An Introduction to the Basics of Psychology
In this article, we are going to be looking at what psychology is, the different types of psychology that you can study and some of the most influential psychologists that have help to shape this field.
So to start with, lets define exactly what is meant by the word “psychology”.
The word psychology is officially defined as “the science that studies the behavior of organisms“. If we break down this definition we can gain a better understanding of what it means:
Psychology is a science because its conclusions are based on information that has been obtained by planned, controlled and repeatable experiments.
It is important that these experiments are repeatable, so that any information obtained from those experiments can be considered reliable and not a one-off or random occurrence.
Controlled experiments are needed so that certain variables can be tested, without becoming contaminated by other factors which could produce inaccurate or misleading results.
Behavior is composed of three aspects.
This includes how a person thinks and what they think of.
This includes what a person feels and what causes them to feel that way.
This includes what a person does and what causes them to do something in a particular way.
If we put all these components together, we can see that psychology studies how people think, feel and act.
An organism is defined as a form of life, or in other words, any living creature. Psychology is therefore the study of living things, which includes both people and animals.
From the definition that “psychology is the science that studies the behavior of organisms“, we can see that psychology is the study of everything around us and how those things interact with each other. This is why I consider psychology to be such an important subject, because it is directly relevant to every aspect of life.
Through studying psychology, we are essentially studying ourselves and the world we live in. In turn, this can enable us to gain a better understanding of ourselves and of other people.
The ancient meaning of psychology
The word “psychology” originally came about as a result of ancient philosophers who were interested in what makes us human.
They devised the term “psyche-ology” to mean a “study of the soul” (“Psyche” means the soul). This meaning was given by philosophers such as Socrates, Plato and Aristotle who lived between 400-300 B.C.
Unlike today’s definition of psychology however, these philosophers thought of psychology only as the study of people because they did not believe that animals had souls.
The reason they wanted to study the soul, was because they thought that the soul gave us consciousness, and through this consciousness, we experience what we call life.
The “science of mental life”
A more modern definition of psychology was given by the American psychologist William James, who defined it as “the science of mental life“. James thought of psychology as the study of how we think, remember and interpret the world, and attempted to investigate this from a scientific perspective.
Although we may no longer use the ancient definitions of psychology, they are still relevant to this day because they all describe the study of human behavior and thinking (cognition).
Goals of Psychology
Modern day psychology has four main goals: describe, explain, predict and control behavior.
The first goal is to describe how someone is behaving.
e.g. John seems unable to concentrate fully on his work.
By describing behavior, we can then focus our attention on it and move on to the second goal.
Once we have described a behavior, we can then attempt to explain some possible reasons as to why it may have occurred.
e.g. John seems unable to concentrate on his work because he watches too much TV.
By thinking of possible reasons why someone may be behaving in a particular way, we can try to change that behavior by modifying the factors which we think are causing it.
If our explanation as to why John is unable to concentrate on his work is because he watches too much TV, we can then move on to our third goal by predicting how John’s behavior will change if he reduces the amount of TV he watches.
e.g. I predict that if John stops watching TV he will be able to concentrate better, because I suspect that there is a link between the amount of hours someone watches TV and their ability to concentrate.
4) Control behavior
Now that we have described a behavior and predicted how that behavior could be changed, we can then try to control it by modifying the variables which we had previously identified.
e.g. Take away John’s TV so that he spends more time on his work rather than watching TV all day.
If we find that taking away John’s TV results in no change to his behavior, we can then conclude that our prediction of TV negatively affecting John’s ability to concentrate was incorrect.
At this stage, we can then go back to steps 2 and 3 and come up with a new explanation for John’s behavior.
e.g. John eats too much junk food which is affecting his ability to think.
Although I have used one variable in this example, it is possible that John’s behavior is affected by multiple factors such as TV and junk food, which are both negatively affecting his ability to think.
In real life, you will often find that there are many possible explanations for someone’s behavior, and so this should be taken into consideration because very rarely do things occur in isolation unless they are performed under controlled laboratory conditions.
