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What Exactly Is Psychology?

Updated: Sep 14, 2023





Try to remember examples of psychological topics you have seen or read. How did you react to the way they were presented? What do you think about the way they were presented? Was the presentation given in a balanced way with evidence, or handled in a hollow, journalistic manner? Check your notes again after reading this blog and see if your views remain the same.


As you read this, you may find support for some of your ideas about psychology, but find that others are challenged because, not surprisingly, psychology is not entirely as it is portrayed in the media. One of my goals, is to enable you evaluate commonly presented psychological issues in an informal way.





Whilst this is not an introductory psychology course, all the materials on this blog will help you to think about psychological issues and help you to apply the science of psychology to address real-world experiences.


Look, I think psychology is the most interesting of all fields. It’s the most interesting because it is about us. It’s about the most important and intimate aspects of our lives. It’s about our memory of things, it’s about our dreams, love, hate, it’s about morality, our sense of right and wrong.


Psychology is also about when things go wrong in our lives as when we experience depression, or anxiety. It’s about everything that matters to us.

Even if you have never studied any psychology before, it is likely you will have come across psychological ideas in the media or discussions with other people. Psychological research findings and ideas and their practical and their professional application are regularly in the media and on the internet.


Questions such as whether genetic or environmental factors have a greater influence on your behaviour, or whether inherited traits or life experiences play a greater role in shaping your personality. The nature (that which is inherited/ genetic) versus nurture (refers to all environmental influences after conception, i.e. experience, the things we learn throughout our lives) debate is one of the oldest issues in psychology.

Note though, that the nature vs nurture is currently being thought of as nature AND nurture rather than nature vs nurture, and most psychology researchers are now interested in investigating how nature and nurture interact in a host of qualitatively different ways.


Remember this:

Psychology is not always about science and logical and empirical argument. It is also about the social and political conclusions drawn from research that makes certain claims.


So, What Exactly is Psychology?

Psychology is the scientific study of the mind and behaviour (American Psychological Association). It is a multifaceted discipline which includes many sub-fields of study such areas as human development, sports, health, clinical, social behaviour and cognitive processes.

Psychology is really a very new science, with most advances happening over the past 150 years or so, and whose beginnings can be traced back to ancient Greece, 400 – 500 years BC (McLeod, 2019).


The Perspectives of Psychology

An approach is a perspective (i.e., view) that involves certain assumptions (i.e., beliefs) about human behaviour: the way they function, which aspects of them are worthy of study and what research methods are appropriate for undertaking this study.


There are many different perspectives in psychology to explain the different types of behaviour. There may be several different theories within an approach, but they all share these common assumptions.


No one perspective has explanatory powers over the rest.


Only with all the different types of psychology, which sometimes contradict one another (nature-nurture debate), overlap with each other (e.g. psychoanalysis and child psychology) or build upon one another (biological and health psychologist) can we understand and create effective solutions when problems arise, so we have a healthy body and a healthy mind.


Isn’t this a beautiful cooperative world?


Topics and questions in psychology can be looked at in a number of different ways. Each perspective helps contribute a new level of understanding to a topic. Some of the major perspectives in psychology include cognitive perspective, behavioural perspective, evolutionary perspective, humanistic perspective.


Imagine, for example, that psychologists are trying to understand the different factors that contribute to aggression. One researcher might take a biological perspective and look at the role of genetics and the brain impact aggressive behaviour. Another might take a behavioural perspective and look at how aggressive behaviours are reinforced by the environment. Another might take a social perspective and use a cross-cultural approach to analyse how cultural influences and social influences contribute to aggressive or violent behaviour.


Each contributes to how we understand a topic and allows researchers to analyse the numerous influences that contribute to certain actions.



What Does Psychology Aim to Achieve? (The Goals of Psychology)

The four main goals of psychology are to describe, explain, predict and change the behaviour and mental processes of others:


To Describe: Describing a behaviour or cognition is the first goal of psychology. This can enable researchers to develop general laws of human behaviour. For example, through describing the response of dogs to various stimuli, Ivan Pavlov helped develop laws of learning known as classical conditioning theory.


To Explain: Once researchers have described general laws of behaviour, the next step is to explain how or why this trend occurs. Psychologists will propose theories which can explain a behaviour.


To Predict: Psychology aims to be able to predict future behaviour from the findings of empirical research. If a prediction is not confirmed, then the explanation it is based on might need to be revised. For example, classical conditioning predicts that if a person associates a negative outcome with a stimuli (anything that evokes a reaction), they may develop a phobia or aversion (a strong dislike if you like) of the stimuli.


To Change: Once psychology has described, explained and made predictions about behaviour, changing or controlling a behaviour can be attempted.

For example, interventions based on classical conditioning, such as systematic desensitisation, have been used to treat people with anxiety disorders including phobias.


Psychology Has Wide Appeal

Some have come to this site because you are looking for some answers to your basic questions about how to make good decisions, or manage your anxiety or simply curious to know what psychology is.

