Psychology is the scientific study of behavior and mental processes. Behavior includes actions, feelings, and biological states. Mental processes include problem solving, intelligence, and memory, to name just a few.
Psychology is a science because psychologists conduct research in accordance with the scientific method. They analyze the behavior of humans as well as other species.
A psychologist’s explanation of a particular behavior is generally presented as a theory. A theory is an explanation of why and how behavior occurs. It does not explain a particular behavior for all people, but it provides general guidelines that summarize facts and help us organize research on a particular subject.
The Background and Beginning of Psychology
In the history of scientific endeavour, psychology is considered a relatively new discipline. While many other disciplines-such as biology, chemistry, and physics-have traditions dating back to ancient history, the usual date selected for the beginning of psychology is 1879.
This date is chosen because in that year Wilhelm Wundt (1832-1920) started the first formal psychology research laboratory at the University of Leipzig, Germany.
Other researchers had proceeded Wundt in conducting psychological investigations, but Wundt was the first to call psychology an independent experimental science and describe his facility as a psychology laboratory.
Wundt also started the first journal for psychology and wrote an early textbook of physiological psychology. Psychology did not spring suddenly onto the scientific scene.
Concern with “psychological issues” extends back into antiquity. Some of the areas which contributed to the development of psychology as a separate discipline are philosophy, the natural sciences, and medicine.
Philosophy. For thousands of years, philosophers have tried to understand thinking and behavior. Many of the basic areas of Psychology, such as learning, motivation, personality, perception, and psychological influences on behavior, were first discussed by philosophers.
Many departments of Psychology in colleges and universities originated in departments of philosophy and only later gained independent status.
Sciences. Much of the methodology that accompanied the introduction of scientific inquiry into behavioral areas were borrowed or adapted from other sciences, physics, chemistry, biology, and physiology were all important contributors to the start of Psychology.
Both physics and chemistry provided concerns regarding sensations and perceptions. These concerns quickly became part of the physiology of the time. More recently, developments in chemistry have led to the vastly increased use of drugs in the treatment of behavioral problems.
The biological theory of evolution gave strong support for comparative Psychology, in which the behavior of one species is compared with that of another.
Biology also provided much of the information for genetics, heredity, and Psychological structures and the processes which have been used by Psychologists in considering the effects of these factors on behavior and thought processes.
Medicine. In a somewhat indirect manner, medicine made a major contribution to the beginning of Psychology. Until the early 1800s, most people who exhibited abnormal personality patterns were thought to possessed by the devil.
In the early 1880s, medical interest brought treatment for physical illnesses that were thought to cause abnormal pattern of behavior or thinking. By the late 1800s, the attitude had changed. These abnormal patterns were classified as mental illnesses, and treatment changed accordingly.
This led to the development of what is now called psychiatry and had an important effect on the beginnings of clinical Psychology. The concern of psychiatry and clinical psychology began from a medical tradition.
Other Early Influences, In the early 1900s, much of what was called clinical psychology was based in education or school endeavours, Psychological studies also were conducted as responses to non-scientific prompting.
These investigations tried to determine the validity of claims made by groups such as physiognomists, who believed that the appearance of the face and head revealed personality characteristics, and phrenologists, who “mapped” areas of the skull, claiming knowledge of brain function and its effects on behavior.
It is safe to say that psychology arose from the effects of numerous early influences.
Early Development of Psychology
Early psychology is characterized as a period of systems of psychology. These systems were attempts to explain all of behavior by using a single set of principles. Although none continues to be of major importance, all contributed significantly to present-day psychology.
Structuralism. The position developed by Wundt and later expanded by Edward Titchener (1867-1927) was called structuralism. Psychology for the Structuralists was the study of the introspective reports of normal human adults.
Trained subjects made descriptive reports of what they believed were the elements of stimuli presented to him. These reports were supposed to allow a psychologist to interpret the structure of the mind and how it worked.
The work of the Structuralists paralleled that of scientists in other disciplines, for example, studies in chemistry focused on analysing substances into their chemical elements.
