History of Psychology in Australia Term Paper


Dudgeon and Walker (2015) note that “the discipline of psychology in Australia has a history of domination over Indigenous Australians that is still evident today” (p. 276). This claim gets to the heart of the concept of colonization and its role in the application of psychology, particularly with respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in Australia—i.e., Indigenous Australians. However, as Australia today is more than the sum of its parts, the history of psychology in Australia reveals a much more complex phenomenon at work. This paper will 1) provide a brief history of psychology in Australia, 2) discuss the degree to which psychology has been imported from other countries to Australia, 3) identify the nature and scope of psychology in Australia, 4) describe major issues and concerns addressed by psychologists in Australia, 5) acknowledge unique contributions and practices of psychologists from Australia; 6) evaluate the general status of psychology in Australia, as well as the methods for preparing to be a psychologist in Australia, 7) present major theoretical orientations of psychologists and research trends in Australia, and 8) discuss the professional organizations and codes of ethics that Australian Psychologists must adhere to.

Basic Description of Findings

Brief History

Established in 1788 as a British colony, Australia followed in the footsteps of the English, the Germans and later the Americans in the field of psychology. In the 19th century, Australia’s universities focused on moral philosophy as a prelude to the study of what would become psychology in the 20th century. The Mental Science and Education Section of the Australian Association for the Advancement of Science received an address from Henry Laurie in 1893, in which Laurie gave a definition of psychology: “the science of the facts of the mind…like other natural sciences” (Taft, 1982, p. 31). The first lay psychoanalyst appeared in Australia in 1953: her name was Ivy Bennett. She had trained under the British Psychoanalytical Society (Vickers, 2017). 1970 was the year in which counseling psychology began to be taken seriously in Australia (Di Mattia & Grant, 2016). That was the year the Rose Committee report was issued in which it was advised that counseling psychologists focus on all populations. Training began in 1975 at La Trobe University: school counseling, psychotherapy, group therapy and research were all foci of the curriculum. Jay Birnbrauer played a leading role “in the formation of the Australian Behaviour Modification Association (known today as the Australian Association for Cognitive and Behaviour Therapy) in the 1970s” (Jones, Ralph & Mazzucchelli, 2017, p. 279). Birnbrauer studied behaviorism under Skinner in America and brought the theory to Australia. Through men like Laurie, Rose and Birnbrauer, the discipline of psychology in Australia blossomed into a full-fledged reality.

Imported Psychology

The degree to which psychology has been imported from other countries to Australia is quite high. The British were the main conduits through which psychology came to Australia. Germans, however, serving as they did as the ultimate source of the study of psychology, also played a role. As the American institutions picked up where the Germans left off after WWII, the Australians imported much of their psychological input from the U.S. as well. The Australian branch of the British Psychological Society appeared in 1944, showing that the very seed of psychology in Australia came from England (Allan, 2018). As Australia was not a main center of culture or learning on the world’s stage, it essentially borrowed a great deal of its insights into psychology, while Germany, England and America all contributed in their own way some native approaches to the field (Nixon & Taft, 2013). Australia absorbed most of these approaches and did little to advance any of them. Still, though the learning came from outside the nation, the pioneers of psychology were all Australian—i.e., the advancement of the discipline in Australia was a result of Australians themselves promoting the field (Nixon & Taft, 2013). Gradually they would come to make a few small contributions, but by and large the role that Australians played in the discipline was simply to embrace it and implement it in the country.

Nature and Scope

The scope of psychology in Australia is quite broad and ranges from psychoanalysis to behavioral psychology to counseling psychology, community psychology, clinical psychology, forensic psychology and organizational psychology. Australia has essentially followed suit in the nine areas of practice endorsement, which the Australian Psychological Society has recognized as an area in which a professional psychologist can receive certification. Thus, the nature of psychology in Australia is similar to what it is in other parts of the world. It is not as progressive in the sense that it has not striven out on its own in terms of carving out new paths like what the Germans or Americans did in the 20th century. However, there is some evidence that Australian psychology may be embarking on a period of self-reflection, as the criticism of Dudgeon and Walker (2015) suggests, given their focus on the need to decolonize Australian psychology.

