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William McDougall: biography of this controversial psychologist and researcher

William McDougall: biography of this controversial psychologist and researcher

February 11, 2024

William McDougall (1891-1938) was an American psychologist recognized as one of the founders of social psychology. In addition, he contributed in an important way to the study of psychopathology after experiences in war, paranormal psychology and theories of instincts.

In this article we will see a biography of William McDougall and some of his main contributions to the development of psychology.

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William McDougall: biography of a pioneer in psychology

William McDougall was born on June 22, 1891 in Lancashire, England. He was the son of Shimwell McDougall and Rebekah Smalley, a pair of high-class industrialists from Scotland. Since he was young, McDougall had the opportunity to attend private schools, both in England and Germany. He trained in different areas, not only in psychology but also in the natural sciences, and presided over different associations of psychology.

He also served as a professor in the most prestigious North American universities, where he was recognized as an important psychologist, although at the same time he generated intense debates on the study of the mind and eugenics. In the same context he published numerous and important works , and died in Durham, North Carolina, in 1938, not without having stopped working as a professor at Duke University.

Academic and professional training

In the beginning William McDougall became interested in the natural sciences , despite the fact that his father motivated him to study law. His mother, on the other hand, supported him to start university studies in science from a young age, an issue that soon began at the University of Manchester, specifically in the areas of biology and geology.

Finally, in 1894, he obtained a degree in natural sciences from the University of Cambridge . At the same university, McDougall was strongly interested in the study of human behavior. But, to specialize in this, in this era it was necessary to train first in medicine. By the year of 1989, McDougall had already obtained a medical degree with a specialty in psychology and neurology.

In this period he was especially interested in the work of one of the most recognized scientists of the time, William James.

Motivated by his work, McDougall ended up focusing specifically on psychology. Thus, in the year of 1898, and in the context of the University of Cambridge, McDougall began to investigate one of the problems that have been most present throughout the development of psychology: the mind-body relationship .

Two years later he did some work related to the anthropology of the time, specifically on the Asian island of Borneo, and a year later he moved to Germany, where he specialized in experimental psychology at the hands of another of the great scientists of the time, GE Muller.

Theoretical contributions

William McDougall developed widely in psychology. In the North American context where this last discipline was consolidated, McDougall contributed different knowledge about experimental psychology, paranormal psychology, psychopathology and social psychology in relation to the instincts.

Likewise maintained different arguments in favor of eugenics , and others against behavioral currents, which generated some rejection by the North American scientific community. We will see below some of the theoretical proposals of this psychologist.

Experimental psychology applied to the study of the psyche

After his return to England, this psychologist served as a teacher and researcher. In fact, McDougall is recognized as the founder of experimental psychology in Oxford .

In the same context he founded the British Society of Psychology and the British Journal of Psychology, and worked together with the physician and anthropologist Francis Galton and psychologist specialist in intelligence and statistics, Charles Spearman. These collaborations allowed him to develop works on very diverse topics, ranging from eugenics to the development of intelligence tests.

In the year of 1911, and before the development of different approaches on behavior and the human psyche, McDougall worked together with Carl Jung , and was interested in studying from an experimental method the abnormal psychology. In fact, McDougall defended the scientific existence of the soul.

For him, the human being is composed of both soul and body, and one of the tasks of science is to explain the relationship between the two.Among other things this led him to the study of telepathy and near-death experiences.

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Studies in psychopathology and debates about his thinking

The Second World War opened the way for William McDougall to develop new interests and research.

After participating with the members of the British army who had survived the war, McDougall became interested in psychopathology and ended up presiding over the Psychiatry Section of the Royal Society of Medicine in the year of 1918. He also presided over the British Psychic Research Society in 1920.

This, coupled with his closeness to William James, opened the way for him to become a professor at Harvard University in the 1920s. However, McDougall's work was controversial in the American context where psychology it was consolidated.

Behaviorism was increasingly recognized, and McDougall, not only was not enrolled in this stream but was quite critical of it. He defended the study of psychic phenomena, since, for McDougall, psychology had to be holistic, that is, it had to consider different factors beyond the material to understand human behavior.

On the other hand, McDougall was criticized in an important way for his arguments in defense of eugenics. Specifically He argued that inheritance played a fundamental role in human behavior , and in addition, said inheritance was different according to the different races of the human species. For this reason, one of the means to enhance the skills of this species was eugenics, or a "selective breeding" that would allow to enhance the most valued genes.

Theory of instincts and intentional psychology

True to his training in natural sciences, he believed in the scientific method applied to psychology, and defended the theory of instincts. He argued that the latter was the one that could best explain all kinds of human behavior.

He understood instincts as innate psychophysical dispositions . For McDougall, it is the instincts that allow us to develop the cognitive component of behavior, the emotional component and the volitional component. For example, they allow us to attend to different objects, after attending them to experience emotions, and finally to act towards them in a certain way.

Thus, behavior is not a response to something external that triggers it, but behavior is the result of an internal motivation due to human instincts. For this reason he called his approach "intensional psychology". The behavior is, in addition, an answer always oriented to objectives : it is useful and pursues a purpose. However, this purpose may remain hidden and may not be understood by the same person who performs the behavior.

Outstanding works

Some of William McDougall's most influential works are Introduction to Social Psychology, from 1908, where he developed his theory of instincts. This work, in fact, is considered one of the classic texts of psychology, as well as one of the first focused on the relationship between individual and society. In the same way it is considered as one of the founding texts of social psychology .

His work is also recognized Body and Mind, of 1911, where he defended the scientific existence of the soul; Y Outline of Abnormal Psychology, of 1926, where his research on psychopathology is reflected.

Bibliographic references:

  • William McDougall (2014). New World Encyclopedia. Retrieved October 1, 2018. Available at //
  • William McDougall (2018). Encyclopaedia Britannica. Retrieved October 1, 2018. Available at //

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