Psychology: Overview

views updated

Psychology: OVERVIEW

Psychology, defined broadly, is the study of individual behavior. Individual can refer to a human or an animal, and behavior can encompass anything an individual does, thinks, or feels. Because there are so many things that individuals do, think, and feel, psychology is divided into many subareas that each study a different aspect of individual behavior. For example, some psychologists study how individual behavior is affected by those with whom the individual interacts, others investigate how the brain works to produce thoughts and feelings, and still others study the causes of feeling and thought disorders such as depression and schizophrenia.

Historical Emergence

Psychology is a relatively new scientific field. Wilhelm Wundt (1832–1920) founded the first official psychology laboratory in 1879 at the University of Leipzig, Germany. Psychology has roots, however, in ancient philosophy. Many of its concerns—such as personality development, rationality, language acquisition and use, the structure of consciousness, and the mind–body connection have been addressed by philosophers. Plato (c. 428–347 b.c.e.) stressed the distinction between body and mind, and argued that knowledge depended on the rational soul. Aristotle (384–322 b.c.e.) argued for a unity of body and mind, and that knowledge has a base in sensory perception.

What makes psychology different from philosophy is its efforts to adapt the scientific method to the investigation of individual behavior. To some extent psychology constitutes an effort to place traditional ethics, which may also be defined as the study of human behavior, on scientific foundations. Historically these efforts have taken place in two different settings, the laboratory and the clinic. Early on, these settings gave rise to largely separate approaches that progressed in relative isolation from one another.

From the beginning experimental and clinical psychology expressed different ideals. The experimental division worked from the ideal of scientific curiosity. Its goal was to understand the normal or everyday, for example, attention or memory. In contrast, the clinical division worked from the ideal of helping people and understanding problems. Its goal was to understand the unusual or problematic, for example, depression or antisocial behavior.

Experimental Psychology

The first school of experimental psychology was structuralism, which emerged in Germany in the late nineteenth century. The pioneers of structuralism were physicists and physiologists who attempted to study sensations and perceptions as they would chemistry or biology, by measuring variables and examining how they interacted. Wundt, the founder of structuralism, had the goal of understanding and describing the contents of mind, that is, the basic elements of a person's immediate experience. The technique he developed, which his student Edward Tichener (1867–1927) championed in the United States, was called introspection. In introspection, trained scientists report their mental experience during rigorously controlled conditions. The structuralists were not interested in individual differences, and they did not believe in observing external things, only internal, mental events, so they did not come to much agreement.

In the United States, a second school of experimental psychology, called functionalism, emerged. American psychologists trained in Germany reinterpreted structuralism by emphasizing mental processes and their functions and applications. This approach, led by William James (1842–1910), was much more pragmatic, stressing the utility of mental functions such as attention or memory. The functionalists also argued that both the mental and physical (external) aspects of experience should be studied. Functionalism, however, lacked the scientific rigor of structuralism and instead was a more philosophical approach.

A third experimental movement, Gestalt psychology, emerged in Germany as another reaction to structuralism. The underlying principle was that the whole is different from the sum of the parts, that in breaking things apart into their components one loses the unified whole, or gestalt. Max Wertheimer (1880–1943), the founder of this movement, began with research on how humans can see movement in a series of static images. Although the Gestalt psychologists began with questions such as this based on sensation and perception, they broadened their perspective to ask how people interact with their environments and how this interaction organizes mental activity.

Clinical Psychology

Early clinical psychology was founded by Sigmund Freud (1856–1939), an Austrian physician who chose to study the mind rather than the body. He argued that unconscious processes could explain much of human behavior, including the development of personality and a variety of psychological disorders. Freud's theories dominated the clinical psychology landscape, as he was one of the first people to view mental illness as something to be treated and understood. Although his name is widely recognized, his theories are not well understood by the general public, and his approach had little in common with the experimental psychology of the same period. His technique, called psychoanalysis, was based on observation of individual patients, not on generating and testing predictions using the scientific method. With his practice and theories, however, Freud built a foundation for clinical psychology.

Becoming Scientific

Around 1900, a shift occurred in experimental psychology, namely, the behaviorist movement. Behaviorism arose as a reaction to the subjective nature of both early experimental and clinical psychology. An important early influence on behaviorism was Ivan Pavlov (1849–1936), a Russian physiologist who studied learning and relationships between a stimulus and a response. In a famous experiment, he trained dogs to associate a bell with food, so that they salivated in response to the bell even when the food was not present.