The problem that occurs when dealing with multiple variables is that there is more room for error, which subsequently increases the difficulty of making an accurate prediction.
One of the main reasons as to why this is the case, is because two different variables can often have a cumulative effect whereby their resulting output is greater together than by themselves alone.
e.g. 1 and 1 are two separate numbers, but put them together and you have something greater, the number 2.
Viewpoints of Psychology
Different psychologists can have different ways, or viewpoints, in which they try to explain someone’s behavior.
However, although one viewpoint can approach psychology from a different perspective to another viewpoint, it is important to note that there is no right or wrong viewpoint because they are all useful in enhancing our understanding of this complex subject.
Below we look at some of the most common viewpoints in psychology, and then afterwards, some of the fields of psychology that these viewpoints can lead into.
The biological viewpoint attempts to explain behavior by looking at biological factors such as genes, the endocrine system, the brain and/or the nervous system.
For example, if someone says that they are feeling lazy and then later the cause of their laziness is discovered to be a underactive thyroid gland (hypothyroidism), we can classify this as a biological condition because the biology of that person is affecting how they behave.
Another example could include a person who is suffering from depression. If it is found that they have low levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin for example, we can again classify it as a biological condition because there is an imbalance of chemical messengers in the brain.
By recognizing when biology is affecting someone’s behavior, we can then take appropriate action to try to control it. Using the examples given above, an under active thyroid could be treated with iodide/iodine, whilst depression could be treated with increased sunlight exposure or psychiatric medication.
The learning viewpoint states that most of our behavior is learned from other people and through personal experience.
In general, behaviors are said to be acquired by first observing a behavior and then repeating it until it becomes a habit. The more pleasure (or benefits) we receive from repeating that behavior, the more likely it will be to develop into a habit.
Examples of learning from others could include things such as learning to talk, the attitudes we have and the things we like or dislike. An influential figure in the learning viewpoint was the philosopher John Locke, who believed that at birth the mind was a “blank slate”.
Other influential figures include Jean Piaget who studied the cognitive development of children, Ivan Pavlov who showed how learning can occur via classical conditioning and Burrhus Frederic Skinner who showed how learning can occur via operant conditioning.
The psychodynamic viewpoint is heavily influenced by Freud and his work on psychoanalysis. It states that our behavior comes as a result of the conflict between our primitive sexual and aggressive impulses and our moral and ethical values.
The psychodynamic viewpoint also believes that emotional conflicts can bring out, or make worse, things such as anxiety, anger or depression.
This view of behavior is similar to the Triune Brain Model, which states that the conflict between each of our different brains (ie. reptilian, limbic, neocortex) can explain much of why we act the way we do.
The cognitive viewpoint believes that the reason why a person acted or felt the way they did, was because of the thoughts that were in their mind at the time.
For example, suppose you decide to go to the shop and get some food, you might first think “I’m running low on milk so I better go buy some more”. Or, a person who is feeling depressed may be feeling that way because they are constantly thinking to themselves how bad their life is and how worthless they are.
A major area of study in cognitive psychology is memory, and this can often involve carrying out neuropsychological research to investigate how different parts of the brain affect different types of behaviors.
This viewpoint states that some of our behavior can only be understood by looking at the psychological processes that are unique to humans.
Two factors tend to be the most important when studying behavior from a humanistic perspective: self actualization and the will to meaning.
Self actualization, as defined by the psychologist Abraham Maslow, is the motivation that we experience from trying to satisfy our needs such as the need for survival, reproduction, love and personal achievement.
The will to meaning, as defined by Viktor Frankl, is the motivation that we experience from trying to make sense out of life and determining how best we can live that life.
The humanistic viewpoint is heavily influenced by existentialism, which emphasizes the importance of free will and responsibility in behavior.
The sociocultural viewpoint believes that much of our behavior is determined by society and culture.
For example, if you live in a bad neighborhood where drugs and violence is common, this will have a different effect on your behavior than if you lived in a good neighborhood where those things were not present.
This viewpoint can be best summarized by saying that you tend to become like the people who you hang around the most.
Fields of Psychology
Below is a list of the main fields of psychology that you can work in as a psychologist.
This field is associated with psychotherapy and psychological testing, and clinical psychologists aim to help people with mental disorders (e.g., anxiety, depression, mental illness) or personal problems.
Psychotherapy involves helping a person without the use of drugs, by guiding them so that they can help themselves. Psychological testing involves performing a series of tests on a person, usually intelligence or personality tests, to determine the state of a mental disorder and how best it should be treated.
Clinical psychology is the largest field of psychology, whereby around 40% of psychologists are clinical psychologists.
Experimental psychology performs experiments on people or animals to see how they behave under certain conditions. One famous experimental psychologist was Ivan Pavlov, who showed how dogs can be made to salivate when a bell is rung (conditioned reflex).
Although only about 6% of psychologists are experimental psychologists, it is perhaps one of the most important fields of psychology because its findings help to advance our understanding of the subject as a whole.
Usual found in schools, counselling psychologists provide help and advice to people with various personal problems. If that person is found to have a particular mental disorder, they may then be referred to a psychologist or psychiatrist.
Developmental psychologists are interested in how we grow from children to adults and how we can best learn new information at different stages of our life.
One of the most famous developmental psychologists was Jean Piaget, who studied how children think as they grow older.
This type of psychologist researches how biological factors influence behavior. For example, the effect that hormones have on the way we feel and act.
A human factors psychologist combines engineering and psychology by making things more comfortable or user-friendly for people. For example, simplifying a set of instructions so that they are easy to follow.
These psychologists usually work for businesses to help provide a better working environment for the employees. This is usually done with the aim of increasing productivity and decreasing stress.
Famous Psychologists of Our Time
Although psychology can be traced back around 2,400 years ago to the ancient Greek philosophers, psychology as we know it today is only around 130 years old.
Below we look at some of the key figures throughout the history of psychology, and the different “schools” of psychology which came about as a result of their viewpoints and assumptions.
Wilhelm Wundt (1832-1920)
The early beginnings of modern-day psychology are generally associated with the German scientist Wilhelm Wundt, who, in 1879, founded the first psychological research laboratory at the University of Leipzig in Germany.
Wundt was originally trained in physiology (the functions of the body), but later found that he was more interested in how the various sensations associated with our sensory organs combine to produce what we know and experience as consciousness.
For example, Wundt believed that we can understand how we are able to visually experience something by examining the structure of sensations which make up vision.
From his studies on vision, Wundt suggested that there are three ways in which we see things. Or as Wundt would say, three “elemental experiences” of sensory perception.
1) Hue (color)
When we look at something, we can distinguish different colors from each other. For example, black text on a white background.
The objects we see have different levels of brightness, thus dark text can be distinguished from light text.
The third way in which we see or visually experience things is by how “rich” a certain color is, or how “saturated” it is with color.
Wundt believed that combined together, each of these “elemental sensations” allows us to visually experience something. On a larger scale, all of the sensations that we experience (e.g. sight, touch, taste, smell & hearing) give us consciousness.
This way of looking at consciousness is known as introspection, because rather than looking at the whole you look at its most basic components.
For example, if I wanted to understand what a cup of tea is, I would break it down in to a cup, hot water, a teabag and some milk. All of these components put together, form a cup of tea.
William James (1842-1910)
Following on from William Wundt’s research, was another influential figure in the history of psychology, William James.
Like Wundt, James also had a keen interest in physiology and founded a psychological research laboratory at Harvard University. Later in his career, James published the first psychology textbook in the United States entitled “The Principles Of Psychology“.
However, whereas Wundt was interested in the structure of consciousness, James believed that psychology should be focused on examining how things work or how they function.
So instead of looking at consciousness by examining the sensations associated with our sensory organs, James would study how things such as thinking and memory worked together to produce consciousness.
In other words, he would study what something does, rather than what makes that thing possible in the first place.
Max Wertheimer (1880-1943)
Another psychologist who disagreed with Wundt’s views, was a fellow countryman named Max Wertheimer.
