellectual lineage (back to ancient Greece) and the associated presumption of developmental progression (a.k.a. ‘Whig history;’ see Butterfield, 1931) were challenged by contemporary historiographic logics. The concept of the ‘zeitgeist’ as a holistic contextual force countered the celebratory recounting of individual careers (see Boring, 1942) and would then become subsumed in the greater theoretical and methodological complexities of the social and cultural ‘turns’ in history and the social sciences, which gathered steam in the 1960s and 70s respectively. Paradigmatic processes in science (see Kuhn, 1962) became a major theoretical locus, leading quickly to interpretations such as conceptual prescriptive ‘isms’ (see Watson, 1965).

From within psychology itself, new explanatory narratives developed out of the changes over the previous century: a temporal differentiation began to be made between writings about the modern era of academic disciplinarity and writings that continued the tradition of emphasizing lineages of intellectual antecedents and conceptual histories; additionally, other organizational approaches were brought forward by the expansion of the field—the consideration of theoretical and methodological trends and debates in modern psychology, often framed as competing ‘schools’ of thought; and consideration of the sociological history of the field, with greater appreciation for the international dynamics and differences (see Danziger regarding centers and peripheries, 2006); and not least, increased conscientization through post-structuralism and constructionist theories about how social hierarchy gets reiterated within disciplinary systems.

With the substantive accumulation of new volumes and articles after the foundation of history of psychology associations and journals, a slew of history textbooks began being generated that benefitted from the increased sophistication in the available reference works. I will be treating these late and turn of the 21st century textbooks as a ‘generation’ of the genre that is distinct from their predecessors, partially because of the increased availability of sources on which they could base their work, and partially due to the increased rate of publications of this ilk. Of course, any generational distinction is inherently interpretive and to a certain extent arbitrary, but for the purposes of this project seems justified and useful.


Outline of the project: How history of psychology textbooks cover the recent history of the field

This section of AHP has been developed to provide an account of how historians of psychology have handled the recent past. To do so, I’ve read a sample of thirty textbooks published between 1984 and 2015, assessing their coverage of the field from 1965 onwards. The sample consists of twenty-one distinct texts, seven of which have subsequent editions (two have three editions). Five were published in the 1980s, twelve in the 1990s, seven in the aughts, and six in the teens. Please see the reference list for their titles and full citations.

As historians of any subject can attest, there are particular challenges (and advantages) that arise the closer historical topics are to the present, or the more closely the writer has been involved in their topic of interest. Those who work to write ‘objectively’ find their capacity to subvert subjective biases more challenging than in instances when they write from a greater temporal distance. Conversely, those for whom objectivity is not a methodological ideal (or is considered an impossibility) note that contemporary history renders the moralistic and reflexive imperatives, prerogatives and quandaries that are always at play in the composition of historical narratives more explicit. Of course, these considerations apply both to the narratives written by the authors of the history texts and also to myself as a historian looking at their historiography.

Thus, this project has been an exercise in interrelated assessments. It looks at the substantive topics in psychology that the history texts include: the theory and methods in various areas of psychological research, the frequency and scope in the coverage of these. It also looks at what historiographic choices are made by the text authors, and the changes in such choices over time. For example, do the authors discuss psychology in terms of intellectual lineage, as influenced by external factors such as social and economic imperatives, as a matter of progression, development, or advancement, as related to other disciplines? Can it be said that there are trends in such historiographic priorities within the sample? Because recent history topics did not have the baggage of ‘received wisdom’ in the same way that topics from earlier in the history did, and authors were positioned to craft new narratives on the new content as they saw fit, the recent history content can be interpreted as providing unique opportunities for this kind of analysis. As such, this has fundamentally been an inquiry into how the nascent field of writing the history of psychology has ‘matured,’ since this generation of historians went beyond the purview of disciplinary predecessors with their less reflexive priorities.

In what follows, I assess what topics are discussed in the sample of texts in relation to roughshod ‘eras’ through the recent history: 1965-1979, 1980-1999, 2000-2014. The earliest era is unique in that it was written about in all the texts in the sample, allowing for the most interpretive work in relation to how historiography has changed throughout. Whereas the later eras provide the opportunity to compare how they were speculatively envisioned in the earlier textbooks vs. handled as current developments in the later ones.


Coverage of early recent history: 1965-1979

The field of psychological research in the late 1960s and 70s is characterized by the majority of our textbook authors as a time influenced greatly by psychologists’ involvement in cognitive science and by the emergence of humanistic or ‘3rd force’ theories and applications. Authors of textbooks written in the early years of the sample focused on the development of the field through its institutional achievements, whereas authors writing later in the sample emphasize the notable continuation of professionalization processes that incorporated psychology into more industries, and also offered further contextualization of social developments and how those contributed to and were affected by psychological work.

