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).

Published by

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!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *