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p. 11. What is psychology? How do you study it?free

  • Gillian Butler
  •  and McManus Freda


William James, one of the founders of modern psychology, defined it in 1890 as ‘the science of mental life’. It is a science we can all relate to, as everyone has a mental life. ‘What is psychology? How do you study it?’ considers how psychology has been defined and the subjects of its study. Psychology is about the mind, or brain, and psychologists, working with other fields within cognitive science, now understand more about the structure of the brain. Psychologists also study behaviour. They are interested in the way organisms use their mental abilities to operate in the world. Complex interactions are the norm in psychology, rather than the exception.

In 1890 William James (Figure 1), the American philosopher and physician and one of the founders of modern psychology, defined psychology as ‘the science of mental life’ and this definition can still provide a starting point for our understanding today. We all have a mental life and therefore have some idea about what this means, even though it can be studied in rats or monkeys as well as in people. However it is only a starting point. New ways of studying the brain, and of understanding its structure and workings, provide us with fascinating information about the determinants of our mental lives. Improved technology means that activity in the brain can now be objectively observed and measured. However, there is much we do not know about the relationships between subjective experience and the brain, and psychologists are still making hypotheses, or informed guesses, about how the two kinds of knowledge—the subjective and the objective—are linked.

Like most psychologists, William James was particularly interested in human psychology, which he thought consisted of certain basic elements: thoughts and feelings, a physical world which exists in time and space, and a way of knowing about these things. For each of us, this knowledge comes from our individual interactions with the world and from the thoughts and feelings linked with these experiences. For this reason, it is easy for us to p. 2

1. William James (1842–1910)

p. 3make judgements about psychological matters using our own experience as a touchstone. We behave as amateur psychologists when we offer opinions on complex psychological phenomena, such as whether brain-washing works, or when we express opinions about why other people behave as they do—for example, thinking they are being insulted; feeling unhappy; or suddenly giving up their jobs. However, problems arise when two people understand these things differently. Formal psychology attempts to provide methods for deciding which explanations are most likely to be correct, or for determining the circumstances under which each applies. The work of psychologists helps us to distinguish between inside information which is subjective, and objective facts: between our preconceptions and what is true in scientific terms.

Psychology, as defined by William James, is about the mind. Until recently it was not possible to study the living human brain directly, so psychologists studied our behaviour, and used their observations to derive hypotheses about what is going on inside. Now our knowledge of the workings of the brain has increased, and provides a scientific basis for understanding some aspects of our mental life. This is exciting, but there is still more to be discovered before we can claim to be able to explain variations in the experience and expression of our hopes, fears, and wishes, or in our behaviour during experiences as varied as giving birth and watching a football match. Psychology is also about the ways in which organisms, usually people, use their mental abilities, or minds, to operate in the world around them. The ways in which they do this have changed over time as their social and physical environment has changed. Evolutionary theory suggests that if organisms do not adapt to a changing environment they will become extinct (hence the sayings ‘adapt or die’ and ‘survival of the fittest’). We have been, and still are being, shaped by adaptive processes. This means that there are evolutionary explanations for the ways in which our brains, and our minds, work. For instance, the reason we are better at detecting moving objects p. 4than those that are stationary may be because this ability was useful in helping our ancestors to avoid predators. It is important for psychologists, as it is for other scientists, to be aware of those reasons.

A difficulty inherent in the study of psychology is that scientific facts should be objective and verifiable, but the workings of the mind are not observable in the way that those of an engine are. Scientists have only been able to study them in detail since they have developed numerous specialized and clever techniques, a few of which are described in this book. In everyday life they can only be perceived indirectly, and have to be inferred from what can be observed. The endeavour of psychology is much like that involved in solving a crossword puzzle. It involves evaluating and interpreting the available clues, and using what you already know to fill in the gaps. Furthermore, the clues themselves have to be derived from careful observation, based on accurate measurement, analysed with all possible scientific rigour, and interpreted using logical and reasoned arguments which can be subjected to public scrutiny. Only a part of what we want to know in psychology—how we perceive, learn, remember, think, solve problems, feel, develop, differ from each other, and interrelate—can be measured directly, and all these activities are multiply determined: meaning that they are influenced by several factors rather than by a single one. For example, think of all the things that may affect your response to a particular situation such as losing your way in a strange town. In order to find out which factors are important, a number of other confounding factors have somehow to be ruled out.

