McDougall, William

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McDougall, William



William McDougall(1871–1938) occupies a position in the history of psychology that is not easy to define. During the earlier part of his working life he was a central figure, in touch not only with all that was going on in psychology but also with anthropology and physiology as well. As time went on certain qualities of character and intellect tended to isolate him, and before he died he had moved to the fringes of the academic world, writing largely for laymen and associated in the minds of his fellow scientists with a discredited instinct theory, Lamarckian genetics, and parapsychology. He was aware of this and felt it deeply. “Similar abilities, energy, and sustained effort, applied in any other line of work, might well have brought considerable reward,” he wrote in his autobiography. “The more I write, the more antagonism I seem to provoke” (1930, p. 223).

McDougall was born in Lancashire, England. A precocious student, he graduated from the University of Manchester at age 17. Two years later he went to Cambridge to study physiology, then as now a common approach to a medical qualification. His M.B., which he took in London in 1898, was not in-tended to lead to work as a physician. He had a few months of physiological research with Sherrington before returning to Cambridge, where his brilliant academic record had brought him a cellowship at St. John’s College.

Almost immediately he was involved in a scientific expedition to the Torres Strait. W. H. R. Rivers, who was to influence so many Cambridge men, asked him to carry out psychological observations on the natives, and his wide-ranging mind was soon at home in the anthropological literature of his day. Darwin’s influence at that time must have beenso pervasive as to be unrecognizable, yet looking back we can see that it was the primarysource of McDougall’s thinking in many fields. On an expedition such as that to the Torres Strait the zoologists and botanists must have had the Voyage of the Beagle very much in mind, and the direction of their work was to identify the part played by various structures and activities in the adaptive economy of the species in which they occurred. This kind of interest, when it arises in psychology, forms part of the viewpoint which has been called functionalism to distinguish it from the psychological structuralism of Wundt and the quasi-physiological theories of behaviorism. It dominated the Anglo-Saxon world for a time and received its clearest expression in William James’s great Principles of Psychology.

Returning to Cambridge, McDougall sampled the German and British philosophical psychologists of his period. Lotze attracted him but Wundt did not. The former was philosophicaland tentative in his approach, with a bias against mechanism and an interest in psychological functioning; the latter was dogmatic in his claim that mental content is the only valid subject matter for psychology. On the advice of James Ward, professor of moral philosophy at Cambridge, McDougall went to Gottingen and studied under Georg E. Miiller. He did not become a disciple but was attracted to color vision research. His work led him to reject the theories both of Hering and of Helmholtz, but his own theory did not constitute a major departure. Rather it was an attempt to supplement the views of Helmholtz so as to accommodate Hering’s findings, by adding an evolutionary footnote. If McDougall had formulated his suggestion somewhat differently, as others did at the time, it would be acceptable today. [see Vision,article on Color Vision And Color Blindness.] At the same time he was concerned with the general nature of cerebral activity; here his views tended toward the theory, first put forward by Flourens, that the brain does not function as an enormous collection of individual pathways but is a unitary organ acting as a whole. This “mass action” theory may best be thought of as a protest against oversimplification. McDougall also displayed an interest in the relationship between mind and body which persisted throughout his life. He took a dualistic line and suggested that mental events as such may influence bodily processes. His views were unfashionable then, and, despite the rise of psychosomatic medicine, they have remained so. [see Nervous System; Psychosomatic Illness.] They were also undoubtedly linked with his emerging interest in psychical research. He related his views in this connection to his “uncompromising arrogance” and to his inclination to support a theory merely because it was unpopular.

In 1904 McDougall went to Oxford as Wilde reader in mental philosophy. He had to give some forty lectures a year on topics of his own choosing, and the rest of the time was his own for research and writing. He did not feel at home in the Oxford atmosphere, but he did have a small laboratory in the department of physiology and some outstanding research students, including Cyril Burt and J. C. Flugel.

Some of his best work belongs to this period. His little Physiological Psychology appeared in 1905. It is not read now because later techniques and theories have dated it, but within its scope it was an admirably clear and objective piece of work, and its qualities highlight the diversity of McDougall’s talents at this stage of his career. [see Psychology,article on Physiological Psychology.]

