McDougall, William

McDougall, William (1871-1938) was a British psychologist who founded the school of purposive psychology, which suggested that humans and animals act for specific purposes, with the actions directed toward achieving certain goals. These actions, he believed, are motivated by basic, inherited instincts that are linked to emotions, including fear, disgust, wonder, anger, subjection, elation, and tenderness. He described this as hormic psychology, with the urge to live as the basic drive.

He was born in Chadderton, Lancashire, England. In 1894, he received a B.A. degree at St. John's College, Cambridge University, and he earned two master's degrees in 1897 at St. Thomas Hospital in London. He then attended lectures in psychology at Cambridge and studied at Gottingen, Germany.


From 1900 to 1904, he was a lecturer in psychology at University College, London, and conducted research in a laboratory he built in his house. In 1912, he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society and a fellow of Corpus Christi College, Oxford.

In 1920, he published The Group Mind, in which he stated his belief that any highly structured group, such as a nation, has a mental organization (later called a Gestalt), which resides only partially in the mind of any one individual of the group. That year, he became a psychology professor at Harvard University. He created controversy there with his lectures on eugenics, a science that theorizes human intelligence and hereditary qualities are determined by race or breed. He also stated his belief in the superiority of the Nordic race and the hereditary origin of differences in mental ability of children from different social classes, as based on tests conducted by the army during World War I (1914–1918).

While at Harvard, McDougall wrote one of his best-known books, Outline of Psychology (1923). He accepted a professorship at Duke University in 1927. Two years later, he published Modern Materialism and Emergent Evolution, in which he sought to clarify his concept that purposive action is “a form of causal efficiency distinct in nature from all mechanistic causation.”