100 Years of Psychological Research Summed Up

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, there were two generally accepted schools of thought about what contributed to human behavior and therefore affected what we make of our lives while on this planet.

The first was that what we make of our lives is based on genetics (Sigmund Freud).

The other was that human beings are a product of their environment (Ivan Pavlov, and later B.F. Skinner).

However, American psychologist and philosopher William James (1842 – 1910) didn't agree with either.

James believed that man was a product of free will. That we all have the option and ability to choose and control our thoughts … and that freedom over our attitude is one of the most significant things that make us human.

In The Maverick Mindset, Dr. John Eliot shares a story about James that not only pushes me to agree with him, but also solidifies my belief about what it takes to become successful in life …

According to Eliot, one year William James was invited by the American Psychological Association to be the keynote speaker at their annual conference. This was a huge conference with upwards of 10,000 expected in attendance.

James was somewhat controversial, which helped fuel the buzz about his speech in the months leading up to the conference.

The topic of his keynote address was advertised as "Everything we've learned in the last 100 years of Psychological Research."

The hype grew. People travelled from all across America and the world to hear James speak.

The big day arrived.

The gentleman who introduced William James spoke for half an hour.

He talked about James’ many accomplishments, his publications, the societies he'd served on, and the labs he'd been a part of, and so on.

Finally, the big moment came and the words the audience was waiting to hear were finally uttered …

"Ladies and Gentlemen, William James."

James took the stage.

This is what he said …

"They've asked me to talk about the last hundred years of psychological research; it can be summed up in this statement …

People by and large become what they think of themselves."

He then said, "Thank you," and "Goodnight," and walked off the stage and left the conference.

A lot of people were upset.

They had travelled a great distance to hear a two-hour talk from William James and it was over in less than a minute. They were angry and felt cheated.

But not everyone reacted that way.

Many people said that it was the most profound thing they had ever heard.

What James was saying, of course, is that we all have the ability to control what we think. That you can study all the psychology available from all different sources and points of view, but what life comes down to is we become what we think of ourselves.

Eliot uses this story to drive home the point that every morning we have a choice to make. We can either fill our minds with negative thoughts or positive thoughts – whichever ones we consistently choose determine how successful we'll be in life.

Since the days that William James has walked the earth, this simple bit of wisdom has been repeated many times by many people.

I relate it to you today because it's a good reminder that if you want to change and improve your life, the place to start is on your shoulders.

You can become anything and do anything you want; all you have to do is believe it … and then take action.

What action will you take this week? Commit to it by posting a comment below. Or share with me which of the three men you agree with when it comes to what success you’ll achieve in life.

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Published: June 23, 2011

13 Responses to “100 Years of Psychological Research Summed Up”

  1. This article reminds of the great work of Dr. Martin Seligman of the University of Pennsylvania. He has been studying "learned optimism" for decades. I believe Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project, worked with him at some point. Her work is worth reading as well.

    Guest (Susan Shaughnessy)

  2. I agree with William James. I even started an AWAI inspired Quotes that are Important to ME page in Word. I just posted my first headline and am on the road to being a great copywriter!


  3. I don't believe it's that simple. If it was then everyone would choose to think positive: therfore, everyone would be a success. I agree you can choose your attitude. You cannot change your basic makeup. Everyone is different. We all have different strengths and weakness. We are not all endowed with the same talents. I started forty years ago trying to change who I was with Norman Vincent Peale's Power of Positive Thinking. I've read hundreds of books, attented seminar, listened to tapes and cd's. I'm still the same basic person idenified in my Myers-Briggs profile.

    Guest (Don Bowler)

  4. Great point and so true. I enjoy getting these little pushes from AWAI. Thanks!

    Guest (Suzanne Ellison)

  5. One can read all the books and articles, buy into business opportunities--BUT after all is said and done--its really a matter of knowing what to do even if you already know how to do it.Making the right connection is the hardest part of being successful.If you don't know what's out there you won't know where to look unless its listed the Yellow Pages!

    Guest (Valerie Alston)

  6. I guess my great comment was lost, it sums up to say that your thinking is so involved, that sometimes what is in your head needs outside help to believe in yourself. Everyone should feel free to access outside help in improving our thinking. DIY only goes so far, reading, assessing and working with someone helps more than DIYing it.

    Guest (Marlene)

  7. Yes, William James is right, but... as Don Bowler commented above, there IS more to it. If you've been giving yourself negative self-talk, that attitude, those vibrations may be deeply stuck inside you, and until you release those negative beliefs, you literally CAN'T change to a positive attitude. I know it can be overcome, though, because I am doing just that in order to help heal myself of breast cancer. Check out The Emotion Code by Dr. Bradley Nelson for how you can do the same.

    Guest (Susie H)

  8. If we took all of mankind’s knowledge and put it in a single container it would fill a small drop of water. If we took all of what mankind does not know and placed it in a single container it would fill oceans. Once you realize that you’re an opportunist all the methods to influence you don’t work anymore. Thus, most are ignorant and don’t even know it. Methods to fool your mind into something you are not usually fail because we don’t even really understand our own minds.

    Guest (Rex)

  9. Not sure where I heard this story:

    There were two brothers raised in poverty, with a single-mother that was a drug addict.

    One grew up and ended up in prison, and the other to become a very successful businessman.

    They were asked why they became what they became and they gave the same answer:

    I had no other choice but to end up this way.

    Patrick O

  10. Like Don Bowler I have also been studying positive thinking for decades. And like him, I have also not really changed. But unlike Don, I do believe that I have only myself to blame. Being "busy" with positive thinking and actually living the principles are two very different things. We cannot just keep on studying without implementing what we learn. It is only in the *doing* that the success lies. That has been my downfall for a great many years, but not any more...

    Guest (Schalk)

  11. Hello John, I am 51, a full time college student, and my book is in production as we speak (Ken Casey's Murder By Method). I agree with Mr. James. Believe in your ability and follow that with action. Good post,Sir. Bravo.
    Patricia J. Roberts Slocum.

    Guest (Pattyperson)

  12. John, on Tuesday, you said Dr. John Eliot suggested in his audio program "The Maverick Mindset, that many people attempting to change give up their responsibility for their circumstances and shift it to a self-improvement product they've invested in, essentially failing at applying the wisdom.

    I believe it's is "simple" (replace old thinking with new understanding). But it's not "easy" (to make consistent effort applying the knowledge). So the key lies in the repetition of application.

    Jerry Bures

  13. All 3. People are instinctually driven by genetic programming but are also greatly influenced by their environment and it is that environment that determines whether they are open or closed to a free will mind set.'
    Obviously it is better to believe in the free will theory and to be positive but genetic programming and environment cannot be discounted or ignored.


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