The 5 Founding Fathers and A History of Positive Psychology (2022)

The 5 Founding Fathers and A History of Positive Psychology (1)After the Second World War, the focus of psychology was on treating abnormal behaviors and the resulting mental illnesses.

Dissatisfied with this approach, humanist psychologists, such as Abraham Maslow, Carl Rogers, and Eric Fromm helped renew interest in the more positive aspects of human nature.

Before you read on, we thought you might like to download our 3 Positive Psychology Exercises for free. These science-based exercises will explore fundamental aspects of positive psychology including strengths, values, and self-compassion, and will give you the tools to enhance the wellbeing of your clients, students, or employees.

This Article Contains:

  • Inspiration in a Bed of Roses
  • The Four Waves of Psychology
  • The First Wave: The Disease Model
  • The Second Wave: Behaviorism
  • The Third Wave: Humanistic Psychology
  • The Fourth Wave: Positive Psychology
  • The Founding Fathers: Developing Positive Psychology
  • Influential Positive Psychology Researchers
  • References

Inspiration in a Bed of Roses

The story ofSeligman’s epiphany in his rose garden—which started the movement of positive psychology—has becomesomewhat a folk legend. This is how the story goes:

Seligman’s daughter, who was five at the time, had been trying to get her father’s attention when he turned around and snapped at her. Unhappy with this response, his daughter asked him whether or not he remembered how she used to whine when she was 3 and 4?

She told him that when she turned five, she decided to stop – and if she was able to stop whining, then he was able to stop being a grouch!

This revelation of developing what was right, rather than fixating on what was wrong, sparked what Seligman would go on to promote during his career as APA president—that we should teach our children and ourselves to look at our strengths rather than our weaknesses (Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi, 2000).

Positive psychology can be viewed as the “fourth wave” in the evolution of psychology, the first 3waves being, respectively, the disease model, behaviorism, and humanistic psychology.

This approach contrasts with how, in its early years (the second half the 19th century and the first half of the 20th), the practice of psychology focused mainly on cure and treatment of psychic ailments, which is a decidedly negative focus.

Some of the greatest names in the early field of psychology were foundational, such as Freud, Adler, and Jung. But over time, psychology began to acquire a negative outlook and stereotype, with its focus on the darkest chambers of the human mind and the near total exclusion of its sunlit highlands.

Positive psychology, as the name suggests, is psychology with a positive orientation. What is the science behind what makes humans well?

It does not imply that the rest of psychology is unhelpful or all negative and, in fact, the term “psychology as usual” has been coined to denote the rest of psychology.

The Four Waves of Psychology

To understand the roots of positive psychology, we have to revisit the three waves of psychology that came before that.After all, it was not until recently that the field of psychology began expanding its research criteria to study what makes people thrive, instead of what makes people sick.


The following three sections offer a brief summary of Western psychologies waves, or movements, before introducing the fourth-wave that brings us to positive psychology.

The 1stWave: The Disease Model

During the second half of the 19thcentury and the early part of the 20th, psychology was concerned with curing mental disorders, such as schizophrenia and human complexes of various kinds (inferiority, power, Electra, Oedipus, etc.).

And why not? There has always been, and will perhaps always be, a significant incidence of mental illness in all communities, irrespective of race or religion, caste or creed.

The attempt of psychologists to cure these ailments was quite natural and laudable, and the work of early psychologists, such as Sigmund Freud, Adler, and Carl Jung was indeed very effective. (Note: It must be added here that of these pioneers, the big 3 of Vienna as they were called, Carl Jung was perhaps the earliest psychologist to recognize, and be troubled by, psychology’s negative focus).

Over time, this disease focus pushed psychology towards the dark recesses of the human mind and away from the deeper well-springs of human energy and potential. As highlighted by Martin Seligman, in his 2008 TED talk on Positive Psychology, the negative focus of psychology resulted in three major drawbacks for the field:

  1. Psychologists became victimologists and pathologizers (they forgot that people make choices and have responsibility);
  2. They forgot about improving normal lives and high talent (the mission to make relatively untroubled people happier, more fulfilled, more productive), and;
  3. In their rush to repair the damage, it never occurred to them to develop interventions to make people happier.