Complex interactions are the norm rather than the exception in psychology, and understanding them depends on the development of sophisticated techniques and theories. Psychology has the same goals as many other sciences: to describe, understand, and predict the processes that it studies. Once these goals have been achieved we can better understand the nature of our experience and make p. 5practical use of this knowledge. For instance, psychological findings have been useful in pursuits as varied as the development of more effective methods of teaching children to read, designing control panels for machines that reduce the risk of accidents, and seeking to alleviate the suffering of people who are emotionally distressed.

Historical background

Although psychological questions have been discussed for centuries, they have only been investigated scientifically since the late 19th century. Early psychologists relied on introspection, that is, reflection on one's own conscious experience, to find answers to psychological questions. These early psychological investigations aimed to identify mental structures. But following the publication by Charles Darwin of The Origin of Species in 1859, the scope of psychology expanded to include the functions as well as the structures of consciousness. Mental structures and functions are still of central interest to psychologists today, but using introspection for studying them has obvious limitations. As Sir Francis Galton pointed out, it leaves one ‘a helpless spectator of but a minute fraction of automatic brain work’. Attempting to grasp the mind through introspection, according to William James, is like ‘turning up the gas quickly enough to see how the darkness looks’. Contemporary psychologists therefore base their theories on careful observations of the phenomena in which they are interested, such as the behaviour of others and the workings of their brains, rather than on reflections upon their own experience.

In 1913, John Watson published a general behaviourist manifesto for psychology which asserted that, if psychology was to be a science, the data on which it was based must be available for inspection. This focus on observable behaviour rather than on internal (unobservable) mental events was linked with a theory of learning and an emphasis on reliable methods of observation and experimentation which still influence psychology today. p. 6The behaviourist approach suggests that all behaviour is the result of conditioning, which can be studied by specifying the stimulus and observing the response to it (S–R psychology). What happens in between these two, the intervening variables, was thought unimportant by the earlier behaviourists, but it has since become a prime source of experimental hypotheses. Testing these hypotheses has enabled psychologists to develop increasingly sophisticated theories about mental structures, functions, and processes.

Two other significant influences on the development of psychology early this century came from Gestalt psychology and from psychoanalysis. Gestalt psychologists working in Germany made some interesting observations about the ways in which psychological processes are organized. They showed that our experience differs from what would be expected if it were based solely on the physical properties of external stimuli, and concluded that ‘the whole is greater than the sum of the parts’. For example, when two lights in close proximity flash in succession, what we see is one light that moves between the two positions (this is how films work). Recognizing that mental processes contribute in this way to the nature of experience laid the groundwork for contemporary developments in cognitive psychology, which is the branch of psychology that studies such internal processes.

Sigmund Freud's theories about the continuing influence of early childhood experiences, and about the theoretical psychological structures he named the ego, id, and superego, drew attention to unconscious processes. These processes, which include unconscious and unacceptable wishes and desires, are inferred, for example, from dreams, slips of the tongue, and mannerisms, and are thought to influence behaviour. In particular, unconscious conflicts are hypothesized to be a prime cause of psychological distress, which psychoanalysts try to relieve by assisting in their expression, and by offering interpretations p. 7based on their theories. These theories about unobservable mental processes, however, have not led to testable predictions, and may not be precise or specific enough to do so. Indeed, the scientific and the interpretive branches of psychology subsequently developed independently.

Contemporary psychology is at an exciting stage today partly because these divisions are, in places, breaking down. We now know much about what goes on in our minds ‘out of awareness’ but we use other theories to explain these findings. Psychology is not the only discipline that has had to tackle questions about how we can know about things that we cannot observe directly—think of physics and biochemistry. Technological and theoretical advances have assisted this process and such developments have changed, and are continuing to change, the nature of psychology as a science. Using sophisticated measuring instruments, electronic equipment, and improved statistical methods, psychologists can now analyse multiple variables and huge quantities of data. Observations of the brain at work, for example using fMRI scanners, and the study of the mind as an information processing system, have enabled them to find out about aspects of the brain and mind that could not previously be observed, and thus to specify what goes on between stimulus and response during perception, attention, thinking, and decision-making. Psychologists are now in a position to base their hypotheses about these things on data derived from reliable and valid methods of observation and accurate measurement. These developments have produced a revolution in psychology as ‘the science of mental life’, and have enabled psychologists to collaborate with scientists in fields as diverse as chemistry and computer science.

