Psychology comes from the Greek words psyche, meaning mind or soul, and logos, meaning word. It is the scientific study of human and animal behavior and mental processes. Behavior refers here to easily observable activities such as walking, talking, or smiling. Mental processes, such as thinking, feeling, or remembering, often cannot be directly observed and must be inferred from observable behaviors. For example, one might infer someone is feeling happy when he or she smiles, or has remembered what he or she studied when doing well on an examination. Psychology is a very broad social science with approximately ten main fields The major unifying thread running throughout all of this diversity is use of the scientific method and the belief that psychological phenomena can be studied in a systematic, scientific way. Psychologists conduct research very much like scientists in other fields, developing hypotheses or possible explanations of certain facts and testing them using various research methods.
Psychology as a separate, scientific discipline has existed for just over 100 years, but since the dawn of time people have sought to understand human and animal nature. For many years psychology was a branch of philosophy until scientific findings in the nineteenth century allowed it to become a separate field of scientific study.
In the mid-nineteenth century, a number of German scientists [Johannes Peter Muller (1801– 1858), Hermann Ludwig Ferdinand von Helmholtz (1821–1894), and Gustav Theodor Fechner (1801– 1887)] performed the first systematic studies of sensation and perception demonstrating that mental processes could be measured and studied scientifically.
In 1879, Wilhelm Wundt (1832–1920), a German physiologist and philosopher, established the first formal laboratory of psychology at the University of Leipzig in Germany. Wundt’s work separated thought into simpler processes such as perception, sensation, emotion, and association. This approach looked at the structure of thought and came to be known as structuralism.
In 1875, William James (1842–1910), an American physician well-versed in philosophy, began teaching psychology as a separate subject for the first time in the United States, and he and his students began doing laboratory experiments. In contrast to structuralists, James thought consciousness flowed continuously and could not be separated into simpler elements without losing its essential nature. For instance, when humans look at an apple, they see an apple, not a round, red, shiny object. James argued studying the structure of the mind was not as important as understanding how it functions in helping people to adapt to their surroundings. This approach became known as functionalism.
In 1913, American psychologist John Broadus Dotson Watson (1878–1958) argued that mental processes could not be reliably located or measured, and that only observable, measurable behavior should be the focus of psychology. This approach, known as behaviorism, held that all behavior could be explained as responses to stimuli in the environment. Behaviorists tend to focus on the environment and how it shapes behavior. For instance, a strict behaviorist trying to understand why a student studies hard might say it is because he/she is rewarded by the teacher for getting good grades. Behaviorists would think possessing internal motivations such as a desire to succeed or a desire to learn is unnecessary.
At about the same time behaviorism was gaining a hold in the United States, Gestalt psychology, founded by Max Wertheimer, Kurt Koffka, and Wolfgang Kohler, arose in Germany. Gestalt (a German word referring to wholeness) psychology focused on perception and, like William James, argued that perception and thought cannot be broken into smaller pieces without losing their wholeness or essence. They argued that humans actively organize information and that in perception the wholeness and pattern of things dominates. For instance, when people watch movies they perceive people and things in motion, yet the eye sees what movies really are, that is, individual still pictures shown at a constant rate. The common saying “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts” illustrates this important concept.
Austrian physiologist, medical doctor, psychologist Sigmund Freud (1856–1939) began his career in the 1890s and formulated psychoanalysis, which is both a theory of personality and a method of treating people with psychological difficulties. His most influential contribution to psychology was his concept of the unconscious. To Freud, human behavior is largely determined by thoughts, wishes, and memories of which people are unaware. Painful childhood memories are pushed out of consciousness and become part of the unconscious from where they can greatly influence behavior. Psychoanalysis as a method of treatment strives to bring these memories to awareness and free the individual from his or her often negative influence.
The 1950s saw the development of cognitive and humanistic psychologies. Humanistic psychology was largely created by American psychologist Abraham Maslow (1908–1970) who felt psychology had focused more on human weakness than strength, mental illness over mental health, and that it neglected free will. Humanistic psychology looks at how people achieve their own unique potential or self actualization.
Cognitive psychology focuses on how people perceive, store, and interpret information, studying processes like perception, reasoning, and problem solving. Unlike behaviorists, cognitive psychologists believe it is necessary to look at internal mental processes in order to understand behavior. Cognitive psychology has been extremely influential, and much contemporary research is cognitive in nature.
New technologies allowing visualization of the human brain at work and advances in knowledge of brain and nerve cellchemistry have influenced psychology tremendously. In one technique, called the deoxyglucose technique, a projected visual image of the brain shows where energy-producing glucose is being used by the brain at that moment. Researchers might ask subjects to solve different types of problems and look at which areas of the brain are most active. These new technologies have allowed psychologists to specify where exactly specific types of mental processes occur. This emerging field has been labeled neuropsychology or neuroscience.
Only behaviorism and psychoanalysis survive as separate schools of thought now. Modern psychologists tend to be eclectic, drawing upon different theories and approaches depending on what they are studying. There has been tremendous growth in the topics studied by psychologists due in part to developments in computers and data analysis. The American Psychological Association currently has 45 divisions, each representing areas of special interest to psychologists.
Abnormal psychology studies maladaptive behavior patterns and psychopathology.
Clinical psychology studies and applies therapeutic methods to the treatment of individuals experiencing problems in life.
Comparative psychology studies similarities and differences in behavior of various animal species.
Developmental psychology studies the stability and change of characteristics, such as intelligence or social skills, over the life span.
Educational psychology studies teaching methods to improve learning in the classroom.
Industrial/Organizational psychology studies work and working environments and applies findings to improve job satisfaction and productivity.
Personality psychologists study individual differences across a number of different personal attributes such as shyness, conscientiousness, etc.
Physiological psychologists study biological bases of behavior, focusing on the nervous system.
Social psychologists study behaviors of individuals in groups and how people affect one another’s behavior.
There are many disciplines within psychology. Some of them are: abnormal, applied, art, biological, clinical, comparative, cognitive, counseling, developmental, educational, forensic, health, human factors,
Behaviorism— A highly influential school of thought in psychology, it holds that observable behaviors are the only appropriate subject matter for psychological research.
Cognitive psychology— The study of mental processes.
Functionalism— A school of psychology that focused on the functions or adaptive purposes of behavior.
Gestalt psychology— A school of thought that focused on perception and how the mind actively organizes sensations.
Humanistic psychology— A school of psychology emphasizing individuals’ uniqueness and their capacity for growth.
Neuropsychology— The study of the brain and nervous system and their role in behavior and mental processes.
Psychoanalysis— Theory of personality and method of psychotherapy founded by Sigmund Freud.
Psychology— The study of behavior and mental processes.
Social sciences— Fields studying society and its members, e.g., history, economics, psychology.
industrial/organizational, personality, psychometric, research, school, and social.
See also Psychiatry
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Demorest, Amy. Psychology’s Grand Theorists: How Personal Experiences Shaped Professional Ideas. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2005.
Introduction to Psychology. Evanston, IL: Nextext, 2001.
Leahey, Thomas Hardy. A History of Psychology: Main Currents in Psychological Thought. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2004.
Nicholas, Lionel, ed. Introduction to Psychology. Landsdowne, South Africa: UCT Press, 2003.
Porter, Ted, and Dorothy Ross, eds. The Cambridge History of Science: Volume 7, The Modern Social Sciences. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2003.
Golden, Frederic. “Mental Illness: Probing the Chemistry of the Brain.” Time 157 (January 2001).