What is Psychology?
PSYC 1301

What is Psychology?


Is it a talk-therapist on TV? Is it the newspaper columnist?

It is the science of understanding individuals – animals as well as people. It is simply the scientific study of thought and behavior. The foundation of psychology lies in observation and experimentation; but there is still a lot of debate about psychology.

Is it only outward, observable behavior?

Can you really study thinking scientifically?

What is intelligence?

How much of our behavior is due to heredity (nature) and how much to environment (nurture)?

How much of our behavior is produced by forces of which we are fully aware (conscious) and how much is unconscious conflicts from the past?

How much of behavior is a matter of choices made by the person and how much is really beyond that person's control? Can you really change a person's abnormal behavior?

Studying psychology is not merely putting on labels - it is observing, explaining, predicting, modifying, and ultimately improving the lives of people. It is a social science, but increasingly it is also a biological science. As the science of behavior and mental processes, psychology is an extremely broad discipline. It seeks to both describe and explain every aspect of human thought, feelings, perceptions, and actions. One unique aspect of psychology is that the subject and the object of the work are the same. Psychology consists of humans studying how humans think and behave. Core sciences are those that have many other disciplines organized around them. Psychology is a core science, along with medicine, physics, and math.

Subdisciplines of Psychology

Behavioral neuroscience studies the links among brain, mind, and behavior. It cuts across the disciplines and subdisciplines of psychology.

Biological psychology examines the relationship between bodily systems and chemicals and their influence on behavior and thought. There is a great deal of overlap between neuroscience and biological psychology. Biological psychology is an older term that is slowly being replaced by behavioral neuroscience.

Cognitive psychology is the study of how we perceive, learn, and remember, and how we learn and use language, and how we solve problems. Experimental psychologists do research on cognition and learning by conducting laboratory experiments to address their research questions.

Developmental psychology examines all aspects of human growth and change from conception until death and shows stability across the lifespan. Child psychologists, adolescent psychologists, and life-span psychologists are in this category.

Health psychologists explore the role of psychological factors in physical health and illness. Topics studied range from studies of how stress is linked to illness to research on the role of social factors in how people interact with health care professionals.

Physiological psychology focuses on the biological basis of behavior, cognition, and emotion. Neuropsychology, biological psychology, and behavioral genetics are fields in physiological psychology.

Personality psychologists study the relatively permanent traits of characteristics that render some consistency to behavior. They try to determine what makes people unique as well as the consistencies in behavior across time and situations. These traits include sociability, emotional stability, and self-esteem.


Subdisciplines Continued

Clinical psychology is the single largest subdiscipline in psychology. Clinical psychologists are concerned with the diagnosis and treatment of psychological disorders, whereas counseling psychologists are concerned more with problems of adjustment in "normal" lives. Counseling psychologists generally work with less severe psychological disorders than clinical psychologists. About half of all psychologists specialize in these two areas. Psychiatrists differ from clinical and counseling therapists in that they are trained as medical doctors and therefore, they can prescribe drugs.

To view the case of Kitty Genovese, probably the most famous case of bystander effect, click here.

Social psychologists study the ways social context affects behaviors of both individuals and groups. They consider how the real or imagined presence of others influences thought, feeling, and behavior. They are interested in social roles, attitude formation, conformity, and group processes. Research on why crowds inhibit helping behaviors, known as the bystander effect, would be studied by social psychologists.


Industrial and organizational psychologists study the relationship between individuals and work. I/O psychologists focus on training and development, productivity, and improving working conditions. I/O is one of the fastest growing subdisciplines in psychology.

Educational psychology examines how people learn, various teaching techniques, the dynamics of school populations, and the psychology of teaching.

Sports psychology examines the psychological factors in sports and exercise.

Forensic psychology is a combination of psychology, law, and criminal justice. Among other tasks, a forensic psychologist would evaluate the state of mind of a defendant at the time of a crime.



The History of Scientific Psychology

There are two parent disciplines of scientific psychology: philosophy and physiology. Even though Aristotle is credited with launching the study of life that eventually became the science of psychology, it was not until 2,200 years after he lived that the sciences emerged from the field of philosophy. Psychology gained its independence from philosophy when researchers started to examine and test sensations and perceptions using scientific methods. Philosophy, on the other hand, is not held to the scientific requirements of psychology. Philosophers, on the other hand, do not collect data to test their ideas.  The practice of psychology emerged first, followed by science.

Notable Psychologists and Theories

Wilhelm Wundt and the Structuralists


Edward Bradford Titchener

Studied conscious experience and its structure using introspection. Emphasis was placed on the "what" of the mind. He believed attention is controlled by intentions and motives.Wundt was responsible for moving psychology out of the realm of philosophy and to the world of science. He introduced measurement and experiment into psychology. Titchener tried to classify the structures of the mind such as sensations and thoughts. This approach became known as "structuralism."

These structuralists broke experience into its elemental parts in order to better understand thought and behavior. To do so, they used introspection or looking into one's own mind for information about the nature of conscious experience.  They believed this detailed analysis of experience as it happened provided the most accurate glimpse into the workings of the human mind.