The behaviorist movement was largely defined by the work of John B. Watson (1878–1958). Watson criticized existing psychology research methods for being too subjective and not rigorous enough. He argued that psychology should focus on observable behavior rather than internal mental events. Behaviorism focused on the relationships between stimuli in the environment and behavioral responses. B. F. Skinner (1904–1990), a later but influential figure, extended early behaviorist principles to operant conditioning, or learning from rewards and punishments. Skinner also claimed that development could be explained in terms of behaviorist principles. For example, he argued that development of language was based on simple conditioning rules.

Behaviorism rejected many questions that were ethically relevant, for example, the nature of consciousness or how humans think and reason, because it claimed that these were not things open to scientific investigation. It created its own ethical dilemmas, however. Because behaviorists claimed that learning and conditioning rules could explain everything, people could be viewed as blank slates—anyone could become anything given the right circumstances. But this could portend a darker future in which the behavior of individuals could easily be shaped and controlled through conditioning.

Advances also occurred in clinical psychology because there remained a need for understanding and changing behavior in order to help individuals. Through a series of rejections and adaptations of Freud's theories, the humanist approach to clinical practice emerged. Important figures who modified Freud's work include Alfred Adler (1870–1937) and Carl Jung (1875–1961). Adler's theories were still considered psychoanalytic, but for him, social forces and creativity played an important role. He claimed that the individual tried to compensate for an inferiority felt in childhood, striving for perfection while moving through life. Neither Adler nor Jung were empirical psychologists; they were practitioners and theorists.

Further evolution of Freud's ideas, combined with influences from the existential movement in philosophy, which emphasized personal responsibility, led to the emergence of the humanist movement in clinical psychology. Important figures in this movement were Abraham H. Maslow (1908–1970) and Carl Rogers (1902–1987). Maslow described a hierarchy of needs: Individuals need to first meet their basic needs, such as those for food and safety, before they can meet higher human needs, such as those for belonging, knowledge, or beauty. Rogers advocated a new practice called client-centered therapy, in which the therapist and client (the person seeking help) have a personal relationship based on empathy. In practice, this focused on the process of better knowing one's self.

Ethics played a role in this shift from Freud's psychoanalysis to humanism. For humanists, it was important to recognize personal autonomy and potential, rather than to see individuals as victims of circumstances, unconscious powers, and unconscious thoughts or feelings.

Contemporary Psychology

In the early twenty-first century, experimental and clinical psychology translate into two types of professionals: research psychologists and practice psychologists. Research psychologists conduct experiments to study individual behavior in order to better understand it. Practice psychologists (who include counselors and therapists) use what is known about individual behavior to help individuals understand or change their behavior. In mainstream psychology, the distinction between research and practice is purely a functional distinction between the primary activities of the psychologists in each group. It is important to note that both groups work on and from the same body of knowledge. There still exist some approaches to practice that are based on philosophical or theological systems as opposed to empirical findings, but to the extent that there is no empirical evidence of their treatment efficacy they are not considered part of scientific psychology.

Modern psychology is a product of interactions between the clinical and experimental divisions. While the two divisions are not fully integrated, experimental data informs the practice of psychology, and insights from practice lead to new research in experimental psychology. In addition, psychology has been informed by other fields, including neuroscience, computer science, linguistics, and education. While many areas of specialization have formed, particularly within the academic research community, psychology is still interdisciplinary in that these specializations frequently interact. For example, neuroscientific research on how thoughts can affect mood can be used to develop methods for treating depression.

Ethics for Psychology

Psychologists face many ethical issues in their roles as research scientists and as clinical professionals. Many of these issues stem from the use of human and animal subjects in research, and the need to assure the safety and privacy of individuals seeking treatment. There are a variety of professional organizations for psychologists in each subspecialty area, and many of these organizations have developed codes of ethics. The primary code of ethics for professional psychologists, however, belongs to the American Psychological Association (APA), which is the largest professional association of psychologists worldwide, with 150,000 members as of 2005.