Authors from throughout the entire timeframe of my sample considered cognitive psychology to be of central importance to the discipline in the second half of the century, and many incorporated discussion of how to frame that centrality into their texts—some followed Ulric Neisser (1967) in calling it a revolution, others qualified this claim by calling it a resurgence, a revolt, an assertion, ascendant. Others interrogated their contemporaries’ use of Kuhnian ideas by describing the changes wrought by this research as gradual shifts, and by analysing the sociological aspects of academics’ employment of concepts like paradigms, crises, and revolutions.

The textbook authors writing in the 1980s and early 90s, for whom the rise of cognitive psychology was still a contemporary development, treated cybernetics as a direct antecedent, which in the 1940s and 50s had centred around a coalition of mathematicians and physiologists. As for predecessors from within psychological research specifically, these authors positioned cognitive psychology as a post-behaviorist return of mentalism and faculty psychology; they understood it as both antagonistic to late behaviorism and as a continuation of it, a soft or informal reinterpretation that adopted many of its tenets. About half of the textbooks authors (from throughout the timespan) discuss the impact and prevalence of what they call the computer metaphor or analogy in psychology. This conceptualization of how our cognition works is attributed by the authors to the advent of computers, much in the way that the advent of industrial mechanics had led to machine analogies in philosophy. Relatedly, the rise of research on artificial intelligence and computational simulations is understood to have been in tension with cybernetics, and to have largely impacted the directions of experimental cognitive-social psychology. Authors of the texts from later in the sample, with the additional purview of time, were able to offer additional contextualization, and emphasized the heterogeneity of the content and methods in cognitive research. They described it as a complicated interaction of neuroscience, computer science, linguistics, perception, information processing, and memory, with these efforts in psychology contributing to broader-ranging projects that spanned engineering, anthropology, philosophy, health, education, and more. Discussion of cognitive psychology’s fast paced ‘institutionalization’ (with seven journals founded in a matter of a few years) were introduced in the most recent textbooks. These authors also discuss how the proliferation of cognitive work in the 1970s and 80s led to contention in the 90s, such as the so-called ‘repression debates’ regarding recall of trauma in therapy and witness testimony, as well as the role that theory about structural atomism and modularity played in the rise of evolutionary psychology.

Substantively, memory was one of the cognitive topics to receive the most thorough treatment. It was discussed in almost half of the texts from throughout the sample, with a large number of subtopics identified (including, but not limited to: semantic and episodic, engrams and schemas, long term & information processing; short term & organization processes, working, autobiographical, recollection and prospection, in relation to neurology and hormones, as a constructive rather than receptive process, as being a stable historical concept but not a discrete category, as collective, as subject to cultural differences and social conditioning, and about its involvement in reflexivity.

Another definitive aspect of the early part of the ‘recent history’ era according to both early and late textbook authors in the sample was humanistic psychology. It was considered in some detail in 19 of the 30 texts. Identified by some as a ‘third force’ intended to counter behaviorism and psychoanalysis, it is discussed in the following terms: its methodological pluralism, its philosophical antireductionism, its experiential orientation, its reconceptualizations of madness, its focuses on personality and development; and its relation to the social climate of ‘growth movements’ to which it was contributing. A few authors from throughout the sample differentiate between humanistic, transpersonal, and existentialist theories.


Mid-sample: Coverage of the 1980s & 1990s

The ways that this era was written about changed from the early texts in the sample to those written later. Our earliest textbook authors, writing in the mid-eighties, focused on a perceived increase in specialization within psychology, which they interpreted as resulting in a lack of theoretical coherence between different endeavours and a liberalization of methodologies. Authors writing in the nineties heralded a new era of applied involvement in industry, in which psychologists navigated changing economic structures by establishing new roles for themselves to suit new circumstances—as management consultants and human engineers in organizations downsizing and offshoring, as specialists for expanding the military and prison-industrial complexes, as advertising consultants, and in the increasingly privatised world of medicalized psychology clinics. Another focus of the authors writing in the nineties was the sociological assessment of the field’s institutional development, which was, at that time, a relatively new angle in the historiography of psychology (either as a topic in its own right, or as inclusion in the specific accounts of theoretical or methodological subjects). Hence, the ‘specialization narratives’ were accompanied by calculation of American Psychological Association (APA) memberships over time, and the same for students in psychological programs, the proliferation of APA divisions, and the foundation of topical journals associated with them.

