1.14 Gustav Fechner: Psychology Theory & Explanation

Jan 16, 2020 | ch1 History & Approaches in Psychology, Courses, Intro to Psychology

In this lesson, you will learn about Gustav Fechner and the influence he had on the field of psychology. Specifically, you will learn how Fechner’s background in religion and science helped him forge the way to making psychology a quantifiable science.

Who Was Gustav Fechner?

Gustav Fechner was a German psychologist born in 1801 and is considered the founder of experimental psychology, the branch of psychology that applied the scientific method to the research of behavior and mind.

At the age of 5, Fechner was fluent in Latin and began college at 16. He earned his medical degree by the young age of 21. While most people enter the modern workforce by flipping burgers or bagging groceries, Fechner’s first job was translating chemistry and physics writings from French to his native language. He also used the early years of his career to research electricity and teach at Leipzig University. However, he was forced to quit his professorship when he suffered severe eye damage caused by staring directly at the sun too long, as part of a study on visual afterimages. This setback, and the neurosis it caused him to suffer, eventually led to his research of the mind and its relationship with the body.

Fechner and Psychophysics

It’s also important to note that Fechner was a religious man and an animist, which means that he believed in spiritual beings that are separate from their physical bodies. He combined this belief with his strong background in science to establish a new branch of psychology called psychophysics. In his 1860 book, Elements of Psychophysics, Fechner argues that the mind and body – though they seem to be two entirely separate entities – are in fact two sides of the same reality. Fechner believed that the mind is capable of measurement using perception and sensation, and that psychology could be a quantified science.

Fechner proved his theory by developing experimental methods for measuring the sensations one feels relative to the degree of stimulation – the method of just-noticeable differences, the method of constant stimuli and the method of average error. These procedures proved that psychology could be a quantifiable science and are the foundation for experimental psychology.

The Weber-Fechner Law

Fechner was responsible for a variety of psychology theories, but one of his most notable was the Weber-Fechner law, which builds on the findings of psychologist Ernst Heinrich Weber, and focuses on just-noticeable differences. This law concerns the relationship between the intensity or quantity of a stimulus and how much needs to be added for a person to be able to notice a difference.

For example, let’s say you’re getting an eye exam. As part of the process, the optometrist puts a device in front of your eyes that change the power of the lens, and she asks if the letters in front of your face appear ‘better’ or ‘worse.’ At first, the differences between the strength of the lenses may be easy to recognize, but as they ‘hone in’ on the appropriate strength of the lens for your eyes, you may find it hard to differentiate which one is better or worse. This example demonstrates how a person’s sensation can lead them to see the noticeable differences between two stimuli – in this case, the lens strength – but there comes a point when the differences between the two stimuli are barely noticeable, if at all.

Lesson Summary

Gustav Fechner was a German psychologist born in 1801 and is considered the founder of experimental psychology, which applies the scientific method to the research of behavior and mind. He established a new branch of psychology called psychophysics. Fechner believed that the mind is capable of measurement using perception and sensation and that psychology could be a quantified science. One of his most notable theories was the Weber-Fechner law, which focuses on just-noticeable differences. This law concerns the relationship between the intensity of a stimulus and how much needs to be added for a person to be able to notice a difference.

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