An Introduction to Social Psychology was published in 1908, and in it McDougall first propounded his influential instinct theory. The book ran through more than twenty editions in as many years and is perhaps as much undervalued today as it was overvalued then. In ethology and elsewhere, aspects of McDougall’s position are now widely current, although restatement has done much to disguise them. To McDougall the fact that anthropologists could identify the adaptive role of social organizations and that zoologists could do the same for inherited patterns of behavior meant that at the human level also there is a mediating mechanism through which complex adaptive ways of behaving, both social and individual, can be transmitted, and that mechanism is instinct. An instinct, for McDougall, was not a built-in response pattern specified in detail—such as we see in the repertoire of solitary insects—but merely a tendency, under given conditions, to notice certain kinds of stimuli, to respond to them in ways that can best be specified by reference to some goal, and to experience a particular emotion if the response is delayed. Learning plays a great part in this mechanism both by diversifying and stabilizing the response. McDougall’s later critics, using a much more limited definition of instinct, often did him an injustice by failing to give due weight to this last point.

The work was written rather quickly and was based on reading and reflection rather than actual research, but the argument was so persuasive that it soon established itself as one of the most widely read texts on either side of the Atlantic. The early acclaim for this vulnerable piece of work probably accounts in part for the vehemence with which it was later denounced. There also occurred during McDougall’s lifetime, however, a change in the climate of opinion, which more than anything else was responsible for the curiously inverted nature of his career, with its early fame and later comparative obscurity. The functionalist approach, which derived from Darwin, became replaced by a more analytic and objective attitude. In psychology, the rise of behaviorism and associationist learning theory marked this change. McDougall found himself more and more out of step with his colleagues and, being the man he was, reacted polemically rather than creatively to the challenge.

Body and Mind, with its revealing subtitle, A History and a Defense of Animism, came out in 1911 and showed clearly that even before the rise of behaviorism there were expressions of hostility to mechanistic theories in the biological field. McDougall himself, who was not without insight into his own foibles, described the work as another characteristic championship of an unpopular view just because it was unpopular. Yet even then his reputation as a scientist must have been very high. In 1912 he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society, one of the small number of psychologists ever to receive this honor.

World War I brought about some shift in the direction of McDougall’s interests from pure research and speculation toward applied and clinical problems. Since he was medically qualified, it was natural that he should serve as a psychiatrist. Neither psychologist nor psychiatrist had much in the way of professional training in those days, and demarcation disputes did not arise. Many of the psychiatric casualties of World War I suffered from the hysterical condition known as shell shock. The methods which McDougall found most useful in treating psychiatric casualties confirmed his earlier belief in the value of Jung’s work. He did not find it necessary to trace a breakdown to events in thearly childhood of a patient but treated it as an inadequate reaction to an immediate situation. After the war he went to Jung in Zurich and under-went analysis. Writing of it later he said that his personality was so “hopelessly normal” that the process made very little difference to him. He remained, however, well disposed toward Jung.

In 1920 there appeared The Group Mind, a study in which the Darwinian ideas of the Introduction to Social Psychology were supplemented and elaborated by other ideas from analytic psychology and anthropology. It was conceived by its author to be the first part of his masterwork, and he had high hopes of being able to work out a single systematic treatment of his subject from its social and anthropological to its biological frontiers. His ideas, However, were far too speculative and his statement of them far toodiscursive to make what he had to say widely acceptable to his contemporaries. This seems to have been the turning point. Although McDougall was still to contribute much of valueto psychology, the setback that he suffered at this stage seems to have done more than anything else to drive him into the byways. Although the size of his output remained considerable, its scientific content tended to decline.

It was perhaps a symptom of his unsettled state that he felt it would be a good idea to move from Oxford to Harvard. Miinsterberg he had found con-genial, and William James was probably, of all psychologists, the one he admired with fewest reservations. These were the names that represented Harvard to him, and he felt that he would find there a more sympathetic environment than anywhere else. It was an ill-judged move in many ways. The atmosphere had changed since the days of James and Miinsterberg, the administrativearrangements were not what he had supposed, and in his frustration he may well have alienated some of his colleagues.

