One of the most common questions asked by students new to the study of psychology is "What is psychology?" Misconceptions created by popular media as well as the diverse careers paths of those holding psychology degrees have contributed this confusion.
Psychology is both an applied and academic field that studies the human 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.
Psychology evolved out of both philosophy and biology. Such discussions of the two subjects date as far back as the early Greek thinkers such as Aristotle and Socrates. The word psychology is derived from the Greek word psyche, meaning 'soul' or 'mind.'
A Separate Science
The field and study of psychology was truly born when Wilhelm Wundt established the first psychology lab in Leipzig, Germany.
Wundt's research utilized a school of thought known as structuralism, which involved describing the structures that compose the mind. This perspective relied heavily on the analysis of sensations and feelings through the use of introspection, a highly subjective process. Wundt believed that properly trained individuals would be able to accurately identify the mental processes that accompanied feelings, sensations and thoughts.
Schools of Thought
Throughout psychology's history, a number of 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 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.
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. Psychology has two major areas of focus: academic psychology and applied psychology. Academic psychology focuses on the study of different sub-topics within psychology including personality psychology, social psychology and developmental psychology.
These psychologists conduct basic research that seeks to expand our theoretical knowledge, while other researchers conduct applied research that seeks 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. Today, researchers employ a variety of scientific methods, including experiments, correlational studies, longitudinal studies and others to test, explain and predict behavior.
Areas of Psychology
Psychology is a broad and diverse field. A number of 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. Mental health professional typically utilize the Diagnosistic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV) to diagnose mental disorders.
- 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.
- 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. The study of animal behavior can lead to a deeper and broader understanding of human psychology.
- Developmental Psychology is the branch of psychology 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 the area of psychology that uses psychological research to enhance work performance, select employee, improve product design and enhance usability.
- Personality Psychology looks at the various elements that make up individual personalities. Well-known personality theories include Freud's structural model of personality and the "Big Five" theory of personality.
- School Psychology is the branch of psychology that works within the educational system to help children with emotional, social and academic issues.
- Social Psychology is a discipline that uses scientific methods to study social influence, social perception and social interaction. Social psychology studies diverse subjects including group behavior, social perception, leadership, nonverbal behavior, conformity, aggression and prejudice.