The APA has published ten revisions of its ethics code since it was first formulated in 1953. Unlike most professional codes of ethics, the APA code was developed pragmatically, based on a survey of ethical dilemmas encountered by APA members. The ninth revision, published in 1992, was the first time it included specific standards for academic scientists addressing teaching, training, supervision, research, and publishing. The tenth revision, published in 2002, eliminated language that appeared to allow use of the code to punish psychologists unfairly, increased protections for disempowered groups, and eliminated redundancy and vagueness. This tenth revision contains five general principles to guide the goals of research and practice, and ten standards for the conduct of psychologists.

The general principles included in the code are beneficence and nonmaleficence, fidelity and responsibility, integrity, justice, and respect for people's rights and dignity. The code has been criticized for not specifying an underlying ethical theory (e.g., utilitarianism, deontological ethics) to guide the evaluation of options and assist ethical decision-making. Further, the code lacks guidelines for valuing ethical principles in situations where conflicts arise. The ethics code of the Canadian Psychological Association has addressed this issue by providing a hierarchy that explicitly ranks the general principles it sets forth. The APA code also uses nontraditional ethical language, stating the principles and standards in terms of what psychologists "do" and "do not do," rather than in terms of what they "ought" or "should" do.

The ethical standards put forth in the APA code cover issues relevant to psychologists in their roles as scientists, teachers, and service providers of various types, and are enforced by the Ethics Committee of the APA according to its published rules and procedures. Detection of ethical violations are collected passively, in response to complaints, rather than actively (e.g., by auditing). Punishments for ethical violations can include expulsion from the APA and directives for corrective actions such as supervision, education, treatment, or probation. Other agencies and associations may also use the APA ethics code for assessing the behavior of psychologists.

Psychology for Ethics

In addition to following ethical principles in their professional work, psychologists can also use their expertise to contribute to ethical discussions in a number of ways. For instance, psychological research on moral development has investigated topics such as the development of moral reasoning over the lifespan, the nature of psychological components that are required for moral behavior to take place, and the contributions of social factors (e.g., persuasion, conformity, expectations) to moral discernment. The findings from these studies can be used to help understand and assess culpability for moral infractions, and perhaps also provide direction for helping individuals decrease moral infractions. In a related vein, the emerging field of positive psychology is researching the causes and consequences of individual strengths and happiness, in order to help people develop positive traits such as resiliency and self-efficacy.

The results of research in psychology can also be used to inform specific ethical issues. Although research does not provide a basis for establishing standards for ethical behavior (called the "naturalistic fallacy"), it can provide information about the efficacy of certain means for bringing about desired ends. In many situations, psychology can provide information about the psychological consequences of various social policy alternatives, so that decisions can be based on available evidence. For example, in 2004 the APA filed amicus briefs on issues such as the juvenile death penalty and same-sex marriage, conveying research findings about brain development and decision-making ability in adolescents in the former, and research on relationship characteristics, parenting ability, and psychological benefits of marriage for both same-sex and heterosexual couples in the latter.


SEE ALSO Aristotle and Aristotelianism;Choice Behavior;Freud, Sigmund;Jung, Carl Gustav;Plato;Skinner, B. F.


American Psychological Association (APA). (2002). "Ethical Principles of Psychologists and Code of Conduct." American Psychologist 57(12): 1060–1073. The tenth revision of the code of ethics put forth by the APA, the primary professional organization for psychologists in the United States.

Bersoff, Donald N., ed. (2003). Ethical Conflicts in Psychology, 3rd edition. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association. Discusses the ethics codes of both the American and Canadian Psychological Associations and includes sections on specific ethical issues, as well as more general chapters on applying ethics and teaching ethics.

Brennan, James F. (2003). History and Systems of Psychology, 6th edition. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

DuBois, James M., ed. (1997). Moral Issues in Psychology: Personalist Contributions to Selected Problems. Lanham, MD: University Press of America. Discusses the relation of psychology to philosophy, including how psychology can contribute to moral issues.

O'Donohue, William T., and Kyle E. Ferguson, eds. (2003). Handbook of Professional Ethics for Psychologists: Issues, Questions, and Controversies. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage. Part I in particular provides an overview of the philosophical systems that might underlie an ethics code (by Andrew Lloyd and John Hansen), a discussion of the APA ethics code in the context of critical thinking about moral and ethical questions (Michael Lavin), and an overview of studies on the development of moral reasoning across the lifespan (Karl H. Hennig and Lawrence J. Walker).

About this article

Psychology: Overview

Updated About content Print Article