Whatever the reason, you need to know that psychologists working professionally, whether in psychotherapeutic settings or doing research, can help you think about and resolve some of your everyday challenges you have. That’s the good news!

So do not hesitate to contact us!


Psychology Has Social Impact

The importance of psychology to everyday experiences and how it can be made popular and used means that dubious psychological knowledge is continually absorbed into the very language we use.


Examples of psychological concepts that have entered popular discourse include the idea that we are predisposed, both through evolution and the functioning of our brains and nervous systems to behave in certain ways and to have intellectual and emotional capacities and limitations. Others include Freudian slips – mistakes of action- reveal unconscious motivation. Many people can be fooled into thinking that illusions are real. Many people have absorbed and taken for granted that what happens to us in childhood has an influence on our psychological functioning over the rest of our lives.


These examples show how psychological ideas have an impact on the ways in which we think life should, ideally, be lived. Such ideas have roots in psychological research even when they are not widely seen as psychological.


But this is not a one-way traffic. Psychological research often addresses questions that originate in common-sense understanding. And this direction of influence between psychology and ordinary, everyday knowledge about people.


Psychological ideas are very popular in everyday life because the subject matter of psychology is people, and thus, ourselves. Because psychology is about us, about people, what they think, feel and act, both psychologists and non-psychologist spend so much of our time trying to understand other people’s behaviour and the motives for their behaviour.

Perhaps it is this reason that leads some people to believe that the science of psychology is nothing more than just common sense – yes, there are some similarities with one another in that they both try to explain human behaviour, and psychological research and knowledge may sometimes develop from the experiences of people, in other words, from common sense.


However this does not mean that they are the same thing. The most important difference between psychology and common sense is that psychology uses systematic and objective methods of observation and experimentation.


Psychology is a science, and any knowledge and understanding about behaviour, why we think, feel and act the way we do obtained, is evidenced-based and the result of systematic research.


Psychology helps people because to a large extent, it can explain why people feel and act the way they do.


Even if you have never studied any psychology before, it is likely you will have come across psychological ideas in the media or discussions with other people. Psychological research findings and ideas and their practical and their professional application are regularly in the media and on the internet.


These public debates help make psychology a very visible part of everyday life and culture.


How Does Psychology Help People?

Psychology is not just restricted to mental disorders, counselling and therapy sessions; it’s role is far larger than that.


Right from the moment you wake up till you sleep, the role of psychology in our everyday life becomes comes to play. From just thinking of if or when to wake up, talking with others to make the most difficult decision in your life, you will find psychology being applied in almost all aspects of our everyday life.


The science of psychology generates knowledge about the nature and development of human thoughts, emotions, and behaviours at both individual and societal levels. Psychology is an autonomous scientific discipline that applies to nearly every aspect of our boundless experience. Psychologists work in a broad range of settings—effectively any place where human functioning is relevant. Psychological science deepens our understanding of human behaviour within social, cultural and linguistic contexts. Psychologists have a role in supporting health and well-being globally within a human rights framework with the goal of improving lives.


Basically, psychology helps people in large part because it can explain why people act the way they do. With this kind of professional insight, a psychologist can help people in many kinds of challenging issues, whether you feel depressed, angry, or anxious for a long time. Or, whether you are looking for help for a chronic condition that is interfering with your lives or physical health. Others may just be overwhelmed by a new job or grieving the death of a family member.


The Importance of Psychology in Today’s World

The effects of psychological studies are more relevant and respected today than any period in the past, and new discoveries and applications for psychology are always being uncovered by top researchers.


During the World War 1, traumatised soldiers who had experienced “shell shock” due to exposure to repeated concussive blasts resulting in brain damage, were seen by the prevailing wisdom at the time as simply weak or cowards.


There is near unanimous agreement among modern psychologists that shell shock was in fact what we commonly refer to today as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Instead of using psychology as a treatment, it can also be used to improve our daily lives through developments in Applied Psychology. We can apply psychology to our everyday lives for situations such as for relationships, business, education, product design, ergonomics, law and so on.


Many of the primary modern applications for psychology revolve around protecting people from emotional and physical harm while providing them with the necessary mental bandwidth to handle the psychological perils many people face daily. Issues like relationships, workplace stress and financial difficulties can all be affected by psychological symptoms that require diagnosing and managing, which is where modern psychology comes into play and why it’s so important.


Despite the popular stereotype of the private practice therapist popularized by the media, psychology professionals actually have access to a wide variety of industries and fields, from education and criminal justice to marketing and politics.

Do you still think psychology is just common-sense?


Let’s talk!


Check this site (https://www.apa.org/education-career/guide/science), for more information on how society benefits from the science of psychology.




Further Readings

American Psychological Association, https://www.apa.org/education-career/guide/science

McLeod, S. A. (2013). Psychology perspectives. Simply Psychology. https://www.simplypsychology.org/perspective.html


Miell, D., Phoenix, A., & Thomas, K. (2002). Mapping Psychology 1. The Open University, Milton Keynes.


McLeod, S. A. (2019). What is psychology? Retrieved from https://www.simplypsychology.org/whatispsychology.html

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