Authors writing later went another step further to relate both the sociological developments in the discipline and the content it was studying to broader social dynamics in which those had been embedded. The creation of such a large number of new psychology associations are connected in theses texts to: the civil rights and liberation movements and the activism that inspired them; the expansion of psychology as a whole due to governmental and private provision of funding and how that funding impacted the directions of research; as well as to the increase in the proportion of clinical and professionalized psychologists in the field. These authors, writing in the mid-to late decades of the sample, also had the capacity to address how these would factor into later disciplinary developments. For example, about how tensions between the experimentalists and clinicians that led to the split between the APA and the Association for Psychological Science (APS) in 1989 would shape the field. This was impactful enough to be included in four textbooks published in the years directly after it happened, and then wasn’t included in any again until the 2010s, by which time it was a more thoroughly historical event and is included in all texts published in that last five years. Another example is the increased acknowledgement by the late-sample authors of feminist, social constructionist, postmodernist, and post-colonial theory and practices; and the extended primacy of the cognitive-behavioural modality in the clinic, among other related developments.

The texts written after the turn of the century also identified a few emergent (or renewed) areas of research that came into fashion in the 1990s. For example, the emergence of evolutionary psychology and its speculations about the foundations of culture were discussed by the late-sample authors as an iteration of debates about nativism and heritability that extend back through the entire history of modern Western psychology. It was also explained as being in contention with the learning theories that were being articulated in the range of cognitive, developmental, and socio-behaviorist areas of research that had become so popular at that time. Positive psychology also gained popularity during the nineties and was describe by text authors writing in the next decades as being likewise influenced by a complex and somewhat contradictory mix of humanistic, social, and evolutionary theorization.


Turn of the Millenia: Coverage of the Aughts and Teens (2000-2014)

After much of the discussion about the 1990s revolving around sociological and methodological aspects of the field, the expansion of the applied field and perceived specialization had, by the purview of the 2000s, coalesced further into a range of ‘new’ substantive areas of research. Topics covered by the authors writing in the early aughts that had not been written up as part of recent history in the earlier textbooks include: language, psychology of war and violence, emotion, comparative psychology, personality, health, school psychology, evolution, postmodernism (as compared to social-constructionism), and psychology of religion. Which is not to say these topics didn’t have longer histories in the discipline (the majority of them did). However, whether or not they were perceived as being part of an intellectual lineage (and whether or not that is made explicit) varies depending on the author, and all of these subjects shared a sense of recent activity and advancement.

The narratives about emotion research is exemplary of the kind of treatment given to these topics that were only covered in the latest textbooks (it was touched on by only one author writing in the eighties, and then not again until two in the aughts and two in the teen). It cannot be subject to the kind of longitudinal historiographic assessment made possible by those topics that were consistently of interest throughout the sample of text authors, but the scope of coverage given to it in the most recent texts is historically interesting. Further, the increase of interest in the subject on by historians also becomes a topic of meta-discussion in the texts of later era, along with: emotion’s conceptual instability and variability across time and place, the medicalization and psychologization of emotion through the century, and debate over classification and whether or not affect can be considered in terms of discrete events. Research focuses that the authors include are: relations between emotion, cognition, & perception, emotional appraisal, modes, regulation, emotional intelligence, consolation and grief, and as part of diagnostics and other work on pathology.

War as a topic also offers a unique opportunity to assess historiographic development. The authors writing over the past few years handled the complicated task of explaining how war’s role as a contextual influence on the direction of psychology as a field is inextricable from its history as a subject of psychological research and application. The distance of decades (and the accumulation of investigative historical research) shed enough light for comment by these authors on how military funding from the World Wars through the American Office of Naval Research had set precedent for psychology’s involvement in warfare: its part on both sides of the Cold War; its unpreparedness and non-response to the traumatic effects of the Vietnam war; its participation in American imperialism through Project Camelot; as well as its more recent embroilment in warfare-based imprisonment and torture at Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib. In a comparable manner to how authors in the early 1990s recounted the professional tensions and developments in the organizational make up of the APA and APS while those were still happening, the scandal of the APA executive’s violation of its own ethics code with its participation in military detention camps was deemed of immediate enough relevance to be included in the history texts published during the development of that situation. Inclusion of current happenings as recent history renders the interpretive imperative of historiography explicit—the historian is making a prediction that the recent content is going to be deemed important by future readers. Whether or not that ends up being the case, their interpretation of their own time is an interesting historical artifact, and either outcome provides historiographic fodder for the future, such as for this project.


Throughout the time frame: topics relevant to, and covered within, all eras of the sample.