Psychology as a cognitive science

Cognitive science is the interdisciplinary study of the mind and its processes, and its findings have expanded so fast that they are said p. 8to have created a ‘cognitive revolution’. Figure 2 shows an adaptation of a diagram provided by George A. Miller in 2003 to illustrate the different fields—including psychology—that contributed to the birth of cognitive science. So the work of psychologists is now closely linked to that of other scientists, and contributes for instance to the scientific study of the nervous system: neuroscience. As outlined by Nobel laureate Eric Kandel, cognitive neuroscience is concerned with perception, action, memory, language, and selective attention—all of which are central subjects for psychologists. Cognitive neuro-psychology aims to understand how the structure and function of the brain relate to these psychological processes.

2. Fields contributing to cognitive science

p. 9However, some of the areas that interest psychologists cannot be understood by using scientific methods of investigation alone, and some would argue that they never will be. For example, the humanistic school of psychology places great emphasis on individuals’ own accounts of their subjective experiences, and on qualitative as well as quantitative methods of analysis. Some of the main methods that are typically used by psychologists are shown in Box 1 and often these approaches can be combined to good effect. For example, quantitative methods of investigation such as the use of questionnaires can be enhanced by including a qualitative component to the research. Results from questionnaires may tell us, for example, that the patients who received treatment A improved more than those who received treatment B, but qualitative analysis through semi-structured interviews could help us to understand how treatment A helped, and how the patients were affected by each of the treatments, helping us to further refine the interventions.

Any science can only be as good as the data on which it is based. Hence psychologists must be objective in their methods of data collection, analysis, and interpretation; in their use of statistics; and in the interpretation of the results of their analyses. An example will illustrate how, even if the data collected are valid and reliable, pitfalls can easily arise in the way they are interpreted. If it is reported that 90 per cent of child abusers were abused themselves as children, it is easy to assume that most people who were abused as children will go on to become child abusers themselves—and indeed such comments often reach the media. However, the interpretation does not in fact follow logically from the information given—the majority of people who have themselves been abused do not repeat this pattern of behaviour. Psychologists, as researchers, have therefore to learn how to present their data in an objective way that is not likely to mislead, and to interpret the facts and figures reported by others. This involves a high degree of critical, scientific thinking.p. 10

Box 1 The main methods of investigation used by psychologists

Laboratory experiments: a hypothesis derived from a theory is tested under controlled conditions which are intended toreduce bias in both the selection of subjects used and in the measurement of the variables being studied. Findings should be replicable but may not generalize to more real-life settings. These include observations of the brain at work.

Field experiments: hypotheses are tested outside laboratories, in more natural conditions, but these experiments may be less well controlled, harder to replicate, or may not generalize to other settings.

Correlational methods: assessing the strength of the relationship between two or more variables, such as reading level and attention span. This is a method of data analysis, rather than data collection.

Observations of behaviour: the behaviour in question must be clearly defined, and methods of observing it should be reliable. Observations must be truly representative of the behaviour that is of interest.

Case studies: particularly useful following brain damage, as a source of ideas for future research, and for measuring the same behaviour repeatedly under different conditions.

Self-report and Questionnaire studies: these provide subjective data, based on self-knowledge (or introspection), and their reliability can be ensured through good test design and by standardizing the tests on large representative samples.

Surveys: useful for collecting new ideas, and for sampling the responses of the population in which the psychologist is interested.

Interviews: a source of qualitative data about human behaviour which can be used to derive impressions about underlying processes.

The main branches of psychology

It has been argued that psychology is not a science because there is no single governing paradigm or theoretical principle upon which it is based. Rather it is composed of many loosely allied schools of thought. However, this feature of psychology is perhaps inevitable because of its subject matter. Studying the physiology, biology, or chemistry of an organism provides the kind of exclusive focus that is not available to psychologists precisely because they are interested in mental processes, which cannot be separated from all the other aspects of the organism. So there are, as one might expect, many approaches to the study of psychology, ranging from the more artistic to the more scientific, and the different branches of the subject may seem at times like completely separate fields. The main ones are listed in Box 2.