As a system, of Structuralism, was very limited. However, the Structuralists did make important contributions to the early development of psychology by:
(a) testing a method of introspection, which ultimately failed because of disagreements regarding the properties of the experiences being reported and the inability to verify accuracy of the report compared with another,
(b) establishing psychology as a scientific endeavor and stressing appropriate scientific methodology, and
(c) providing a starting point that has challenged and investigated by many of the later psychological systems.
Functionalism. One of the systems that developed as a reaction to Structuralism was called functionalism and was the first system to develop in the United State.
Functionalists were concerned with the purposed of behavior rather than the structure of the mind. Influenced by Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, which stressed species survival and natural selection.
Functionalism investigated the adaption or adjustment the subject achieved in different environments. Functionalists generally adopted a broader view of psychology than did Structuralists. This allowed them to study all the age groups and a variant of subjects.
Many new areas of investigation resulted, including the study of motivation and emotion, child psychology, animal experimentation and various areas of applied psychology.
Behaviorism. John Watson (1878-1958) established a system for the study of behavior in which it was believed that only the observable responses made by the subject were relevant.
That system came to be known as Behaviorism and was characterized by an interest in the muscular movements and glandular secretions of the subjects.
Behaviorists denied the concept of mind because a mind could not be observed. Their goal was to identify orderly, lawful stimulus-response relationships. Behaviorists were interested only in observable phenomena.
A strict Behaviorists would not describe a person as “happy” because happiness is a state of mind and mind is not observable. Instead, a Behaviorist might describe the person’s smile or laugh, nothing the observable response to a stimulus.
In the 1920s, in the United States functionalism was slowly being replaced by a school of thought referred to as behaviorism. A growing number of psychologists believed that in order for psychology to be taken seriously as a “true” science, it must focus on observable behavior and not on the mind.
You can’t see the mind or what a person thinks; you can only see what a person does.
Goals of Psychology
Though psychologists in various specialty areas study and emphasize different aspects of behavior, they all share similar goals. The main goals of psychology and psychological research are:
- To describe behavior
- To predict behavior
- To explain behavior
- To control or change behavior
Description involves observing events and describing them. Typically, description is used to understand how events are related to one another. For example, you may notice that your health club tends to get more crowded in the months of January, February, and March.
It seems you have to wait longer to use the weight machines or that there are more people in the yoga classes. This observation describes an event.
If you observe that two events occur together rather reliably or with a general frequency or regularity, you can make predictions about or anticipate what events may occur. From your observations, you may predict that the health club will be more crowded in January.
You may arrive earlier for a parking spot or to get a place in the Power Yoga class. Although it may be known that two events regularly occur together, that doesn’t tell us what caused a particular behavior to occur. Winter months do not cause health clubs to become crowded. These two events are related, but one event does not cause the other.
Therefore, an additional goal of psychology is to explain or understand the causes of behavior. As stated previously, psychologists usually put forth explanations of behavior in the form of theories. A theory is an explanation of why and how a particular behavior occurs.
The purpose behind explaining and understanding the causes of behavior is the fi nal goal of psychology, controlling or changing behavior. One needs to understand what is causing a behavior in order to change or modify it.
For example, let’s say that the weather is a factor in health club attendance. Health clubs could offer outdoor fitness activities beginning in mid-March to prevent declining enrollment. Many psychologists go into the field in the hope of improving society.
They may want to improve child care, create healthier work environments, or reduce discrimination in society. Such sentiments reflect the goal of control and underscore the potential impact of good research.
Modern psychology is divided into several subdisciplines, each based on differing models of behavior and mental processes.
- Modern psychological perspectives include:
- Biological, which examines the physiological contributions to behavior.
- Evolutionary, which looks at how behaviors may be genetically programmed to help us adapt better for survival.
- Psychodynamic, which focuses on internal, often unconscious, mental processes, motives, and desires or childhood conflicts to explain behavior.
- Behavioral, which focuses on external causes of behavior, such as how stimuli in the environment and/or rewards and punishments influence our behavior.
- Cognitive, which focuses on how people process information and on how that process may influence behavior.
- Sociocultural, which researches behaviors across ethnic groups and nations Q Humanistic, which explains behavior as stemming from choices and free will.