The 2nd Wave: Behaviorism

B. F. Skinner of Harvard University was the originator, along with John B. Watson and Ivan Pavlov, of the behavioral approach in psychology. Skinner believed that free will was an illusion, and human behavior was largely dependent on the consequences of our previous actions.

If a particular behavior attracted the right type of reinforcement it had a high probability of being repeated, and if, on the other hand, the behavior resulted in punishment it had a good chance of not being repeated (Schacter, Daniel, & Gilbert Daniel, 2011).

Skinner believed that given the right structure of rewards and punishments, human behavior could be totally modified in an almost mechanical sense.

This theory undoubtedly has a lot of merits, particularly the idea ofoperant conditioning—the influencing and eliciting desired behavior, through a well-conceived reward system.

However, the manipulation of behavior that such a properly structured reward system allows is open to gross abuse by autocrats and dictators in terms of oppressing their subjects. And not just in society at large, but in the workplace as well. J E R Staddon and Noam Choksy were among Skinner’s major critics (Staddon, 1995; Chomsky & Noam, 1959).

Furthermore, Skinner’s total rejection of free will is still disturbing. It goes against all that human history stands for—the ultimate, and the enduring triumph of the human spirit against overwhelming odds.

Criticisms of his theory notwithstanding, Skinner stands tall as a brilliant psychologist and prolific writer. With 21 books and 180 articles to his credit, he was voted the most influential psychologist of the 20th century in a 2002 survey (Haggbloom et al., 2002).

The 3rdWave: Humanistic Psychology

The 5 Founding Fathers and A History of Positive Psychology (2)This wave is known for its two major strands of thought – existentialist psychology (Soren Kierkegaard, Jean-Paul Sartre) and humanistic psychology (Abraham Maslow and Carl Rogers).

According to Sartre, every human being is responsible for working out his identity and his life’s meaning through the interaction between himself and his surroundings. No one else can do it for him, least of all a non-existent God. For this reason, meaning is something truly unique to each person– separate and independent (Jean-Paul Sartre, 1946).

One cannot quarrel with this strand of thought, particularly the responsibility of the individual for his own destiny, but the underlying atheism is dampening.

What about people who cannot find their identity and their life’s meaning on their own?

Uncontrollable anxiety would be inevitable, particularly in the absence of faith in a supernatural being, an idea rejected by existentialism. This anxiety is recognized in psychotherapy as “existential anxiety” and has been of major therapeutic concern of many leading psychologists, particularly Viktor Frankl, the originator of logo-therapy.

There is a considerable divergence of views on the question of “What is life’s meaning?” and, clearly, each individual needs to work it out for themselves, with their own unique experience and surroundings.

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Here is a very thoughtful quote from Kierkegaard, arguably the earliest exponent of existentialism:

“What I really need is to get clear about what I must do, not what I must know, except insofar as knowledge must precede every act. What matters is to find a purpose, to see what it really is that God wills that I shall do; the crucial thing is to find a truth which is truth for me, to find the idea for which I am willing to live and die. (…) I certainly do not deny that I still accept an imperative of knowledge and that through it men may be influenced, but then it must come alive in me, and this is what I now recognize as the most important of all”

(Kierkegaard, Soren, 1962).

The humanistic movement was about adding a holistic dimension to psychology. Humanistic psychologists believed that our behavior is determined by our perception of the world around us and its meanings, that we are not simply the product of our environment or biochemistry, and that we are internally influenced and motivated to fulfill our human potential.

Humanistic psychology emphasizes the inherent human drive towards self-actualization, the process of realizing and expressing one’s own capabilities and creativity. This approach rose to prominence in the mid-20th century in response to the limitations of the disease model in fulfilling the human desire for actualization and a life of meaning (Benjafield, 2010).

The 5basic principles or postulates of humanistic psychology are:

  • Human beings, as human, supersede the sum of their parts. They cannot be reduced to components;
  • Human beings have their existence in a uniquely human context, as well as in a cosmic ecology;
  • Human beings are aware and are aware of being aware – i.e. they are conscious. Human consciousness always includes an awareness of oneself in the context of other people;
  • Human beings have the ability to make choices and therefore have responsibility;
  • Human beings are intentional—they aim at goals, are aware that they cause future events, and seek meaning, value, and creativity.

It is hard to miss the significant foundation that the humanistic approach has provided for positive psychology.

The 4thWave: Positive Psychology

As already pointed out earlier in this article, positive psychology is psychology with a positive orientation, concerned with authentic happiness and a good life.

Humanistic psychologist Abraham Maslow maintained that psychology itself does not have an accurate understanding of the human potential and that the field tends not to raise the proverbial bar high enough with respect to maximum attainment.

He wrote:

“The science of psychology has been far more successful on the negative than on the positive side; it has revealed to us much about man’s shortcomings, his illnesses, his sins, but little about his potentialities, his virtues, his achievable aspirations, or his full psychological height. It is as if psychology had voluntarily restricted itself to only half its rightful jurisdiction, and that the darker, meaner half”

(Maslow, 1954, p. 354).

While the previous waves of psychology focused on human flaws, overcoming deficiencies, avoiding pain, and escape from unhappiness, positive psychology focuses on well-being, contentment, excitement, cheerfulness, the pursuit of happiness, and meaning in life.>

The humanistic movement wanted to look at what drives us to want to grow and achieve fulfillment. However, even though their conceptual ideas of human nature did influence the development of positive psychology, they are separate. While the humanistic approach used more qualitative methods, positive psychology is developing amore scientific epistemology of understanding human beings.

Psychology may be converging— finally—with the quintessence of the world’s great religions. It may finally be discovering that the key to human evolution lies in a fine blend of the mind and the spirit. It may, at last, be recognizing and accepting the dark chambers of the human mind as well as its sunlit highlands.

Who are the passionate visionaries behind this fourth wave of psychology? Let’s find out…

The 5 Founding Fathers: Developing Positive Psychology

In 1998, Martin Seligman was elected President of the American Psychological Association and it was then that Positive Psychology became the theme of his term as president. He is widely seen as the father of contemporary positive psychology (About Education, 2013).

However, while most people see Seligman as the face of Positive Psychology, he didn’t start the field alone and was not the first ‘positive psychologist.’

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There have been many influencers which have contributed to this new era of psychology.

1) William James

James was a philosoThe 5 Founding Fathers and A History of Positive Psychology (3)pher, physician, and psychologist, and he was the first educator to offer a psychology course in the United States. He argued that in order to thoroughly study a person’s optimal functioning, one has to take in how they personally experience something, otherwise known as their subjective experience.

He also saw the importance of combining both positivistic and phonological methodology, which is what many now refer to as ‘radical empiricism’ because he was interested in what was objective and observable.

Despite this, many consider James to be America’s “first positive psychologist” (Froh, 2004) because of his deep interest in the subjectivity of a person and because he believed that “objectivity is based on intense subjectivity” (2004).

2) Abraham Maslow

The 5 Founding Fathers and A History of Positive Psychology (4)While the entire 3rd Wave of Humanistic Psychology played a vital role in providing Positive Psychology with foundational concepts, there was no greater influence from the approach then Abraham Maslow.

In fact, the term “positive psychology” was first coined by Maslow, in his 1954 book “Motivation and Personality.” Maslow did not like how psychology concerned itself mostly with disorder and dysfunction, arguing that it did not have an accurate understanding of human potential.

He emphasized how psychology successfully shows our negative side by revealing much about our illnesses and shortcomings, but not enough of our virtues or aspirations (Maslow, 1954, p. 354).

3) Martin Seligman

The 5 Founding Fathers and A History of Positive Psychology (5)Seligman is an American Psychologist, educator, and author of self-help books. He is famous for his experiments and theory of learned helplessness, as well as for being the founder of Positive Psychology.

His work in learned helplessness and pessimistic attitudes garnered an interest in optimism, which led to his work with Christopher Peterson (mentioned below) to create a positive side to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM).

In their research, they looked at different cultures over time to create a list of virtues that are highly valued and included it in their Character Strengths and Virtuessection in the DSM: wisdom/knowledge, courage, transcendence, justice, humanity, and temperance.

In 1996, he was elected President of the American Psychological Association and the central theme he chose for his term as president was positive psychology. He wanted mental health to be more than just the “absence of illness” and ushered a new era that focused on what makes people feel happy and fulfilled.

Later he became the director of the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania.

4) Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi

The 5 Founding Fathers and A History of Positive Psychology (6)

Czikszentmihalyi was born in Hungary in 1934, and like many other people of that time, he was deeply affected by the Second World War. He was stripped from his family and friends as a child and was put in an Italian prison and it was there he had his first idea of working with flow and optimal experience.

He had an affinity for painting, noting that the act of creating was sometimes more important than the finished work itself. This led to his fascination with what he called the flow state, and he made it his life’s work to scientifically identify the different methods through which one could achieve such a state.

Czikszentmihalyi’s studies gained much popular interested. Today, he is considered one of the founders of positive psychology.

5) Christopher Peterson

Christopher Peterson was the professor of Psychology at the University of Michigan and the former chair of the Clinical Psychology department.

He was the co-author of Character Strengths and Virtues with Seligman and is noted for his work in the study of optimism, hope, character, and well-being.

Influential Positive Psychology Researchers

The following positive psychology researchers deserve a special mention. However, there are so many positive psychology researchers whose work is shaping the future of positive psychology that they can’t all be mentioned in this article. Check out our full list of Positive Psychology Researchers.

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Albert Bandura

Albert Bandura’s self-efficacy theory originated from his social-cognitive theory. It relates to a person’s perception of their ability to reach a goal and the belief that one is capable of performing it in a certain way in order to reach them. This concept has been of great impotence and use in positive psychology.

Donald Clifton

Seligman stated that Clifton followed a similar path that he did when he came up with Strengths-based psychology. He studied successful individuals and wanted to know what they did right to achieve top performance.

His work gave employees solid recommendations on how to find a fulfilling career that is suitable for them. He was honored in 2002 by the American Psychological Association with a Presidential Commendation as the Father of Strengths-based Psychologyand he has been called the “grandfather of Positive Psychology” (Snyder, Lopez, & Pedrotti, 2015, p.66).

Deci and Ryan

The theory of human motivation known as Self-Determination Theory was developed in 2000 by Edward L. Deci, professor in the Department of Clinical and Social Sciences at the University of Rochester, New York, and Richard M. Ryan, clinical psychologist andProfessor at the Institute for Positive Psychology and Education at the Australian Catholic University in Sydney, Australia.

Their grounding work on Self-Determination Theoryupdated the hierarchy of needs originally identified by Abraham Maslow and found that human motivation is founded in three major needs: autonomy, competence, and relatedness (connecting to other people).

Ed Diener

Dr. Ed Diener, aka “Dr. Happiness”, is a leading researcher in PP who coined the term “Subjective well-being” as the aspect of happiness that can be measured scientifically. His argument that there is a strong genetic component to happiness has led to a huge amount of data studying the internal and external conditions of happiness and how one can change it.

Diener even researched the relationshipbetween income and well-being, as well as cultural influences on well-being.

His publications have been cited over 98,000 times and his fundamental research on the subject is what earned him his nickname. He has worked with researchers Daniel Kahneman and Martin Seligmanand is a senior scientist forThe Gallup Organization.

Carol Dweck

Dweck conducted research on the notion of growth vs. fixed mindset. It has been used with parents, teams, students, entrepreneurs, and business leaders. It is a positive psychology tool that is used widely and praised highly, bringing people more interest to the world of positive psychology.

Barbara Fredrickson

World-renowned author and researcher, Fredricksonmade her first contribution to positive psychology research with her theory on positive emotions, The Broaden and Build Theory, which proposes that positive emotions are able to broaden people’s minds, resulting in resources for experiencing well-being and resilience in times of adversity. Since then Fredrickson has done extensive research and produced 2 books.

Fredrickson currently acts as the Director of the Positive Emotions and Psychophysiology Laboratory, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

We hope you enjoyed reading this article. Don’t forget to download our 3 Positive Psychology Exercises for free.


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Who are the founders of positive psychology? ›

Positive psychology — a term coined in 1998 by former APA President Martin E.P. Seligman, PhD, and Claremont Graduate University psychology professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, PhD — has been the darling of the popular press, making the cover of Time (Jan.

