What exactly is psychology? While it may seem like a very basic question, it is one of the most common questions asked by students new to the study of psychology. During your first lecture of an introductory psychology class, your instructor might spend some time going around the room asking students to explain what they think psychology involves. During my first psychology class, one girl made a dramatic point of waving her fingers over another student's head and pretending to read his thoughts. Unfortunately, such misconceptions about psychology abound and part of the confusion stems from stereotyped portrayals of psychologists in popular media as well as the diverse careers paths of those holding psychology degrees.
The simplest definition of psychology is that it is the study of the mind and behavior. Research in psychology seeks to understand and explain thought, emotion and behavior. Applications of psychology include mental health treatment, performance enhancement, self-help, ergonomics, and many other areas affecting health and daily life. It's difficult to capture everything that psychology encompasses in just a brief definition, but topics such as development, personality, thoughts, feelings, emotions, motivations, and social behaviors represent just a portion of what psychology seeks to understand and explain.
Let's take a closer look at this common question.
Question: What Is Psychology?
There's a lot of confusion out there about psychology. According to some popular television programs and movies, psychologists are super-sleuths that can use their understanding of the human mind to solve crimes and predict a criminal's next move. Other popular depictions present the psychologist as a gray and bearded older gentleman, seated in a stately office lined with books, who spends his days listening to clients ramble on about their difficult childhoods.
So what's the truth about psychology? The fact is that there is a little bit of truth in these stereotypical portrayals, but there is actually a lot more to psychology than you might initially think. There is a tremendous diversity in psychology careers, and it is perhaps this enormous range of career paths that contributes to some of the misconceptions about psychology and what psychologists do. Sure, there are psychologists who help solve crimes and there are plenty of professionals who help people deal with mental health issues. But did you know that there are also psychologists who help create healthier workplaces or that design and implement public health programs? Or that there are others psychologists who investigate topics such as airplane safety, computer design, and military life?
So what exactly is psychology?
Psychology is both an applied and academic field that studies the human mind and behavior. Research in psychology seeks to understand and explain how we think, act and feel. As most people already realize, a large part of psychology is devoted to the diagnosis and treatment of mental health issues, but that's just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to applications for psychology. In addition to mental health, psychology can be applied to a variety of issues that impact health and daily life including performance enhancement, self-help, ergonomics, motivation, productivity, and much more.
Psychology evolved out of both philosophy and biology. Discussions of these two subjects date as far back as the early Greek thinkers including Aristotle and Socrates. The word psychology is derived from the Greek word psyche, literally meaning 'life' or 'breath.' Derived meanings of the word include 'soul' or 'self.'
A Separate Science
Wundt's work was focused on describing the structures that compose the mind. This perspective relied heavily on the analysis of sensations and feelings through the use of introspection, a highly subjective process. Wundt believed that properly trained individuals would be able to accurately identify the mental processes that accompanied feelings, sensations and thoughts.
Schools of Thought
Throughout psychology's history, a number of different schools of thought have thought have formed to explain human thought and behavior. These schools of thought often rise to dominance for a period of time. While these schools of thought are sometimes perceived as competing forces, each perspective has contributed to our understanding of psychology. The following are some of the major schools of thought in psychology.
Today, psychologists prefer to use more objective scientific methods to understand, explain, and predict human behavior. Psychological studies are highly structured, beginning with a hypothesis that is then empirically tested. The discipline has two major areas of focus: academic psychology and applied psychology. Academic psychology focuses on the study of different sub-topics within psychology including personality, social behavior and human development. These psychologists conduct basic research that seeks to expand our theoretical knowledge, while other researchers conduct applied research that seeks to solve everyday problems.
Applied psychology focuses on the use of different psychological principles to solve real world problems. Examples of applied areas of psychology include forensic psychology, ergonomics, and industrial-organizational psychology. Many other psychologists work as therapists, helping people overcome mental, behavioral, and emotional disorders.
Psychology Research Methods
As psychology moved away from its philosophical roots, psychologists began to employ more and more scientific methods to study human behavior. Contemporary researchers employ a variety of scientific techniques including experiments, correlational studies longitudinal research, and others to test, explain, and predict behavior.
Areas of Psychology
Psychology is a broad and diverse field. A number of different subfields and specialty areas have emerged. The following are some of the major areas of research and application within psychology:
- Abnormal Psychology is the study of abnormal behavior and psychopathology. This specialty area is focused on research and treatment of a variety of mental disorders and is linked to psychotherapy, and clinical psychology.
- Biological Psychology, also known as biopsychology, studies how biological processes influence the mind and behavior. This area is closely linked to neuroscience and utilizes tools such as MRI and PET scans to look at brain injury or brain abnormalities.
- Clinical Psychology is focused on the assessment, diagnosis, and treatment of mental disorders. It is also considered the largest employment area within psychology.
- Cognitive Psychology is the study of human thought processes and cognitions. Cognitive psychologists study topics such as attention, memory, perception, decision-making, problem-solving, and language acquisition.
- Comparative Psychology is the branch of psychology concerned with the study of animal behavior. This type of research can lead to a deeper and broader understanding of human psychology.
- Developmental Psychology is an area that looks at human growth and development over the lifespan. Theories often focus on the development of cognitive abilities, morality, social functioning, identity, and other life areas.
- Forensic Psychology is an applied field focused on using psychological research and principles in the legal and criminal justice system.
- Industrial-Organizational Psychology is a field that uses psychological research to enhance work performance, select employee, improve product design, and enhance usability.
- Personality Psychology looks at the various elements that make up individual personalities. Well-known personality theories include Freud's structural model of personality and the "Big Five" theory of personality.
- School Psychology is the branch of psychology that works within the educational system to help children with emotional, social, and academic issues.
- Social Psychology is a discipline that uses scientific methods to study social influence, social perception and social interaction. Social psychology studies diverse subjects including group behavior, social perception, leadership, nonverbal behavior, conformity, aggression, and prejudice.
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This article is one of the resources included in the Psychology 101 WebQuest, a lesson plan designed for students grade eight and up. The WebQuest allows students to gather information about a specific topic and then utilize what they have learned to create a class presentation.