Wertheimer thought that placing the greatest importance on elemental sensations as the building blocks of perception was incorrect, as he believed that something is more than just the sum of its parts.
He illustrated this point by saying that even though you can change the notes of a melody by playing it in a different key, the melody (the gestalt) still remains the same. His ideas subsequently lead to the formation of “Gestalt Psychology”. In English, “gestalt” means “pattern”, “configuration” or “organized whole”.
Another way to understand this would be to think of a movie or something which you have recently seen on TV. The moving images you see on the screen are not actually moving. They are a series of rapidly flashing still images which appear as though they are moving.
This perception of movement can be changed by flashing those images slower (slow motion), or by speeding them up (fast forward).
Therefore, what we see is more than just a result of a series of still images, but rather a result of the pattern (gestalt) in which they are displayed.
This is why Wertheimer thought Wundt’s view of psychology was incorrect, because even though you can change the components of something, you can still get the same gestalt (organized whole).
Thus Gestalt psychology proposes that the way in which we are presented with stimuli has a big influence on how we think and perceive the world around us.
John B. Watson (1878-1958)
Unlike William James who described psychology as “the mental science of life“, John B. Watson believed that psychology was not a mental science at all because the “mind” cannot be studied by science.
Only you can know exactly what is going on in your mind, and therefore, whatever conclusions we come to about the mind of another person is nothing more than an educated best guess.
So instead of studying the mind itself (consciousness), Watson proposed that psychology should focus on trying to understand behavior.
Watson’s lack of enthusiasm for studying the mind resulted in much criticism from his peers, with some even going so far as to say he didn’t believe consciousness actually existed.
Today, Watson’s views are regarded as rather extreme and are referred to as “radical behaviorism”, a discipline of psychology that doesn’t consider consciousness to be an important factor.
However, despite these misgivings, some psychologists became heavily influenced by Watson’s views. One such psychologist was B. F. Skinner, who studied behavior and learning via operant conditioning.
Sigmund Freud (1856-1939)
One of the most famous psychologists of all time, Sigmund Freud is recognized as the founder of psychoanalysis.
Initially trained as a medical doctor, Freud began his early work by observing his patients. He concluded that in a large number of cases there was nothing physically wrong with the patient, even though they had been diagnosed with a particular disease or condition.
As a result, he began to believe that the reason people became sick was because of some psychological problem they were having. In other words, he believed that it was their mind, not their body, which caused the disease.
Freud is best known for proposing the idea of the “unconscious mind”, where he believed that painful experiences were stored (repressed) to protect the ego (the centre of self, you).
Given enough time, these repressed emotional memories would eventually stress the body to the point where those memories would physically manifest themselves as disease.
Therefore, by working with people to help them overcome problems in their unconscious mind, Freud believed that they could eventually overcome their condition.
Experimental Methods in Psychology
In the early days, psychology was primarily investigated using a method known as rationalism. This approach simply involved thinking about something, and then coming up with an explanation as to why it may be that way.
However, whilst rationalism may be a useful approach for subjects such as philosophy, in psychology, rationalism can often lead to contradictory ideas.
One such example can be found with John Locke, who believed that at birth the mind was a blank slate. Yet later, using same approach, Immanuel Kant concluded that there are some inborn ideas at birth.
This is one of the problems of using rationalism in psychology, as it can lead to two different people coming up with two different ideas. To produce more concrete ideas, another approach was called for and it came in the form of empiricism.
Empiricism involves gathering information by using the senses (e.g. hearing, touch, sight, taste and smell), and marks the beginnings of the modern-day research methods which we use in psychology today.
No longer were psychologists confined to the ideas created by the rationalistic approach, but they could now prove or disprove those ideas with real evidence.
This is how William James believed psychology should be, as he argued that psychology should be treated like a science and therefore investigated in a scientific manner.
The Scientific Method
The scientific method represents the way that psychological data is researched and collected today, and is something which evolved from the early methods of rationalism and empiricism that were previously described.
The scientific method aims to gather information in a scientific way so that it is both accurate and reliable. There are three main steps that must be followed when using this method.