A major theoretical theme that was discussed as having been prominent in the 1970s and continued to be so in every decade through to the present is the role of biological determinism in psychology. Citing the mid-century success of psychopharmacology, and the advancements in genetics, text authors writing in the 1980s discussed the contentious mid-70s debates about the heritability of IQ and related the perceived fragmentation or overspecialization of the field to the discord between bio-oriented and other philosophical perspectives; text authors writing about the 90s commented on opportunities opened by the development of brain imaging technology, the rise in evolutionary theorizing by psychologists, and the implications of biological interpretations of cognition for the development of artificial intelligence; in the 2000s genetics were included again as a subject when the human genome project was completed in 2003 and epigenetics became more prominent as an area of research.

Throughout the span of the sample, authors emphasized the tensions between the predominance of bio-determinism and the development of constructionism as an influence in the philosophy of science. Scholarship undertaken from a wide variety of lenses (such as feminism, queer theory, critical theory, post-modernism) that had, to varying extents, been predicated on constructionist positions, began influencing psychology’s theorists beginning in the 70s and came to be emphasized by textbook authors from the late 80s through to the early 2000s. Particularly, textbook authors in the 90s differentiated between the cultural currency that had been garnered by the ‘hard’ determinist fields of neuroscience and cognitive science, and the scholastic popularity of ‘soft’ or ‘pseudo-scientific’ forms of constructionist research in psychology during that era.  The term ‘postmodern psychology’ began to be employed by the textbook authors in the aughts, in just over half (7 out of 13) of the volumes published between 2000-2015 in relation to research conducted throughout the entire timeframe of recent history. Their discussions: focused on how psychologists had worked to make the value ladenness of their discipline explicit; framed bodies of knowledge as ideological; summarized the history of the concept of self; looked at narrative psychology as a reflexive tool and at the pathologization of narrative in the clinic and the transformation of personhood into a clinical object; related postmodernism with postcolonialism and provided retrospectives on colonial science; identified tensions between progressive individualism and social-embeddedness; and not least, articulated the development of feminist empiricism and standpoint theories.

The respective impact of the poles in this essentialist-constructionist range can also be traced through the historiographic approaches taken in relation to the substantive topics those related to: authors in the nineties often lumped women and ‘minority’ psychologists as a single underappreciated unit in the history of the discipline compared with the predomination of white men. Or, they were discussed in direct relation to each other due to their marginalization. In later textbooks the histories of these psychologists were given more room respectively, reflecting the advancements in primary historiography that had been done about them in the meanwhile. Changes in the way that women and non-white populations were studied by psychology (as influenced by the opening of the constructionist umbrella) also affected how they were written about by the history writers—‘the psychology of women,’ and research on sex differences gave way to include feminist psychology and research on gender; multicultural psychology gave way to discussions of race and racialization in psychology, indigenization and internationalization of methods, theory, and professional application became a topic of focus. These changes in the language used reflect the changes in how psychologists have approached the topics in the duration of the sample, as well as in how historians have—words added, switched or replaced, for broader inclusion, for greater specificity, provide insight into the shifting social values, and into the increased nuance and sophistication in theory and research in both disciplines.


Conclusion: Disciplinary history textbooks as historical artifacts 

History textbooks perform a variety of roles in disciplinary research, and their composition is constrained by and reflects the particularities of the history they recount. The intentions behind them are simultaneously pedagogical and prescriptive. As such, the history textbook authors’ narratives provide as much insight into current priorities as they do those of the past.

There are specific challenges to writing about history that has long since passed—the historian contends with the influence of received wisdom from previous accounts, from the speculative nature of their interpretations of early primary sources and their attempts to contextualize them. However, those same challenges can also be framed as advantages: there are plenty of secondary sources to draw on, the temporal distance provides them with the capacity to consider how to balance historicist and presentist values in their interpretation of primary texts, and greater perspective on contextual events renders their historical relevance to the topic clear. The challenges of recent history are inverted: historical contexts are still in development and their outcomes and influence are comparatively indeterminable, and historians are faced with the responsibility of producing the first historical narratives on recent occurrences. Of course, these in turn can be seen as advantages—the historian has the certainty of temporal proximity to the content they’re recounting, and the subjectivity that is always at play in historiography (and all knowledge production) is undeniable in their narrative interpretations. Thus, their history writing becomes an artifact that reflects both the broader historiography by which it has been informed and to which it contributes, and the historical moment or era that it is intended to address. It is this multivalence that my project has been an attempt to convey. The language used by the sample authors to discuss recent topics in psychology, how that language has changed throughout the time span, what aspects of recent history were chosen to be included in the first place, how those are conceptualized as relating to earlier history or broader contemporary contexts, all tell us much about the history of psychology, the present of psychology, the history and present of historiography, and not least, the socio-political composition of the discipline and cultures in which these authors were embedded at the time of writing.


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