He began some animal experiments to test the Lamarckian hypothesis, and he published during this period two considerable but little read books– Outline of Psychology (1923) and Outline of Abnormal Psychology (1926). In a few years, However, the difficulties of Harvard became oppressive, and he made his final move, to Duke University in North Carolina. Duke had been recently founded and richly endowed, and it seemed to promise the independence and financial support required by a research scientist and something of the isolation demanded by a prophet. At any rate the change was a happy one, and McDougall settled down in his new home as contentedly as he could anywhere. He carried on his Lamarckian work, he supported psychical research, he built up a good psychology department, and he published extensively on a wide range of topics. It is not unfair to say, however, that judged by contemporary standards nothing of this later work is of first-rate importance.

McDougall’s dogmatism and impatience are partly responsible, no doubt, for the fact that despite his brilliant gifts and tremendous industry he felt himself to have been a failure. He did arouse hostility where he need not have done, and, as has been pointed out, he lived through a period of rapid change in biological science and was out of step with events. More basic, however, as a reason for his difficulties seems to have been an emotionally toned refusal to look at human beings with the detachment and objectivity of the scientist. He was always a moralist and sometimes a metaphysician, so that his conclusions were as often a function of his personality as of his data.

James Drever

[For the historical context of McDougall’s work, see the biographies ofDarwin; Flourens; Helmholtz; Hering; James; Jung; Lotze; Munsterberg; for discussion of the subsequent development of his ideas, seeEmotion; Ethology; Instinct; Parapsychology; Social Psychology.]


1905 Physiological Psychology. London: Dent.

(1908) 1950 An Introduction to Social Psychology. 30th ed., enl. London: Methuen. → A paperback edition was published in 1960 by Barnes and Noble.

(1911) 1938 Body and Mind. 8th ed. London: Methuen. → Previously published as Body and Mind: A History and a Defense of Animism.

1920 The Group Mind: A Sketch of the Principles of Collective Psychology, With Some Attempt to Apply Them to the Interpretation of National Life and Character. New Yor and London: Putnam. → A sequel to McDougall’s Introduction to Social Psychology.

1923 Outline of Psychology. New York: Scribner.

1926 Outline of Abnormal Psychology. New York: Scribner.

1930 Autobiography. Volume 1, pages 191–223 in A history of Psychology in Autobiography. Worcester, Mass.: Clark Univ. Press.


Robinson, Anthony l. 1943 William McDougall, M.B., D.Sc., F.R.S.: A Bibliography, Together With a Brief Outline of His Life. Durham, N.C.: Duke Univ. Press. Smith, May 1939 William McDougall: Bibliography. Character and Personality 7:184–191.

McDougall, William

views updated May 08 2018

William McDougall

British experimental psychologist who developed a theory of human instincts and studied psychic phenomena.

William McDougall was an experimental psychologist and theorist of wide-ranging interests. Above all, he believed in a holistic psychology that utilized every available tool for understanding the human psyche . He was the first to formulate a theory of human instinctual behavior, and he influenced the development of the new field of social psychology .

Born in 1871, in Lancashire, England, the second son of Rebekah Smalley and Isaac Shimwell McDougall, a wealthy Scottish industrialist, McDougall was educated at a local private school and then at the Realgynmnasium in Weimar, Germany. Although his father wanted him to study law or work in the family businesses, his mother supported his desire to become a scientist.

Studies medicine and psychology

At 15, McDougall entered the university in Manchester, earning degrees in biology and geology. A scholarship took him to St. John's College of Cambridge University, where he received his B.A. in natural science in 1894. It was at Cambridge that McDougall became interested in the melding of biology and the social sciences. Another scholarship enabled him to study medicine at St. Thomas Hospital in London. He earned his medical degree in 1898, with specialties in physiology and neurology. He was awarded the Grainger Testimonial Prize for his research on muscle contractions. However, the work of William James inspired McDougall to pursue psychology.

In 1898, McDougall became a fellow of St. John's College, as a result of his proposal for a neurophysiological study of the mind-body problem. In 1899 he accompanied the Cambridge Anthropological Expedition to the Torres Straits near New Guinea as the attending physician. His studies from the expedition, The Pagan Tribes of Borneo, with Charles Hose, were published in 1912.