Who is the founder or father of positive psychology? ›

In 1998, Martin Seligman was elected President of the American Psychological Association and it was then that Positive Psychology became the theme of his term as president. He is widely seen as the father of contemporary positive psychology (About Education, 2013).

What are the 5 waves of psychology? ›

Terms in this set (5)
  • Introspection. Wundt, James, structuralism, functionalism,
  • Gestalt Psychology. Not how we feel but on how we experience the world, the whole of an experience can be more than the sum of its part (Max Wertheimer)
  • Psychoanalysis. ...
  • Behaviorism. ...
  • Eclectic.
26 Aug 2013

What are the origins of positive psychology? ›

Positive psychology began as a new domain of psychology in 1998 when Martin Seligman chose it as the theme for his term as president of the American Psychological Association. It is a reaction against past practices, which have tended to focus on mental illness and emphasized maladaptive behavior and negative thinking.

What are the five schools of psychology? ›

Schools of psychology
  • Structuralism.
  • Functionalism.
  • Behaviorism.
  • Psychoanalysis.
  • Gestalt psychology.
4 Oct 2010

Who is Martin Seligman What are the three pillars of positive psychology? ›

According to Seligman (2002), the three pillars of study of positive psychology are: positive emotions, positive traits (virtues, personal strengths and skills) and the positive institutions that facilitate the development of these emotions and traits.

What is Martin Seligman's positive psychology? ›

“Positive psychology is the scientific study of human strengths and virtues.” According to Martin Seligman—who is seen as the founding father of positive psychology—the positive psychology movement can be described as: “The study of what constitutes the pleasant life, the engaged life, and the meaningful life.”

Is Sigmund Freud the father of psychology? ›

Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, was a physiologist, medical doctor, psychologist and influential thinker of the early twentieth century.

Which founding contributors to psychology helped develop behaviorism? ›

There are several influential contributors to behaviorism including Edward Thorndike, B.F. Skinner, Ivan Pavlov, and John B. Watson.

Is positive psychology humanistic? ›

As such, the person-centered approach is often associated with humanistic psychology. While the relationship between humanistic and positive psychology has been contentious in the past, it is now widely accepted that positive psychology has largely followed in the footsteps of humanistic psychology.

What are the three waves of psychology? ›

In the evolution of CBT as the most empirically validated form of psychotherapy, each of its three waves (behavioural therapy, cognitive therapy and acceptance-based therapies) has brought unique contributions to improve its effectiveness.

What is the third wave in psychology? ›

Third wave therapies prioritize the holistic promotion of psychological and behavioral processes associated with health and well-being over the reduction or elimination of psychological and emotional symptoms, although that typically is a “side-benefit.” Concepts such as metacognition, acceptance, mindfulness, personal ...

What is positive psychology in simple words? ›

1. "Positive psychology is...a call for psychological science and practice to be as concerned with strength as with weakness; as interested in building the best things in life as in repairing the worst; and as concerned with making the lives of normal people fulfilling as with healing pathology," Peterson wrote.

What is positive psychology and why is it important? ›

Positive psychology is an umbrella term for the scientific study of the various contributors to a healthy and thriving life for the self and others (eg, positive emotions, life meaning, engaging work, and close relationships). It is the study of strengths, assets, and positive attributes.

Who is the father of psychology? ›

Wilhelm Wundt was a German psychologist who established the very first psychology laboratory in Leipzig, Germany in 1879. This event is widely recognized as the formal establishment of psychology as a science distinct from biology and philosophy.

Who is the father of psychology and what was his first experiment about? ›

Wilhelm Wundt
Scientific career
FieldsExperimental psychology, Cultural psychology, philosophy, physiology
InstitutionsUniversity of Leipzig
ThesisUntersuchungen über das Verhalten der Nerven in entzündeten und degenerierten Organen (Research of the Behaviour of Nerves in Inflamed and Degenerated Organs) (1856)
11 more rows

What are the 6 schools of psychology? ›

  • 1 Functionalism. Functionalism has the most influence of any theory in contemporary psychology. ...
  • 2 Gestalt Psychology. ...
  • 3 Psychoanalysis. ...
  • 4 Behaviorism. ...
  • 5 Humanistic Psychology. ...
  • 6 Cognitivism.
22 Jun 2018

When did Martin Seligman found positive psychology? ›

In January 2000 Seligman and his colleagues issued a manifesto in the magazine American Psychologist: “Psychology is not just a branch of medicine concerned with illness or health; it is much larger. It is about work, education, insight, love, growth, and play.”

