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William Mcdougall

Studies medicine and psychology, Introduces experimental psychology in England, Pursues paranormal psychology, Moves to Harvard University

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.

William McDougall (Archives of the History of American Psychology. Reproduced with permission.)

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.

Additional topics

Psychology EncyclopediaFamous Psychologists & Scientists