Introduces experimental psychology in England

In 1900, McDougall married Annie Aurelia Hick-more and the couple eventually had three sons and two daughters. They spent their first year together in Göttingen, Germany, where McDougall studied experimental psychology with G. E. Müller. McDougall then became a lecturer at University College, London. His first publications, "On the Seat of the Psycho-Physical Processes" and "New Observations in Support of Thomas Young's Theory of Light-and Color-Vision, I-III" appeared in 1901. These were followed by papers on the physiology of attention and on the senses. In London, he also began working with Francis Galton and Charles Spearman on mental testing and eugenics , the theory that genetics could be used to improve the human race. McDougall co-founded the British Psychological Society in 1901. He also co-founded the British Journal of Psychology.

In 1904, McDougall moved to Oxford University as the Wilde Reader in Mental Philosophy, a post he held until 1920. He was the first experimental psychologist at Oxford. The first of McDougall's textbooks, Physiological Psychology, was published in 1905. One of his most successful texts, An Introduction to Social Psychology, first published in 1908, was also his most influential. In it, McDougall introduced his controversial theory of instincts, arguing that all human behavior, including social relationships, could be explained by the many instincts which were related to primary emotions. For example, fleeing was an instinct related to the emotion of fear . In later writings, instincts became "propensities" and he argued that the purpose of an instinct was to move one toward a goal. He called this "purposive" or "hormic" psychology.

Pursues paranormal psychology

In 1911, McDougall published Body and Mind in which he argued for the scientific existence of the human soul and discussed psychic research. His interest in paranormal psychology, including mental telepathy and clairvoyance, was increasing. In 1912, he was named a fellow of Corpus Christi College at Oxford. That same year, he became a fellow of the Royal Society of London. He served as vice-president of the Psychiatric Section of the Royal Society of Medicine from 1914 until 1918, when he became president. In 1920 he became president of the British Society for Psychical Research.

With the onset of World War I, McDougall joined the French army as an ambulance driver. Between 1915 and 1919, he served as a major in the British Army Medical Corps where he worked with victims of shell shock (post-traumatic stress disorder ). This work led, in 1926, to his Outline of Abnormal Psychology.

Moves to Harvard University

McDougall moved to the United States in 1920, accepting the William James Chair of Psychology at Harvard University. Outline of Psychology, published in 1923, is considered to be one of his most important books. However McDougall was not well-received at Harvard, due to the racist nature of his views on eugenics and his opposition to behaviorism . His debate with John B. Watson was published in 1928 as The Battle of Behaviorism. His interest in psychic phenomena also was controversial. McDougall became president of the American Society for Psychical Research and investigated the medium known as "Margery" (Mina S. Crandon), whom he eventually decided was a fraud. In 1925, he co-founded the Boston Society for Psychical Research.

In 1927, McDougall became chairman of the Psychology Department at Duke University in North Carolina. There he supported the establishment of the Parapsychology Laboratory and in the last year of his life he coedited the Journal of Parapsychology. McDougall also continued experiments in which he attempted to prove that white rats could inherit acquired traits . He wrote critiques of dynamic, Gestalt, and Freudian psychologies, exemplified by his 1935 book, Psychoanalysis and Social Psychology. He also wrote books on a variety of social issues, including world peace. In all, McDougall wrote more than 20 books and 167 articles. He held an honorary doctorate from the University of Manchester and was named an honorary fellow of St. John's College, Cambridge, in 1938. McDougall died of cancer in Durham, North Carolina, in 1938. In 1957, the Parapsychology Laboratory at Duke established the McDougall Award for Distinguished Work in Parapsychology.

See also Parapsychology

Margaret Alic

Further Reading

Nordby, Vernon J. and Calvin S. Hall. A Guide to Psychologists and Their Concepts. San Francisco: W. H. Freeman and Company, 1974.

McCurdy, Harold G. "McDougall, William." In Thinkers of the Twentieth Century, edited by Elizabeth Devine, Michael Held, James Vinson, and George Walsh., 373-75. Detroit: Gale Research Company, 1983.

McDougall, William. The Riddle of Life: A Survey of Theories. London: Methuen, 1938.

Van Over, Raymond and Laura Oteri, eds. William McDougall: Explorer of the Mind: Studies in Psychical Research. New York: Garrett, 1967.

McDougall, William (1871-1938)

views updated May 14 2018

McDougall, William (1871-1938)

Professor of psychology successively at Oxford University, Harvard University, and Duke University who made important contributions to parapsychology. He was born June 22, 1871, in Lancashire, England, and was educated at Owens College, Manchester, St. Thomas Hospital, London, and Cambridge, Oxford, and Göttingen universities. He was a fellow of St. John's College, Cambridge (1898; hon. fellow, 1938), a reader at University College London, and a reader in mental philosophy and fellow at Corpus Christi College, Oxford, before becoming a professor at Harvard.