In practice there is a considerable overlap between the different branches as well as between psychology and related fields.

Close relatives of psychology

There are some fields with which psychology is frequently confused—and for good reason.

First, psychology is not psychiatry. Psychiatry is a branch of medicine which specializes in helping people to overcome mental disorders. It therefore concentrates on what happens when things go wrong: on mental illness and mental distress. Psychologists also apply their skills in the clinic, but they are not medical doctors and they combine a wide knowledge of normal psychological processes and development with their focus on psychological problems and distress. They are not usually able to prescribe drugs; rather they specialize in helping people to understand, control, or modify their thoughts or behaviour in order to reduce their suffering and distress.

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Box 2 The main branches of psychology

Abnormal: the study of psychological dysfunctions and of ways of overcoming them.

Behavioural: emphasizes behaviour, learning, and the collection of data which can be directly observed.

Biological (and comparative): the study of the psychology of different species, inheritance patterns, and determinants of behaviour.

Cognitive: focuses on finding out how information is collected, processed, understood, and used.

Developmental: how organisms change during their lifespan.

Individual differences: studying large groups of people so as to identify and understand typical variations, for example in intelligence or personality.

Physiological: focuses on the mutual influences between physiological state and psychology, and on the workings of the senses, nervous system, and brain.

Social: studying social behaviour, and interactions between individuals and groups.

Second, psychology is often confused with psychotherapy. Psychotherapy is a broad term referring to many different types of psychological therapy, but referring to no particular type exclusively. Although the term is often used to refer to psychodynamic and humanistic approaches to therapy, it also has a wider, more general use; for example, there has recently been a great expansion in cognitive-behavioural psychotherapy.

Third, there are many related fields, in addition to neuro-psychology, in which psychologists may work, or collaborate with others, p. 13including psychometrics, psycho-physiology, and psycho-linguistics. Psychologists also play a part in broader, developing fields to which others contribute as well, such as cognitive science and information technology, or the understanding of psycho-physiological aspects of phenomena such as stress, fatigue, or insomnia. Psychology as used in the clinic may be well known, but it is just one branch of a much bigger subject.

The aims and structure of this book

Our aim is to explain and illustrate why psychology is interesting, important, and useful today. As most psychologists are interested in people, examples will predominantly be drawn from human psychology. Nevertheless, the book starts from the assumption that the minimum condition for having a psychology, as opposed to being a plant or an amoeba, is the possession of a mental control system that enables the organism to operate both in and on the world. Once the brain and nervous system have evolved sufficiently to be used as a control centre, there are certain things it must be able to do: pick up information about the world outside itself, keep track of that information, store it for later use, and use it to organize its behaviour so as, crudely speaking, to get more of what it wants and less of what it does not want. Different organisms do these things in different ways (for example, they have different kinds of sense organs), and yet some of the processes involved are similar across species (for example, some types of learning, and some expressions of emotion). One of the central concerns of psychologists is to find out how these things come about. So Chapters 25 will focus on four of the most important questions that psychologists ask: What gets into the mind? What stays in the mind? How do we use what is in the mind? and Why do we do what we do? They aim to show how psychologists find out about the processes involved in perception and attention (Chapter 2), in learning and memory (Chapter 3), in thinking, reasoning, and communicating (Chapter 4), and in motivation and emotion (Chapter 5). These chapters explain the p. 14ways in which these processes work for us and they focus on generalities: the commonalities between people. They aim to describe our ‘mental furniture’, by looking at some of the hypotheses psychologists have made and a few of the models they have constructed to explain their observations.

Psychologists are also interested in the differences between people and in the determinants of their obvious variety. If we are going to understand people better we need to disentangle general influences from individual ones. If there were only general patterns and rules, and we all had the same mental furniture then all people would be psychologically identical, which of course they are not. So how do we explain how they come to be the way they are, and how do we understand their differences, their difficulties, and their interactions? Chapter 6 asks: Is there a set pattern of human development? Chapter 7 looks at individual differences and asks: Can we categorize people? Chapter 8 asks: What happens when things go wrong? and focuses on abnormal psychology, and Chapter 9 asks: How do we influence each other? and describes social psychology. Finally, in Chapter 10 we ask: What is psychology for?, we describe the practical uses to which psychology has been put, and offer some speculations about the types of advance that might be expected in the future.