What Is Psychology?

What exactly is psychology? It is the study of the mind and behavior.
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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.

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 traditional 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 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 contribute to creating 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?

A Closer Look at Psychology As a 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.

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.

Early Psychology

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

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.

Schools of Thought

Throughout psychology's history, some 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. 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.

Psychology Today

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. Educational 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 do applied research that attempts 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 use 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. Some different subfields and specialty areas have emerged. The following are some of the major areas of research and application within psychology:

Final Thoughts

As you can see, while psychology may be a very young science it also has a tremendous amount of both depth and breadth. The assessment, diagnosis, and treatment of mental illness is a central interest of psychology, but psychology encompases much more than psychotherapy. 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.

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