1) Form a hypothesis
The first step is to make an educated guess as to why something is the way it is, or in other words, form a hypothesis.
For example, a teacher reads an article about how omega 3 supplements can increase concentration, so they form a hypothesis that omega 3 supplements will have an effect on student test scores.
2) Gather data
After forming a hypothesis, the next step is to gather data so that we can test it. For example, the teacher may split the class into two, giving one half omega 3 supplements and the other half nothing.
3) Accept or reject the hypothesis
From the data that we have collected, we can then determine whether our hypothesis was correct or incorrect. So if the teacher found that the children who received the omega 3 supplements had higher test scores than those who received no supplements, they can accept their hypothesis that omega 3 effects test scores.
Should however, no difference be found between the two groups, the teacher would then reject their hypothesis as the supplements produced no significant difference between the two test scores.
Types of Research Errors
Whilst the scientific method attempts to obtain accurate and reliable information, sometimes it is possible that the information collected was wrong. This is known as a decision error, of which there are two types.
Type I Error
A type I error occurs when a hypothesis has been accepted when it should have been rejected.
A famous example of a type I error occurred when the astronomer Percival Lowell concluded that there were canals on Mars, when later research showed that this was not the case. He made a type I error, because what his evidence told him was correct was actually incorrect.
Type II Error
A type II error occurs when a hypothesis is rejected when it should have been accepted.
For example, before the research done by Louis Pasteur, many doctors rejected the idea that invisible germs cause disease and so saw no point in washing their hands before operating on patients. They made a type II error, because they rejected something which was correct.
Collecting Data For Research
Now that we have looked at how modern-day psychologists gather their information, lets look at some of the research methods which they can use.
Naturalistic observation involves studying behavior in its natural setting, without any influence from the researcher.
This method can be used to study both animals and humans, and works best when the research subjects do not know that they are being observed. This is because people and animals tend to act differently when they know someone is watching them.
If it is not possible for the researcher to hide their presence, they may spend some time with the people or animals they are studying before they begin to record their behavior. This allows the researcher to become accepted by the individual or group, so that they will act more naturally and better data can be collected.
Note: Naturalistic observation tends to be most commonly used when observing animal behavior.
The Clinical Method
The clinical method involves treating people with various disorders and then using that information for research.
For example, a therapist may have been treating a patient for a number of years, and then later decides that because they were an interesting or unique case, they will write about them and maybe even publish their findings in a scientific journal.
A good example of the clinical method can be found with Sigmund Freud, who, from his time spent with patients, came up with many new ideas as to how and why people get sick or have emotional problems in their life.
A case study studies one person over a prolonged period of time. Sometimes, this might be for a few months, whilst other times it might be for a whole lifetime.
Although case studies take a long time to complete, the information they provide is extremely valuable because they allow us to see the long-term effects that something may have.
One such example can be found with adults were followed up 40 years after an experiment they had done when they were children.
In brief, what the case study found was that the children who were able to delay gratification became much more successful as adults than the children who were unable to delay gratification.
Case studies are also common in medical research, where people are monitored over a period of time so that side effects to drugs can be identified.
In order to understand the behavior of a large group of people, it is necessary to take a sample of that group which is considered to be representative of the whole. This sample should be taken at random, so that it incorporates as many different types of people whilst also allowing for chance to operate.
The people within this sample can then be surveyed using methods such as questionnaires or interviews to obtain the relevant data.
One famous example of such a survey was performed by the researcher Alfred Kinsey, who surveyed both males and females about their sexual behavior. A film about this was released a few years ago called “Kinsey”, which starred Liam Neeson as Alfred Kinsey.
One drawback of using the survey method, is that because you are only sampling a small subset of a population, you may get biased results if your sample group is not truly representative of the whole.
Psychological Tests (testing method)
As the name suggests, the testing method uses various tests such as intelligence or personality tests to investigate behavior. An example that everyone should be able to relate to is the IQ test, which is designed to measure your average level of intelligence.
Some researchers believe that the higher your IQ score is the more likely you are to have good health and a high income.