What did Wolfgang Kohler contribution to psychology? ›

Insight learning is perhaps the greatest contribution Wolfgang Kohler made to psychology. Building off the influence of gestalt psychology, Kohler discovered that learning can occur when we gain insight into an entire situation, as opposed to focusing only on an individual part.

What is Seligman's Perma theory? ›

Seligman's PERMA™ theory of well-being is an attempt to answer these fundamental questions. There are five building blocks that enable flourishing – Positive Emotion, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning, and Accomplishment (hence PERMA™) – and there are techniques to increase each.

Is Freud the father of psychology? ›

Sigmund Freud (1856—1939) Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, was a physiologist, medical doctor, psychologist and influential thinker of the early twentieth century.

Who is considered the father of psychology and why? ›

Wundt is considered the father of psychology because he started the first research lab in 1879. Accepted position at Cornell in New York. First major school if thought in psychology. Said that even our most complex thoughts could be broken down in to elemental structures.

Is William James the father of psychology? ›

James is considered to be a leading thinker of the late 19th century, one of the most influential philosophers of the United States, and the "Father of American psychology".

Who is the father of social psychology? ›

Kurt Lewin Is the Father of Modern Social Psychology.

What is BF Skinner's theory? ›

Skinner's theory of learning says that a person is first exposed to a stimulus, which elicits a response, and the response is then reinforced (stimulus, response, reinforcement). This, ultimately, is what conditions our behaviors.

Who is the most important psychologist? ›

Sigmund Freud

His work contributed to our understanding of human development, personality, clinical psychology, and abnormal psychology.

What are Freud's 3 theories? ›

Freudian theory postulates that adult personality is made up of three aspects: (1) the id, operating on the pleasure principle generally within the unconscious; (2) the ego, operating on the reality principle within the conscious realm; and (3) the superego, operating on the morality principle at all levels of ...

Who is the most influential figure in the history of psychology? ›

Sigmund Freud – Freud is perhaps the most well-known psychologist in history. He explored the personality and human psyche as it relates to the id, the ego and the superego.

Who is the mother of psychology? ›

Margaret Floy Washburn (July 25, 1871 – October 29, 1939), leading American psychologist in the early 20th century, was best known for her experimental work in animal behavior and motor theory development.
Margaret Floy Washburn
Scientific career
Doctoral advisorEdward B. Titchener
6 more rows

Who is the father of child psychology? ›

Jean Piaget, (born August 9, 1896, Neuchâtel, Switzerland—died September 16, 1980, Geneva), Swiss psychologist who was the first to make a systematic study of the acquisition of understanding in children. He is thought by many to have been the major figure in 20th-century developmental psychology.

What was William James biggest contribution to psychology? ›

His belief in the connection between mind and body led him to develop what has become known as the James-Lange Theory of emotion, which posits that human experience of emotion arises from physiological changes in response to external events.

What was John Locke contribution to psychology? ›

John Locke holds that personal identity is a matter of psychological continuity. He considered personal identity (or the self) to be founded on consciousness (viz. memory), and not on the substance of either the soul or the body.

What is William James famous for? ›

William James is famous for helping to found psychology as a formal discipline, for establishing the school of functionalism in psychology, and for greatly advancing the movement of pragmatism in philosophy.

Who brought psychology to America? ›

Psychology flourished in America during the mid- to late-1800s. William James emerged as one of the major American psychologists during this period and publishing his classic textbook, "The Principles of Psychology," established him as the father of American psychology.

Who is the father of Abnormal Psychology? ›

(1886) Sigmund Freud developed his personality theory, which has continued to impact abnormal psychology treatment methods today.

What is the history of social psychology? ›

Social Psychology emerged as a new discipline in the 19th century. The theory of Social Psychology is a product of the scholastic contributions of Psychologists and Sociologists. For this reason, Social Psychology is generally viewed as a branch of both Psychology and Sociology.


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