An Overview of Psychology

Psychology is a broad field that encompasses the study of human thought, behavior, development, personality, emotion, motivation, and more. Gaining a richer and deeper understanding of psychology can help people achieve insights into their own actions as well as a better understanding of others.

What Is Psychology?

The simplest definition of psychology is that it is the study of the mind and behavior.

Research in psychology seeks to understand and explain how people think, ​act, and feel. ​Psychologists strive to learn more about the many factors that can impact thought and behavior, ranging from biological influences to social pressures. 

Applications for psychology include mental health treatment, performance enhancement, self-help, ergonomics, and many other areas affecting health and daily life. It is 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, predict, and explain.

There's a lot of confusion out there about psychology. Unfortunately, such misconceptions about psychology abound in part thanks to stereotyped portrayals of psychologists in popular media as well as the diverse career paths of those holding psychology degrees.

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 traditional depictions present the psychologist as gray and wise, seated in a stately office lined with books, and listening to clients ramble on about their difficult childhoods.

So what is psychology really all about? The fact is that there is a little bit of truth in these stereotypical portrayals, but there is 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. However, there are also psychologists who contribute to creating healthier workplaces. There are psychologists that design and implement public health programs. Other psychologists investigate topics such as airplane safety, computer design, and military life. No matter where psychologists work, their primary goals are to help describe, explain, predict, and influence human behavior.

How Psychology Came to Be What It Is Today

Early 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" itself is derived from the Greek word psyche, literally meaning "life" or "breath." Derived meanings of the word include "soul" or "self."

The emergence of psychology as a separate and independent field of study truly came about when Wilhelm Wundt established the first experimental psychology lab in Leipzig, Germany in 1879.

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, an extremely subjective process. Wundt believed that properly trained individuals would be able to identify accurately the mental processes that accompanied feelings, sensations, and thoughts.

Throughout psychology's history, various schools of thought have formed to explain the human mind and behavior. In some cases, certain schools of thought rose to dominate the field of psychology 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.

  • Wundt and Titchener's structuralism was the earliest school of thought, but others soon began to emerge.
  • The early psychologist and philosopher William James became associated with a school of thought known as functionalism, which focused its attention on the purpose of human consciousness and behavior.
  • Soon, these initial schools of thought gave way to several dominant and influential approaches to psychology. Sigmund Freud's psychoanalysis centered on the how the unconscious mind impacted human behavior.
  • The behavioral school of thought turned away from looking at internal influences on behavior and sought to make psychology the study of observable behaviors.
  • Later, the humanistic approach centered on the importance of personal growth and self-actualization.
  • By the 1960s and 1970s, the cognitive revolution spurred the investigation of internal mental processes such as thinking, decision-making, language development, and memory.

Top 4 Things to Know About Psychology

1. Psychology Is Both an Applied and Theoretical Discipline

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. Research psychologists contribute to our understanding of why people behave as they do as well as different factors that can impact the human mind and behavior.

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 well-being, ergonomics, motivation, productivity, and much more.

2. There Are Many Different Specialty Areas in Psychology

Psychology is a broad and diverse field. Some 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 single largest area of employment 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, and select employees.
  • Personality psychology focuses on understanding how personality develops as well as the patterns of thoughts, behaviors, and characteristics that make each individual unique.
  • Social psychology focuses on understanding group behavior as well as how social influences shape individual behavior. Topics studied by social psychologists include attitudes, prejudice, conformity, and aggression.

3. Psychologists Utilize Scientific Methods

Psychologists use objective scientific methods to understand, explain, and predict human behavior. Psychological studies are highly structured, beginning with a hypothesis that is then empirically tested. As psychology moved away from its philosophical roots, psychologists began to employ more and more scientific methods to study human behavior. Contemporary researchers use a variety of scientific techniques including experiments, correlational studies, and longitudinal research.

4. There Are Many Different Applications for Psychology

The most obvious application for psychology is in the field of mental health where psychologists use principles, research, and clinical findings to help clients manage and overcome symptoms of mental distress and psychological illness. There are also many others ways that psychology used to help people live better, healthier lives. Psychological research can have an impact on public policy, can be used to design public health initiatives, and can guide approaches to education and child development programs.

A Word From Verywell

As you can see, while psychology may be a relatively young science it also has a tremendous amount of both depth and breadth. The assessment, diagnosis, and treatment of mental illness are central interests of psychology, but psychology encompasses much more than mental health. Today, psychologists seek to understand many different aspects of the human mind and behavior, adding new knowledge to our understanding of how people think as well as developing practical applications that have an important impact on everyday human lives.

Sources:

American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Washington, DC: Author; 2013.

Hothersall D. History of Psychology, 4th ed. New York: Mcgraw-Hill; 2003.

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