Statistical Analysis of Data
In order for a test to be considered accurate it needs to be both valid and reliable.
A valid test will test what it is supposed to test. For example, an intelligence test should test your intelligence and not test your personality. If a test tests something which it is not supposed to, it is then considered to be invalid.
A reliable test is one that produces the same (or very similar) results when it is repeated. For example, if I get 80% on an intelligence test and then tomorrow when I repeat that test I get 82%, that test could be considered as reliable.
Correlation simply means a relationship between two things (variables), and the correlation method is used to determine this by seeing how different things affect each other. The results of which, are usually being displayed on a graph as X and Y.
If one variable can be used to predict the scores of the second variable, they are said to “covary” or exhibit “covariance” which means that they vary together.
For example, if X is the size of my left hand and Y is the size of my right hand, I can predict the size of Y by looking at the size of X and vice versa.
However, it is important to understand that just because both variables seem to predict each other, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they cause those effects to occur (causation).
Using the same example given above, this would mean that the size of my left hand does not cause the size of my right hand. The reason they covary (vary together) is due to something else, genetics.
Types of Correlations
There are two main types of correlations:
Positive Correlation : This occurs when increasing one variable causes another variable to increase.
For example, the more time I spend practicing tennis the better a tennis player I become.
or, Increase in X = Increase in Y
Negative Correlation : This occurs when increasing one variable causes the other to decrease.
For example, the more time I spend watching TV the worse a tennis player I become.
Or, Increase in X = Decrease in Y
In order to determine how closely two things are correlated, we use a correlation coefficient which ranges from -1.00 (perfect negative correlation) to +1.00 (perfect positive correlation).
+.77 would be a strong positive correlation, -.33 would be a strong negative correlation.
Determining the correlation between two variables can also be used to determine how valid and reliable a test is.
For example, if an intelligence test has a high positive correlation with grades, then we can say that the test is valid. If a test is repeated on two separate days and there is a strong positive correlation between the test results, then we can say that the test is reliable.
The Experimental Method
The experimental method allows a researcher to accurately test their hypothesis by giving them control over the variables involved, allowing them to identify why something may be happening (causes) and accurately measure behavior by using scientific methods.
Generally speaking, there are four factors to take into consideration when using the experimental method.
1) The control group
The control group is used to represent a group that has not been interfered with in any way. This group shall then be compared to other groups to see what effects an intervention may have had.
2) The experimental group
This group is who you experiment on and see how what you do changes their behavior.
3) The independent variable
An independent variable is something that you think will affect another variable. For example, putting a puppy in a room full of people will cause them to feel happy (i.e. change their mood).
The independent variable is therefore what experimenters manipulate in an experiment.
4) The dependent variable
A dependent variable measures the resulting effect of another variable. For example, happiness (dependent variable) was a result of bringing the puppy (independent variable) into the room. The independent variable causes the effect and the dependent variable measures that effect.
The dependent variable is therefore what experimenters measure or record the results of in an experiment.
Putting it all together
If we put all this information together using the example I gave previously about omega 3 and test scores, you may be able to gain a better understanding of the experimental method in action.
Hypothesis : Omega 3 supplements will have an effect on test results.
The first thing we need to do is to create two groups, a control group (students who will receive no omega 3 supplements) and an experimental group (students who will receive omega 3).
In order for these groups to be fair, we need to divide them by random. This could involve each student writing their name down on paper and being randomly drawn. This randomization process will help to cancel out individual differences between the students which may give inaccurate or biased results.
The independent variable which we are testing is omega 3, because we predict that it will have an effect on test scores. This will be given to the experimental group at a predetermined dose.
The dependent variable is the test score, because we are seeing how students are affected by the omega 3 and recording these results via a test score.
If we find that after the experiment omega 3 supplementation results in higher test scores in the experimental group (a positive correlation), we can perform a statistical analysis to see if the results occurred due to chance. If they are not, we can then conclude with some degree of certainty that omega 3 supplementation results in better grades.
This is the very basics of how psychologists carry out and run experiments. If you go to college or university to study psychology, this is the method that you will be taught!