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Ten famous psychology achievements

Many psychologists have made their name over the years. See our list of significant individuals and their contributions to the field.

Sigmund and Anna Freud

A number of psychologists have gained some notoriety over the years, with a few considered outright famous. Here’s a list of significant psychologists and their major contributions to the field.

Ivan Pavlov (1849–1936)

Ivan Pavlov was educated in natural sciences in St Petersburg, Russia. He was mostly interested in physiology, and while researching the digestive system in dogs he made his most famous discovery – that dogs salivate before the delivery of food.

Pavlov rang a bell when feeding the dogs and they soon learned to associate the sound with food. After some time the dogs salivated in response to the bell alone. Named Pavlovian or classical conditioning, this discovery has a number of real-life applications including in the treatment of phobias and for aversion therapy.

Sigmund Freud (1856–1939)

Considered a founding father of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud first qualified as a doctor of medicine at the University of Vienna. He went on to work in cerebral anatomy and his fascination with the brain developed from there.

Freud died in 1939 but his legacy lives on, with many of his theories forming the basis for modern clinical psychology.

Carl Jung (1875–1961)

Like many on our list, Carl Jung studied medicine, at the University of Basel. His interest in spiritual phenomena led him to combine his two passions and become involved in the field of psychiatry.

Jung befriended Sigmund Freud and, for a time, was viewed almost as his protégé. However, he started to develop his own ideas and the two men grew apart. Jung’s synthesis of the concepts of introversion and extraversion formed a major foundation of personality psychology and also influenced psychotherapy.

Melanie Klein (1882–1960)

Austrian psychoanalyst Melanie Klein reached academic fame in the early 20th century for her work on psychoanalytic child psychology. Klein’s ideas included a strong belief in the therapeutic effects of child play – she proposed that play gave children the chance to express their experiences and feelings.

Kleinian psychoanalysis is one of the major schools in psychology, and an area you’ll likely cover if studying the subject at university.

Karen Horney (1883–1952)

Best known for her work on neurosis and feminine psychology, Karen Horney was educated at the University of Freiburg, University of Göttingen and the University of Berlin.

Horney’s theory of neurosis stipulated that there are ten types of neuroses, which are used to cope with anxieties caused by interpersonal relations – a theory that remains prominent today. Horney also famously opposed Sigmund Freud’s views on female psychology and used the scientific method to prove that societies encourage women to be dependent on, and overvalue, men.

Anna Freud (1895–1982)

Daughter of the illustrious Sigmund Freud, Anna Freud also found her own voice in the world of psychological discovery. She and Melanie Klein are considered the founders of psychoanalytic child psychology. Freud’s work specifically emphasised the importance of the ego in serving and opposing subconscious behaviour.

Mary Whiton Calkins (1863–1930) 

Best known for her groundbreaking work in self-psychology, Mary Whiton Calkins studied at Harvard – although because she was a woman, she never received a doctoral degree in psychology despite doing everything that's needed to do to get one.

Calkin believed that the conscious self was intrinsic to psychology, and she invented the paired-associate technique that studied memory. She wrote more than 100 professional papers throughout her career and became the first female president of the American Psychological Association in 1905.

Solomon Asch (1907–1996)

Solomon Asch became interested in psychology towards the end of his undergraduate studies, so much so that he pursued his graduate degree in the subject area at Columbia University. Asch soon became involved with Gestalt psychology and social psychology, becoming famous for his conformity experiments where he proposed that group pressure can cause humans to entirely change opinion in spite of obvious facts. 

Stanley Milgram (1935–1984)

Stanley Milgram began his university career with an undergraduate degree in political science, moving on to pursue his passion in social psychology by studying for a PhD at Harvard. He became renowned for his work on the ‘Behavioural Study of Obedience’. 

In this study, Milgram measured the willingness of subjects to obey an authority figure, despite ordering the participants to perform acts conflicting with their conscience. He found that 26 of the 40 subjects seemingly delivered electric shocks of up to 450 volts to another person when ordered to do so. The shocks were fake but the experiment has been used to suggest why people are willing to commit the most appalling atrocities in times of war.

Phillip Zimbardo (1933–)

Phillip Zimbardo completed an MA and PhD in psychology at Yale University in the 1960s. He accepted the position of Professor of Psychology at Stanford University in 1971 and soon after conducted the famous Stanford prison study.

Zimbardo used subjects to examine the psychology of prison life, with half the participants being assigned the role of the guard and the others the role of a prisoner. The two-week experiment ended after only six days as the guards became sadistic and the prisoners showed extreme passivity and depression. Zimbardo concluded that certain situations have a higher influence over our psyche then we expect.

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