What is Psychology?
Psychology is the scientific study of behavior and mental processes.
The word ‘Psychology’ is derived from two Greek roots: ‘Psyche’, meaning ‘mind’ or ‘soul’ and ‘Logos’, meaning ‘study of’. Psychology, therefore, literally means ‘study of the mind’.
Where did psychology come from?
The date 1879 is usually said to be the start of psychology as a separate scientific discipline, since it was when Wilhelm Wundt created the first psychology laboratory in Leipzig.
Many of the problems which psychology has investigated were first most clearly outlined by Greek philosophers such as Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle in the 5th century BC. Two recent philosophical influences on the development of psychology as a science:
- Empiricism – humans should only measure data that is objectively observable, such as behavior
- Positivism – the methods and principles of science should be applied to human behavior
Where did psychology come from? (cont.)
Two important influences:
- Evolution – Darwin’s suggestion that humans have evolved from other animals. The discoveries in genetics that followed from his evolutionary theory have had many important implications for the study and understanding of behaviour.
- Physiology – the discoveries, mostly by the medical profession, of the structure and function of the brain, nervous, and endocrine systems have significantly contributed to the understanding of behaviour.
- A subject that because of its great success has been adopted as the ideal model by scientists in psychology, who have borrowed its scientific methods and principles.
- Physicists, such as Fechner, started applying their subject to human behaviour and experience (psychophysics) in the nineteenth century.
How did psychology develop?
Structuralism – first approach to investigating psychology, pioneered by Wundt himself, who thought that the object of psychological investigation should be the conscious mind, and that it should be studied by introspection (looking inwards at one’s own mental experience) in order to break it down into its component parts (such as images, sensations and feelings) like the science of chemistry had done with chemicals. One structuralist, Titchener, claimed there were a total of 46,708 basic sensations that combined to form the structure of the human mind, but the approach was very limited in its ability to explain and was replaced by functionalism.
Functionalism – William James was influenced by Darwin’s views and argued that the workings of the mind are functional, to survive and adapt, so we should investigate what behaviour and thoughts are for. Many of James’s insights remain valid today, but functionalism was superseded by the next two very powerful approaches that both started around the turn of the century.
How did psychology develop? (cont.)
Psychoanalysis – a method of therapy developed by Sigmund Freud in Austria, but in many major books, such as The Interpretation of Dreams (1900), Freud began describing in detail an underlying theory of the human mind and behaviour that has had an enormous (and controversial) impact of psychology. Freud argued that the proper object of psychological investigation should be the unconscious mind, and that our behaviour is determined by processes of which we are not aware.
Behaviourism – Behaviourists, such as John Watson, were extremely critical of all the approaches that concerned themselves with ‘minds’, and proposed that psychology should only investigate observable behaviour if it wanted to be an objective science. This approach dominated experimental psychology until the 1950s, when a strong resurgence of interest in the ‘mind’ developed in the form of the cognitive and the humanistic approaches, which suggested that behaviourism ignored all the most important and interesting things that go on in our heads.
How did psychology develop? (cont.)
Cognitive psychology – aims to investigate the mind using computer information processing ideas to arrive at testable models of how the brain works, and then applying scientific method to confirm these models.
Humanistic approach – Less of an impact on psychology, since it has deliberately adopted a less scientific view of the human mind by arguing that psychology should focus on each individual’s conscious experience and aims in life.
Biological approach – Advanced evolutionary, physiological, and genetic explanations for human behaviour throughout the history of psychology.
‘Cognition’ refers to our mental processes, such as attention, perception, thinking, language, and memory. Thus, cognitive psychology looks at how we process information to understand the thoughts that underpin emotions and behaviour. It can overlap with social psychology in the area of social cognition, or with developmental psychology in the area of cognitive development. This approach focuses on the brain as an information processor and computers can be used as an analogy of the brain to help develop mental models to explain and understand cognitive processes.
- Studies the biological, cognitive, social, and emotional changes that occur throughout the life span
- Developmental psychologists start their study with conception and pre-natal development, then move from infancy through to adolescence, adulthood, and finally old age
- Topics studied could involve early cognitive development, the attachments formed between infants and their caregivers, and the gender roles acquired in early childhood
- Psychodynamic perspective links well to this area because it claims that unconscious childhood conflicts shape adult behaviour
- Aims to establish the biological basis of behaviour
- Body structures and functions, in particular brain processing, are investigated to see how they relate to behaviour
- Body’s response to stress is a good illustration of a behaviour that has a biological basis
- Physiological psychologists study topics such as how the nerves function, how hormones affect behaviour, and how the different areas of the brain are specialised and related to different behaviours
- The term ‘biological’ is used when referring to body structures and ‘physiological’ is used when referring to bodily processes
- Looks at wide variation in individuals
- Studying the ways in which individuals differ in their psychological characteristics, and this will affect their intelligence, aggressiveness, willingness to conform, masculinity and femininity etc.
- An important individual difference is the degree to which a person is mentally healthy, and this gives rise to the study of abnormal psychology
- What is considered to be normal for one person may not be considered to be normal by another person
- There is huge controversy and ambiguity in defining abnormality
- Within abnormal psychology mental disorders are investigated such as eating disorders, schizophrenia, depression, and anxiety disorders
- ‘Social’ refers to any situation involving two or more members of the same species
- Investigates social interactions, such as interpersonal relationships, group behaviour, leadership, social influence, and the influence of the media
- Study what we find attractive in others or what causes relationships to deteriorate and end
- Study how others influence us, e.g., conformity and obedience to authority
Components of a science
- Must involve theory construction and hypothesis testing
- Facts are established through empirical (observable) methods of investigation, which are objective
- Science attempts to formulate laws, which can apply to all (universal)
Common Sense Psychology
Common sense psychology arises from the idea that psychologist observe human behaviour and try to analyse it. Most of the time we are not able to rely on common-sense theory as it does not produce any facts or fulfil the criteria of science, therefore psychologists and other scientists try to use objective measures of investigation, such as experimentation.
Charles Darwin’s famous book ‘On the Origin of Species (1839)’ suggested that humans were in fact animals that had evolved from simpler organisms which implied that human behaviour was subject to natural laws, and could be studied and understood and predicted in just the same way as the rest of the natural world.