William McDougall1871–1938


McDougall emphasised the role of motivation in behaviour, like Freud, but he focused on its instinctive basis. Instincts were the driving force of behaviour, directing it towards the goal of their satisfaction. For this reason he called his psychology purposive, and later hormic: “The hormic psychology imperatively requires recognition not only of instinctive action but of instincts… Hormic activity is an energy manifestation; but hormic theory does not presume to say just what form or forms of energy or transformations of energy are involved.. The most essential facts are (a) that the energy manifestation is guided into channels such that the organism approaches its goal; (b) that this guidance is effected through a cognitive activity, an awareness, however vague, of the present situation and of the goal; (c) that the activity, once initiated and set on its path through cognitive activity, tends to continue until the goal is attained; (d) that, when the goal is attained, the activity terminates; (e) that progress towards and attainment of the goal are pleasurable experiences, and thwarting and failure are painful or disagreeable experiences.” He defined psychology as the positive science of conduct, following Janet in using the term “conduct” for what others referred to as “behaviour”, but his approach to a science of behaviour was radically different to that adopted by behaviourists. Indeed, much of his approach to psychology appeared anachronistic: he supported vitalism, utilized introspection as a method, presented long lists of human instincts, and published results of experiments with rats said to favour the inheritance of acquired characteristics. McDougall was born in Oldham, Lancashire, and studied science at Manchester University followed by medicine at Cambridge University. After graduation he joined an anthropological expedition to the Torres Straits and Borneo. He first taught at University College, London, initiating experiments on visual perception, the area that he later referred to as “his favourite field of experiment”. His readership at Oxford University did not provide access to any laboratory facilities, but he did continue with his experimental work. After World War I he was appointed to fill the post vacated by Hugo Münsterberg (1863-1916) at Harvard University, after which he spent the last eleven years of his life at Duke University. McDougall was not at ease in the United States; in part this was a consequence of his unpopular views and in part because of his seeming arrogance. His portrait is made up of goal-directed arrows reflecting the many instinctive forces he considered shape our conduct.