William James and the Functionalists



James was the first American-born psychologist. His perspective became known as functionalism which is based on the idea that consciousness is a continuous flow - the "what it does" of the mind.  This perspective focused on why and how people think and feel. It is better to look at why the mind works the way it does than to describe its parts. James studied how the mind works in allowing the organism to adapt to the environment using naturalistic observation of animal and human behavior. Perceptions, emotions, and experiences flow together.

Sigmund Freud: Psychodynamic or Psychoanalysis


The Nature of the Unconscious Mind


The theories of Freud added another dimension to psychology: the idea that much of our behavior is governed by unconscious conflicts, motives, and desires. The goal was to explain personality and behavior and to develop techniques for treating mental illnesses through the study of individual cases. The application resulted in development of psychotherapy with an emphasis on the first six years of life. Freud believed adult problems could invariably be traced back to critical stages of childhood.

G. Stanley Hall

Established the first American psychology laboratory at Johns Hopkins University in 1883. He became known as the father of the scientific study of adolescence and coined the term storm-and-stress to describe adolescent years as a time of conflict and mood swings. Hall believed that development is controlled by genetically determined physiological factors. He believed the environment played a minimal role in development.  Hall founded the American Psychological Association (APA). He also started the first scientific journal in American psychology, the American Journal of Psychology.

John B. Watson: Behaviorism



John B. Watson argued that psychology should concern itself only with observable, measurable behavior. Watson based much of his work on the conditioning experiments of Ivan Pavlov who trained his dogs to expect food when they heard a bell. Watson argued that an infant is tabula rasa or a blank slate. One of his best-known experiments was with Little Albert. Watson taught Little Albert to fear a white rat by pairing the rat with a frightening noise. Eventually Little Albert was afraid of anything white and furry.

B. F. Skinner:


B. F. Skinner's beliefs were similar to Watson's, but he added the concept of reinforcement or rewards. In this way he made the learner an active agent in the learning process. This view became known as behaviorism or the idea that psychology should be based only on observable, measurable behaviors.  Psychology can be a true science only if it examines observable behavior, not ideas, thoughts, feelings, or motives. His views dominated American psychology into the 1960s.


Behaviorism is an extreme form of environmentalism.

Gestalt Psychology



Gestalt psychology posits that the unified whole is more than a compilation of parts. The word gestalt means whole or circle. In this emphasis on wholeness, the Gestalt school radically differed from structuralism. Gestalt psychologists were most interested in perception. When applied to perception, Gestalt refers to our tendency to see patterns. The goal was to describe the organization of mental processes -"the whole is greater than the sum of its parts" concept. Methods used were observation of sensory/perception experiences.

Cognitive Psychology



Cognitive psychology is the study of mental processes in the broadest sense, focusing on how people perceive, interpret, store, and retrieve information. Cognitive psychologists believe that not only behavior but thoughts and feelings can be studied scientifically.

Humanistic and Positive Psychology

Humanistic psychology

Positive psychology

Founded by Abraham Maslow and Carl Rogers, this approach focuses on personal growth and meaning to reach one's full potential.


Humanistic psychology emphasizes the goal of reaching one's potential, love, belongingness, and self-esteem.


Martin Seligman and Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi developed the study of happiness, well-being, intimacy, leadership, and altruism known as positive psychology in the 1990s. Wellness is stressed more than abnormal behaviors.


Nature vs. Nurture Debate

Which determines our personality and behavior: innate biology or our experiences in the environment?

The nature-only view states that we are determined by inborn tendency and genetically based traits.

The nurture-only view states that we are all born the same, but we are different as the result of our experiences.


The more commonly accepted view today is one of nature through nurture. The environment interacts with biology to shape who we are and what we do. In other words, the environment and biological events mutually influence each other. In 2006 Kandel showed that certain genes in the human brain can be turned on or off by our experiences.


Softwiring represents the view that biological systems involved in thought and behavior such as genes, brain structure, brains, cells, etc. – are inherited but are still open to modification from the environment.

Mind-Body Dualism

In psychology, the idea that the mind and the body are separate entities is referred to as mind-body dualism. The debate is over how much separation there is between the mind and the body. From this perspective, the mind controls the  body. Occasionally when the body does control the mind, we often lose our better judgment. This separation of mind and body allows for the idea of a soul that survives a bodily death.

Ethics and Psychology

Ethics are rules governing the conduct of an individual or a group in general or in a specific situation. Ethics are our standards of right and wrong.

Today the American Psychological Association (APA) has a code of ethics for conducting research involving human or animal subjects. When working with human subjects, psychological and medical researchers must adhere to the following guidelines:

Participants must be told what the study is about, what they will do, length of the study, known risks and benefits, whom to contact with questions, and that they have the right to withdraw at any time without penalty. Participants must be treated with respect protecting the dignity and autonomy of the individual. Participants must be told the costs and benefits of participation. The benefits and costs must be distributed equally among participants.

Still, controversy over ethical guidelines continues, with some thinking they are too strict and impede psychological research, and others thinking they are not strict enough to protect subjects from harm.

Ethical Research with Animals



Animals are most often used for research in the areas of biological psychology and learning. General conditions and treatment of animals must be humane. Laws require that animals must be housed in clean, sanitary, and adequately sized structures. Discomfort from infection, illness, and pain must be kept at an absolute minimum at all times.


At left are Wistar lab rats, a strain of albino rats developed at the Wistar Institute in 1906. They are the most popular choice for laboratory research.


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