Major Issues

Major issues in Australian psychology include end-of-life choices, marriage equality, transsexualism, Aboriginal treatment, child sex abuse and more. Professional issues include the complexities of working with youth, compliance, assisting survivors of child sexual abuse, valuing the therapeutic relationship, and so on (APS, 2018). None of the issues are very controversial in their way, other than the issue of the need to decolonize the psychological approach towards the Aboriginals. Another major issue for counseling psychology is the reduction in postgraduate training programs (Di Mattia & Grant, 2016).

Unique Contributions

One of the most unique contributions to the field was that of Birnbrauer: his Murdoch Early Intervention Program “was an early and important replication of Lovaas’s evaluation of early intensive behavioural intervention for children with autism,” and it helped to advance in the field in Australia at a time when little else was being done to bring applied behavioral analysis to the field of child psychology in Australia (Jones et al., 2017, p. 279). As Di Mattia and Grant (2016) also note, in 2006, Australia made significant steps in bringing psychological services to more people who had not been eligible to receive them in the past: “the federal government introduced rebates for psychological services under the Better Access to Mental Health Care initiative. This scheme enables people with a diagnosed mental disorder to access 10 sessions of treatment per year from a range of mental health professionals, including psychologists. The demand and uptake for psychological services in the community then increased dramatically and included many people who had not previously accessed mental health care” (p. 141). This unique contribution has enabled mental health to become a top priority throughout Australia.

General Status

The general status of psychology in Australia is that it is recognized by the state and territories and to be a qualified psychologist, one must be certified according to the Act of Parliament, the Health Practitioner Regulation (Administrative Arrangements) National Law Act 2008. To be endorsed in a specialized field of psychology, one must obtain additional qualifications—this applies to fields such as counseling psychology, forensic psychology, sport psychology, neuropsychology and clinical psychology. To be registered as a psychologist, one must obtain an APAC-approved Bachelor’s degree in psychology and either a Master’s (two years) or have two years of supervised practice under a registered psychologist. This is known as the 4+2 pathway. A 5+1 pathway also exists in which a four year degree is followed by one year of postgraduate study and one year of supervised practice in the field under a registered psychologist.

Major Theoretical Orientations and Research Trends

The major theoretical orientations and research trends in Australia or neither unique nor distinct from international orientations and trends; on the contrary, they tend to follow the international community. As Hicks, Alexander and Jones (2016) point out, “the theoretical orientation of Australian practising psychologists and psychotherapists appears to be following an international trend that emphasizes eclectic or integrative use of the orientations” (p. 1146). As in most other parts of the world, the most common theoretical orientation is cognitive behavioral therapy in Australia (Hicks et al., 2016), though most psychologists in Australia use hybrid approaches—i.e., more than one approach when conducting CBT. Major research trends include focus on abuse (sex, drugs, race), and treating addiction.

Professional Organizations and Codes of Ethics

Professional organizations in Australia include the Australian Psychological Society, the Australian Counseling Association, the Australian Clinical Psychology Association, the Australian Association of Psychologists, and many others. The codes of ethics are generally similar in that they all reflect the same ethical standards and principles of the professional field. The most popular organization—the Australian Psychological Society—consists of 28 guidelines for professionals that are standard for the state and for international practice and include guidelines on practice, on confidentiality, on relationships with clients and so on. Guidelines are discussed at General Meetings and most associations adhere to the standards recommended by major bodies like the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists when they adopt ethical standards.


Psychology in Australia has come a long way over the past hundred years considering that Australia was never a major hub or center of psychology learning, study or research. However, because Australia was a colony of the British Empire, it did receive some patronage from visiting English dignitaries, like Laurie, who helped to bring the study of psychology to Australia at the end of the 19th century. Australia was, from that point on, heavily indebted to the British for their contributions in getting the field moving in the right direction.

