Following Soviet occupation in 1940 psychology served mainly teaching purposes and its
scientific ambitions were severely censored and restricted. Most senior Estonian psychologists started with the “hard” experimental psychology, practicing either laboratory or field experiments.
With the collapse of the Soviet ideology the doors were opened to more soft psychology, associated mainly with personality and social psychology. Many researchers were happy to join studies initiated by Western colleagues. Estonia was present in virtually all major cross-cultural surveys studying either sexual behaviour, self-esteem, and even gelatophobia – the fear of being laughed at.
It took some time until original concepts developed by Estonian psychologists, their meta-analyses, or homegrown cross-cultural projects started to penetrate the most influential international journals.
Modern Estonian psychology
The modern research paradigm of Estonian psychology was born as a result of the so-called cognitive revolution. Cognitive psychology practiced in Estonia had been dry with theoretical, rather than practical, links to its “wet” foundations, neurons and transmitters.
By now, however, studies relating psychologically interesting phenomena to brain functions have become mainstays. For example, the location of phonemes in brain was discovered and innervation from the locus coeruleus was linked to depression.
Another shift has been the move from “cool” to “hot” psychology. Like cognitive psychologists who were inspired by Canadian-Estonian psychologist Endel Tulving, another émigré from North America, Jaak Panksepp played a pivotal role in shifting psychology towards emotions and affective phenomena.
What begun as a modest adaptation of PANAS, a popular measuring instruments of affect, evolved into a broad spectrum of studies on how emotions affect judgements of life satisfaction, how recognition of facial expressions deteriorates with age, and which brain regions are most likely linked to depression.