Philippians 4:13

Historical lineage of the profession of counseling psychology

Author: Margie Y. Cash, B.B.A., M.S.

This paper is a retrospective analysis of the development of counseling psychology as a profession.  "In 1952 the Division of Counseling Psychology (Division 17) of the American Psycho­logical Association was formally established" (Gladding, 1988, p. 14).  In reviewing the establishment and growth of Division 17, however, there is a necessity for delving into the deeper origins of the field, some of which are found in examining the chronicles of clinical (abnormal) psychology.

In a review of the historical background of clinical psychology, Sarason and Sarason (1980) observed the following:

A review of the history of abnormal psychology provides a context within which the best of the modern can be under­stood.  This context is valuable because historical antecedents are more than simply a collection of names and dates.  They are also part of an evolution of ideas and a reflection of the beliefs, hopes, and fears of people over thousands of years.  (p. 22)

Recognizing that the field of clinical psychology shared in the eventual conception and birth of the Division of Counseling Psy­chology, one can hope for a similar context for enlightenment by taking an analogous look into the past and gaining a broader perspective on the evolution of Division 17.

Tracing the roots of modern day psychology, Sarason and Sarason (1980) continue:

The earliest writers about the psychological and organic approaches to deviance were the philosophers of ancient Greece.  At the height of their culture, ancient Greeks emphasized the rational analysis of the natural world in an amazingly modern way.  They also exhibited a high degree of curiosity about why things are as they seem.  The concepts of motivation and intelligence were among those the Greeks invented to explain the behavior they observed in everyday life.  (p. 23)

During the middle ages, the Christian church played an important role by fostering a spirit of charity toward the severely mentally disturbed.  According to Sarason and Sarason (1980), Saint Augustine "was perhaps the earliest forerunner of psychoanalysis, writing extensively about feelings, mental anguish, and human conflict" (p. 25).  Unfortunately, the efforts of Saint Augustine, which resemble the psychoanalytic method of today, were not pursued during the later middle ages, because demonology and superstition had made a powerful comeback.  "By the fourteenth century, the mentally ill came to be seen as despised objects of scorn and persecution" (Sarason & Sarason, 1980, p. 27).

Gradually, the idea that irrational behavior could be explained rationally became prevalent during the Renaissance.  Johann Weyer, a physician, was a major contributor in saving countless mentally ill people from being burned at the stake, by vigorously asserting that these people should be treated medi­cally (Sarason & Sarason, 1980).

By the end of the eighteenth century, superstition was being replaced by a commitment to rationality and observation as a pathway to scientific advancement.  "By the middle of the nineteenth century, increasingly accepted humanitarian ideas led to a broad recognition of the need to reform social institutions"  (Sarason & Sarason, 1980, p. 31).

McMahon and McMahon (1982) recount the history and methods of psychology:

One of the most formidable tasks facing the early scientist was just how to go about studying this incredibly complex creature, the human being.  The earliest clear-cut scien­tific attempts at such a feat occurred with the founding of the first psychology laboratory in 1879 by a German, Wilhelm Wundt.  (p. 16)

Wundt is remembered as the father of psychology and "spearheaded psychology's effort to pattern itself after physics, chemistry, and physiology" (McMahon & McMahon, 1982, p. 17).  Although Wundt's approach was a failure, he did succeed in emphasizing the need for objectivity and showed that attempts at categorizing people were not completely fruitless (McMahon & McMahon, 1982).

According to Atkinson, Atkinson, and Hilgard (1983), a major advocate of Wundt's approach in the United States was a psychologist at Cornell University named E. B. Titchener, who introduced the term structuralism to describe Wundt's psychology, which focused on mental structures and introspection.  Yet, there was strenuous opposition to the utterly analytical nature of structuralism.  William James, a distinguished psychologist at Harvard University, grew impatient with the restrictions placed upon psychology as it was developing under the structuralists.  Atkinson et al.  (1983) reported: "Because James asked how con­sciousness functions (particularly in the adaptive process), his approach to psychology was named functionalism" (p. 595).  Both structuralism and functionalism played significant roles by pro­viding systematic approaches to the study of psychology, but by 1920, three new schools of thought were emerging:  behaviorism, Gestalt psychology, and psychoanalysis.

