What is this thing called Psychology?

At parties, I used to answer, ‘I’m a psy­cho­lo­gist’ when asked what I did for a liv­ing, and I’d get a weird look. Now, of course, I answer, ‘I’m a writer,’ and get a weird look. This blog is a record of the writer’s life, so I don’t want to spend too much time on psy­cho­logy but, of course, the work of psy­cho­lo­gists does have rel­ev­ance to fic­tion. Not as much as some people think (unless you’re a Freudian; evil laugh).

What, pray, is psychology, hmm?

Psychology, like any sci­ence, is all about mys­tery – in this case, the mys­tery of think­ing and beha­viour. And like any mys­tery, the key to its solu­tion lies in pure detect­ive work. But psy­cho­logy, by its very nature, and in con­trast to phys­ics or chem­istry, forces us to ask ques­tions before any real work can be done. Take this ques­tion, for example. ‘What is psy­cho­logy?’ It’s a killer. I’ll sup­ply a brief answer, but before we get ser­i­ous it might be worth point­ing out what psy­cho­logy is not (so that those with par­tic­u­larly bizarre mis­con­cep­tions may depart with dig­nity intact).

Alas, psy­cho­logy is not the art of mind-read­ing. Students will not learn to divine the inner­most thoughts of friends and strangers. They will not leave uni­ver­sity a fledgling Machiavelli, forever destined to impress people at parties. Secondly, psy­cho­logy is not the study of com­mon sense. While it may be accur­ate to describe all func­tion­ing human beings as psy­cho­lo­gists in terms of their know­ledge and use of men­tal pro­cesses to manip­u­late oth­ers (to good ends as well as bad) they are largely unaware of the body of work that com­prises psy­cho­logy, and the rigours involved in research­ing it. If this startles you, join the club with a mil­lion mem­bers.

But the myths don’t end there. The term ‘psy­cho­logy’ is not inter­change­able with ‘psy­cho­ana­lys­is’, which is Sigmund Freud’s the­ory of the devel­op­ment, func­tion and treat­ment of the mind. Psychoanalysis exists as a sub­di­vi­sion of psy­cho­logy. Nor is a psy­cho­lo­gist a psy­chi­at­rist. The lat­ter is a med­ic­al doc­tor who spe­cial­ises in the treat­ment of men­tally ill indi­vidu­als using psy­cho­thera­peut­ic and drug-assisted tech­niques. For that mat­ter, psy­cho­logy is not exclus­ively the study of men­tally ill indi­vidu­als either, and when it is, they rarely suf­fer from the more news­worthy ones like Munchausen’s syn­drome or mul­tiple per­son­al­ity (dis­so­ci­at­ive iden­tity) dis­order. It is safe to say that, dur­ing their stud­ies, psy­cho­logy stu­dents will not be asked to pro­file seri­al offend­ers or ana­lyze the bite-marks of Hannibal Lecter.

Even with these myths dis­pelled, the ques­tion is still a killer. The first step towards mak­ing it digest­ible is to divide psy­cho­logy into aca­dem­ic and spe­cial­ist areas (these divi­sions are not true bor­ders; com­mu­nic­a­tion of inform­a­tion between the two, and across every oth­er make­shift ‘bor­der’, is lively and pro­duct­ive). The aca­dem­ic area can be fur­ther divided into major the­or­et­ic­al per­spect­ives. Each per­spect­ive con­tains its own views (and jar­gon) about the mind and the world. These are partly influ­enced by philo­soph­ic­al notions – psy­cho­logy owes a debt to philo­sophy it can nev­er repay – and the pre­cise nature of how psy­cho­lo­gic­al inquiry should be con­duc­ted, and why it should be con­duc­ted. By and large, the creed of aca­dem­ic psy­cho­logy is ‘the sci­entif­ic invest­ig­a­tion of mind and beha­viour’. This is by no means uncon­tro­ver­sial; the major per­spect­ives dif­fer greatly in their defin­i­tions of the dan­ger­ous words in that state­ment. What do we mean by ‘sci­entif­ic’? Why do we want to be sci­entif­ic? Can we ever really study the ‘mind’ when all we see is the effect it has, nev­er the thing itself? Should we lim­it ourselves to beha­viour only, to be as sci­entif­ic as pos­sible?