Australians themselves did not provide to many unique advancements in the field but they did incorporate the same international trends that emerged throughout the 20th century into their respective fields during the same time. However, because Australia is in a unique position, with its own history and issues, its approach to psychology and the manner in which it has been implemented is not exactly the same as has been the case in other parts of the world. In Germany, for instance, at the turn of the century, the fathers of psychoanalysis (Freud mainly but also Jung) were working through theories and devising models that would be studied, tested and either rejected or elaborated upon by other psychologists in other parts of the world. That was the level of influence that German culture had on the rest of the world.

Australia has by and large been more of a receiver of culture from the international world than a giver. Australia itself was colonized by the English, which meant that culture was exported from Britain to Australia. While some psychologists are now focusing on the manner in which this colonization and the colonizing nature of psychology in Australia has impacted native Australians—i.e., Aboriginals—the overall trend within Australia is for professionals to follow in the recommended standards, research, practices and orientations that have been determined as vital by the international community.

Australia’s main contributions to psychology have mainly come on the domestic stage—i.e., by individuals like Birnbrauer, who was a pioneer in applied behavioral sciences in Australia. Birnbrauer advanced this field by leading the way for ABA to be accepted and practiced in Australia—but Birnbrauer was essentially taking knowledge and evidence from the international community and popularizing it in Australia. These were not domestic innovations or unique contributions on the world stage. Australia has not provided such advancements as those and in general has been happy to follow in the international trends set by other professional organization and countries all across the globe.

Australia does provide a method for becoming a professional psychologist and, like in other countries, it requires credentialing from a four year, accredited institution, along with either a Master’s degree or two years of work under the supervision of a registered psychologist. To work in a specialized field of psychology, additional certification is required. This applies to fields such as clinical psychology, sport psychology, health psychology, and so on.


The study of psychology in Australia has a unique history as the state was not an important contributor to the field in the 20th century when most psychological theories were being developed in other parts of the world—i.e., in Germany, the UK and America. It did however receive these theories and develop curricula around them, establish professional organizations to train and guide others interested in pursuing them professionally, and provide ethical codes of conduct and a method by which professionals could become certified and registered. In Australia the most common psychological orientation among professional psychologists is like that of most others in the world—the use of cognitive behavioral therapy in counseling. This allows the psychologist to focus on actions and behaviors that could help the individual to redirect energy to a more positive lifestyle and away from whatever actions have been identified as negative and self-defeating. In this way, Australia follows the international community.



Allan, A. (2018). An overview of psychology and law and forensic psychology in

Australia. Newsletter of the Division 10 Psychology and Law. https://ro.ecu.edu.au/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=5905&context=ecuworkspost2013

APS. (2018). Public issues. Retrieved from


Di Mattia, M. A., & Grant, J. (2016). Counselling psychology in Australia: History,

status and challenges. Counselling Psychology Quarterly, 29(2), 139-149.

Dudgeon, P., & Walker, R. (2015). Decolonising Australian psychology: Discourses,

strategies, and practice. Journal of Social and Political Psychology, 3(1), 276–297.

Hicks, R., Alexander, V., & Jones, C. M. (2016). Counselling and psychotherapy

orientations in Australia: Responses from 24 Australian psychotherapists.

Psychology, 7(8), 1146-1153.

Jones, B. M., Ralph, A., & Mazzucchelli, T. G. (2017). Remembering Jay S. Birnbrauer.

Behaviour Change, 34(4), 279-285.

Nixon, M., & Taft, R. (Eds.). (2013). Psychology in Australia: achievements &

prospects. Elsevier.

Taft, R. (1982). Psychology and its history in Australia. Australian Psychologist, 17(1),


Vickers, C. B. (2017). Ivy Bennett’s Memoir: Excavating the History of Psychoanalysis

in Australia 1900-1957. Australasian Journal of Psychotherapy, 35(2).








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