Behaviorists discussed psychological phenomena as beginning with a stimulus and ending with a response.  John B. Watson, reacting against the tradition of an era, founded a new form of psychology without introspection.  In studying the behavior of humans and animals, Watson made no assertions about consciousness and described behavior as public and consciousness as private.

Stimulus-response psychology was the study of independent and dependent variables and was not a theory but a language that was both explicit and communicable.  As such, this outlook is widely prevalent in psychology today (Atkinson et al., 1983).

About the same time behaviorism was surfacing in America, Gestalt psychology was appearing in Germany.  Gestalt psychology, which wholeheartedly rejected introspective psychology, also rejected behaviorism.  According to Atkinson et al.  (1983), Gestaltists believed that:  "What we see is relative to back­ground, to other aspects of the whole.  The whole is different from the sum of its parts; the whole consists of parts in rela­tionship" (p. 599).  Perception-centered interpretations of Gestalt psychologists in learning, memory and problem solving have been foundational in current developments in cognitive psy­chology, which focuses on thoughts and their influence on feelings and behavior.

Psychoanalytic psychology was introduced by Sigmund Freud and focuses on the unconscious.  Basic to the theory is the idea that "the unacceptable (forbidden, punished) wishes of childhood are driven out of awareness and become part of the unconscious, where (while out of awareness) they remain influential" (Atkinson et al., 1983, p. 599).  Unconscious expressions include dreams, slips of speech, and mannerisms.  Freudian influence has been so widespread that even persons who know nothing about psychology seem to have a basic familiarity with psychoanalysis.

As guidance and vocational counseling came on the professional scene in the early 1900s, and new theories of counseling emerged, the emphasis began to shift from studying merely abnor­mal psychology to normal human growth and development.  Thus, the stage was set when Carl Rogers published a revolu­tionary book entitled Counseling and Psychotherapy in 1942 (cited in Gladding, 1988).  Subsequently, the Veterans Administration funded the training of counselors and psychologists, rewrote the specifications for vocational counselors, and coined the term counseling psychologist (Gladding, 1988).

In summary, counseling psychology has grown from a narrow base in clinical psychology and vocational guidance counseling to a broader base which facilitates the development of potential in all persons.  As reported by Thompson and Super (1964) in their delineation of counseling psychology, "this specialty has made progress in developing a concept of role and function which is broader than vocational guidance but different from clinical psychology in its emphasis upon development, assessment, plan, and role" (p. 160).  As the demand for well trained counseling psychologists continues to increase, the challenge to meet this social need will continue to stimulate and inspire this growing profession.



Atkinson, R. L., Atkinson, R. C., & Hilgard, E. R.  (1983). Brief history of psychology.  Introduction to psychology (8th ed., pp. 593-601).  New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

Gladding, S. T.  (1988).  History and systems of counseling.  In V. Knight (Ed.), Counseling a comprehensive profession (pp. 3-26).  Columbus, OH: Merrill.

McMahon, F. B., & McMahon, J. W.  (1982).  History and methods of psychology.  In W. E. Jeffrey & S. R. Maddi (Eds.), Psychology: The hybrid science (4th ed., pp. 2-32).  Homewood, IL: Dorsey Press.

Sarason, I. G., & Sarason, B. R.  (1980).  The historical background of modern abnormal psychology.  In M. Harrison (Ed.), Abnormal psychology (3rd ed., pp. 21-40).  Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Thompson, A. S., & Super, D. E. (Eds.).  (1964).  The current status of counseling psychology.  The professional preparation of counseling psychologists (pp. 151-162).  New York: Columbia University.