Decolonizing the Field and History of Psychology

The History of Psychology is a required course for all graduate students of clinical psychology programs accredited by the American Psychological Association (APA) (Petzolt et al., 2011). These courses aim to teach students about the origins and development of the field of psychological science.

According to many syllabi of the History of Psychology course, the story of psychology starts with Wilhelm Wundt. Considered the “father of psychology,” Wilhelm Wundt is credited with establishing the first psychological lab in Germany (Blumenthal, 1980). Other prominent figures credited as the founding figures of modern psychology include Sigmund Freud, Carl Gustav Jung, William James, BF Skinner, and Ivan Pavlov.

Although Freud is credited with “discovering” the subconscious, these narratives largely ignore studies on psychotherapy and its adaptations in nonwestern cultures that emerged separately, had their own systems and did not focus on western middle-class experience and values ​​(Kakar, 1985). The use of the words “invention” and “discovery” denies the existence of any indigenous entity that pre-existed these western definitions.

These ways of teaching psychology emanate from settler-colonial views, using the “terra nulius” colonial principle in which indigenous peoples “did not exist,” thus justifying colonization. In similar ways, the field of psychology participates in settler colonialism by denying its relationship to harm, segregation, and oppression, as well as denying the existence of psychological science before Wundt.

Our history syllabi rarely cite many psychologists and thinkers of color from non-Western countries. Some examples include Frantz Fanon, a black psychiatrist from La Martinique, and Al Razi, a Persian psychiatrist and founder of the first-ever psychiatric wing in humanity in what we now call Iraq (appearing in the 8th century, long before the first Asylum in London appeared in Bethlem in the 13th century).

Our current system does not teach about other non-Western perspectives on mental health. Examples include views on schizophrenia in Laos, the Bimaristan system in the Islamic world championing the humane treatment of the mentally ill, and Chinese perspectives on depression and its connection to spirituality, among many others.

We also do not talk about how many current psychological concepts are attributed to white American scientists, while these concepts also appeared in indigenous cultures. For instance, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs was inspired by the Blackfoot indigenous tribe (Michel, 2014). Al-Jahiz, an Arab and African scholar of the ninth century, started describing what is now known as classical conditioning observations and experiments with dogs (Book of the Animalspp.120-121) long before Ivan Pavlov.

Abu Zayd al-Balkhi was the first to describe the condition of OCD in Baghdad (Awaad & Ali, 2015), unlike what is currently cited in the Stanford Medicine description of OCD in which it is attributed to the Oxford Don, Robert Burton in Britain (Stanford Medicine, nd). Acceptance commitment concepts have also been present in indigenous cultures that ought to be acknowledged in ACT therapies (Dousti et al., 2021). None of these scholars from the global majority are included in the story of psychological science and behaviorism.

Reckoning With a Difficult Past

As psychologists, we must acknowledge the harm that the field inflicted on Black, Indigenous, and people of color. The field of psychology participated in experimentation on Black and people of color. The field of psychology also participated in racist and eugenic rhetoric.

Drapetomania, for instance, was a pathological diagnosis used in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders for slaves who wished to run away from the plantations (Willoughby, 2018).

Fisher’s work, widely still used in the statistics, attached superiority to the White Race (Gelman, 2020). Forced sterilization in the United States was used to limit the birth of the “feebleminded” and “insane.” Intelligence tests developed by American Psychologists Lewis Terman of Stanford and Robert Yerkes of Harvard stressed the notion of intelligence being hereditary, enforcing eugenic systems.

In response to the colonial roots of psychology, Frantz Fanon, a psychiatrist and philosopher who lived under colonial rule, carefully differentiated between a patient and a client (Gordon, 2019). Compared to a “patient,” a “client,” according to Fanon, is not necessarily ill but is rather living in suffering as a reaction to unjust systems of oppression installed by white supremacy (Gordon, 2019).

Even though Fanon trained in Paris during a Western-centric training that aims to work around pathologies, he considered that the idea of ​​”fixing” someone who is colonized and racialized, having them “accept” and assimilate an oppressive system is a destructive act that he refused to do as a psychiatrist (Gordon, 2019).

How does talking about the roots of psychology inform treatment?

Such western-centric views affect our work with refugees in our mental health system. When we do not acknowledge different roots of psychological science or different perspectives of understanding the human psyche, we risk imposing colonial viewpoints on our clients.

Our current psychologists are being trained in very few therapeutic modalities that are not culturally sensitive. For instance, our current Western therapeutic models are rooted in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which relies heavily on cognitive restructuring (Hofmann et al., 2012). This model may not be efficient with Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) trauma survivors having thoughts about the trauma as flashbacks, especially since many cultures somaticize distress instead of verbalizing it.

For instance, a large part of the Congolese population speaks French, a colonially imposed language. However, other indigenous languages ​​(ex: Lingala) are orally transmitted and not written. This poses difficulties in applying CBT therapy that relies on written homework and verbalizing cognitive content. Another example is the heavy reliance of the western mental health system on westernized mindfulness practices, which are appropriate from south Asian cultures (Poceski, 2020) and did not make their way into the US by individuals of indigenous heritages using these practices.

These practices are used with clients from different cultural backgrounds without examining cultural sensitivity. In addition, previous research shows that some forms of mindfulness may be deleterious for severe trauma survivors with clinical dissociation (Treleaven, 2018). We risk doing harm when we do not account for culture or history.

When we erase BIPOC and nonwestern contributors to psychological science from history, we end up with tunnel vision. We do not see other perspectives of mental phenomena. This eventually harms our treatment of refugee clients from other cultures and minoritized and systemically oppressed BIPOC clients.

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