Academic Perspectives

In no par­tic­u­lar order, the first is the Psychodynamic view­point. This ori­gin­ated with Sigmund Freud at the turn of the pre­vi­ous cen­tury, became pop­u­lar in America and, from there, spread to Europe. The per­son­al­ity is divided into the id, ego and super­ego, and prob­lems such as neur­oses, Freudian slips and gen­er­al psy­cho­lo­gic­al mal­aise are con­sidered to be dir­ect res­ults of excess­ive fric­tion between these chron­ic­ally con­flict­ing ele­ments. Psychological devel­op­ment is seen as the suc­cess­ful res­ol­u­tion of cer­tain anxi­et­ies that char­ac­ter­ize a child’s pro­gres­sion through uni­ver­sal psycho­sexu­al stages. The goal of Freudian psy­cho­ana­lys­is is heightened aware­ness of the personality’s war­ring ele­ments and, thus, the achieve­ment of sta­bil­isa­tion. For many years it has been the fash­ion to decry Freud (and not without reas­on) but a thor­ough under­stand­ing of his the­ory and meth­od­o­logy are com­mon require­ments of a psy­cho­logy course. Whether or not Freud was right is, in many ways, out­weighed by the oppor­tun­ity to gain insight into a the­ory that has influ­enced a century’s way of think­ing.

Second is the Cognitive view­point. Cognitive psy­cho­lo­gists are less con­cerned than psy­cho­ana­lysts with clin­ic­al applic­a­tions and look to uncov­er the found­a­tions of cog­ni­tion itself. The mind is seen as an act­ive inform­a­tion pro­cessing device striv­ing to make sense of the world through spe­cial­ised mech­an­isms. Rather than address issues such as the emo­tions and glob­al men­tal func­tion­ing, the goal here is to object­ively meas­ure – through empir­ic­al ana­lys­is – aspects of this inform­a­tion pro­cessing endeav­our, such as atten­tion, memory, per­cep­tion, lan­guage, prob­lem-solv­ing, and men­tal rep­res­ent­a­tion. Cognitive psy­cho­logy is the most rig­or­ously sci­entif­ic of the view­points that attempt to meas­ure the mind dir­ectly, and it does so with some exot­ic tools, includ­ing the sim­u­la­tion of the micro-struc­ture of cog­ni­tion.

Next is Behaviourism. The the­or­ies which under­pin beha­vi­our­ism – oper­ant and clas­sic­al con­di­tion­ing – are, like psy­cho­ana­lys­is, vaguely famil­i­ar to most people. Pavlov’s dogs come under beha­vi­our­ism, as do Skinner Boxes and roller-skat­ing pigeons. Less prom­in­ent nowadays, beha­vi­our­ism was once the view­point of main­stream psy­cho­logy. Radical beha­vi­our­ism took the stance of regard­ing the mind as both sci­en­tific­ally inval­id as a sub­ject of study and, moreover, unne­ces­sary from the out­set. At its core is the rela­tion­ship between stim­u­lus and response. All beha­viour is explained in these terms and, as a res­ult, beha­vi­our­ism attempts to reduce beha­viour to its prin­cip­al com­pon­ents. Some forms of men­tal ill­ness are regarded as bad con­di­tion­ing; lan­guage, super­sti­tion and the Mona Lisa are seen to be the end product of count­less stim­u­lus-response chains. The delib­er­ate ignor­ance of men­tal life made beha­vi­our­ism a poor con­tender in the race against cog­nit­iv­ism, and it is now used mainly as a tool in the study of non-human anim­al beha­viour as opposed to a the­or­et­ic­al pos­i­tion on human psy­cho­logy. Again, like psy­cho­ana­lys­is, beha­vi­our­ism is under­val­ued in most uni­ver­sit­ies.

The Biological per­spect­ive is anoth­er key school of thought. It places an emphas­is on the genet­ic basis of beha­viour, and the close con­nec­tion between beha­viour and its under­ly­ing phys­ic­al found­a­tion. Whereas oth­er psy­cho­lo­gists may see devel­op­ment in terms of stage-like the­or­ies or an accrue­ment of learned exper­i­ence, bio­lo­gic­al psy­cho­lo­gists talk of mat­ur­a­tion, of the emer­gence of struc­tures that come pre-pack­aged in our DNA. People can get a bad first impres­sion of bio­lo­gic­al psy­cho­logy. Rest assured that it is not eugen­ic or determ­in­ist­ic; for example, it has no plans to test the IQ of a foetus to save par­ents the both­er of rais­ing a dunce, and cer­tainly does not ignore the role of the envir­on­ment. Though less con­tro­ver­sial in prac­tice, bio­lo­gic­al psy­cho­logy touches upon some fas­cin­at­ing ques­tions. Ever wondered why we sleep? Or how? Or the phys­ic­al mech­an­isms involved in motiv­a­tion? In fear? Are humans nat­ur­ally aggress­ive or pass­ive? And why can we nev­er recall smells? Biological psy­cho­logy is also com­par­at­ive; it exam­ines the beha­viour of non-human anim­als in an evol­u­tion­ary con­text (and nat­ur­al set­ting) some­times referred to as eth­o­logy.