In 1920 he became president of the Society for Psychical Research, and the following year became president of the American Society for Psychical Research (ASPR). He sat on the Scientific American Committee for the investigation of the mediumship of "Margery" (Mina S. Crandon ) and was a keen but reserved investigator who took great care initially not to commit himself to affirming the genuine occurrence of the supernormal. McDougall later came to believe that Margery's phenomena were created fraudulently and joined with other members of the ASPR to protest the organization's public identification with her. In 1925 he joined with others in the founding of the Boston Society for Psychical Research.

McDougall was one of the leading psychologists of his time and the author of numerous books. He contributed an article on hypnotism to the eleventh edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica (1910), as well as articles on hallucination, suggestion, and trance (11th-14th editions).

His continuing interest in psychical research was a dominant influence in the development of modern parapsychology. He is most remembered for the period he spent as head of the Psychology Department at Duke University (1927-38), and he encouraged J. B. Rhine in the founding of the Parapsychology Laboratory, from which modern research in laboratory controlled experiments developed. He also authored a variety of articles on parapsychology, defended the place of parapsychology as an academic discipline, and co-edited the Journal of Parapsychology (1937-38). He died November 28, 1938.


Berger, Arthur S., and Joyce Berger. The Encyclopedia of Parapsychology and Psychical Research. New York: Paragon House, 1991.

McDougall, William. Body and Mind: A History and Defense of Animism. London: Methuen, 1911.

. "The Case of Sally Beauchamp." Proceedings of the Society of Psychical Research 19-20 (1905-07).

. "Further Observations on the 'Margery' Case." Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research 19 (1925).

. "The Margery Mediumship." Psyche 26 (1926).

. Modern Materialism and Emergent Evolution. New York: D. Van Nostrand, 1929.

. "The Need for Psychical Research." Harvard Graduate Magazine. Reprinted in ASPR Journal 17 (1923).

. The Riddle of Life. London: Methuen, 1938.

Pleasants, Helene, ed. Biographical Dictionary of Parapsychology. New York: Helix Press, 1964.


views updated May 21 2018

psychology Variously defined as the science of behaviour or the science of mind, psychology emerged as a distinct discipline in the second half of the nineteenth century, with the work of researchers such as Wilhelm Wundt (1832–1920) who founded the first experimental laboratory of psychology in Leipzig. Much of the focus of the discipline has been on identifying the general mechanisms involved in processes such as perception, learning, motivation, and memory, although there has been some attention to individual differences, especially in relation to intelligence and personality.

Academic psychology has tended to be strongly positivist in orientation and the experimental method has been widely used—characteristics reflected in the strong support for behaviourism which became the dominant approach in Anglo-American psychology from early in the twentieth century through to the 1960s. The major focus of behaviourism was on learning and the approach was associated with a strong emphasis on environment and a rejection of the importance of innate factors in the development of human behaviour. Since the 1960s there has been a shift towards more cognitive approaches and acceptance of some innate capacities, with considerable attention paid to the way in which information is handled and processed. There has also been a renewed interest in neuropsychology. The experimental, positivist orientation remains, as does the long-standing hostility to psychoanalysis and other psycho-dynamic psychologies, although some psychologists and some departments are more eclectic than others. Certainly, both humanist and feminist psychology now usually find a place within the terrain of academic psychology.

As with other disciplines the delineation of fields changes over time. The older terrains of abnormal psychology or psychopathology have now been transformed and broadened into the field of health psychology. An important and long-standing area that has developed since the first decade of this century is that of social psychology. William McDougall published his Introduction to Social Psychology in 1908, though its terrain is ill-defined. Within the framework of psychology, social psychology focuses especially on the study of face-to-face social interaction, making considerable use of experimental studies of small groups. There is, however, a more sociological social psychology, particularly influenced by symbolic interactionism, and employing methods such as participant observation.

There is a large selection of introductory psychology texts from which to choose. Leonard Berkowitz , A Survey of Social Psychology (3rd edn., 1986)
and Louis A. Penner , Social Psychology (1986)
are both fairly comprehensive in their coverage.

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