From a more ther­apy-centred out­look, the Humanistic-Existential school is based primar­ily on notions of self-actu­al­isa­tion – of achiev­ing one’s full poten­tial – and the ful­fil­ment of uncon­di­tion­al love. The indi­vidu­al is seen as self-determ­in­ing and unique. This per­spect­ive is dif­fi­cult to define and sus­cept­ible to pigeon­hol­ing, but it remains a power­ful force in vari­ous forms of ther­apy which seek to avoid the dangers of dehu­man­isa­tion inher­ent in the sci­entif­ic approach.

Specialist Perspectives

There are so many spe­cial­ist areas that a book the size of a tele­phone dir­ect­ory would be required to doc­u­ment their entirety. Here I’ll restrict myself to the more com­mon areas. An Industrial or Occupational Psychologist works largely with­in the areas of per­son­nel or mar­ket­ing. They help to cre­ate train­ing pro­grammes, test pro­spect­ive can­did­ates, advise on optim­al work­ing con­di­tions (both phys­ic­al and social), and help with product mar­ket­ing, i.e. advert­ising and sales ana­lys­is. Forensic Psychology, whose prac­ti­tion­ers are typ­ic­ally employed by the pro­ba­tion ser­vice, is con­cerned with all aspects of crim­in­al beha­viour and its treat­ment. These psy­cho­lo­gists work in pris­ons, youth deten­tion centres and com­munity homes. (They are often called as expert wit­nesses on mat­ters such as wit­ness cred­ib­il­ity.) Educational Psychologists research into teach­ing meth­ods, carry out edu­ca­tion­al achieve­ment tests (e.g. IQ) and ana­lyse them, and devise pro­grammes tailored for spe­cial needs pupils and stu­dents. They are nor­mally employed by a Local Education Authority (LEA). Lastly, per­haps the largest group are the Clinical Psychologists, mak­ing up over one third of all psy­cho­lo­gists. They are con­cerned with every aspect of men­tal ill­ness includ­ing its under­ly­ing psy­cho­lo­gic­al factors, its pre­val­ence and its treat­ment.

Psychology is undoubtedly unique. It bridges the gap between those two ancient rivals, sci­ence and the arts. It places equal weight on numer­acy and lit­er­acy and tackles issues no sane per­son would touch with an exten­ded barge pole, and tackles them with gusto.

A hint of bric, a touch of brac

Well, that’s a little more than I inten­ded to write, but, you know — pff. You might won­der wheth­er psy­cho­logy is an appro­pri­ate ‘route’ for a career in writ­ing. Since I have no career, my per­spect­ive is lim­ited, but I would say it can’t hurt to think hard on ques­tions that relate to the mind. As psy­cho­lo­gist, you will also get to know a bit of stat­ist­ics, some philo­sophy (not the hard stuff), and a smidgeon of crit­ic­al think­ing. It might turn you into a sci­ence fic­tion author, of course. (Not me; I was a writer of sci­ence fic­tion long before I star­ted my psy­cho­lo­gic­al stud­ies, twelve years ago.) As a final note, remem­ber that I’m based in the UK, and some of my com­ments may not be applic­able to psy­cho­logy as stud­ied in dif­fer­ent coun­tries.

You can find out more about psy­cho­logy from the UK Social Science Information Gateway (I work for these people), the British Psychological Society (BPS), and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Author: Ian Hocking

Writer and psychologist.

6 thoughts on “What is this thing called Psychology?”

  1. I know what you mean. I actu­ally have a degree in it — PPP (Psychology and Physiology). I got so fed up with try­ing to explain what it all was so I decided to say “Physiology” when people asked me what my degree top­ic was. Just because it is easi­er to explain in a short way — bod­ies not minds!

    Saying you are a sci­ent­ist or have any­thing to do with sci­ence is quite a con­ver­sa­tion stop­per (every­one changes the sub­ject) out­side the sci­entif­ic com­munity, I have found.

  2. Psychology owes a debt to philo­sophy it can nev­er repay.”

    Amen, broth­er!

  3. Maxine, you’re right. People usu­ally ask me to read their minds…with dis­astrous res­ults, depend­ing on how many beers I’ve had.

  4. I face the prob­lem every­day when people ask me what I have studird and I say Psychology.Their next ques­tion always depends on the reas­on or the time that they approached me.
    Person who wants to date me:“Well you must be very dan­ger­ous woman!You will know what I think about all the time!“
    Person that doesn’t have a clue: “So can you tell me what will hap­pen in the future?“
    I think that even my moth­er doesn’t really know what exactly she paid for- cause she’s the one that paid for my col­lege!

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