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p. 13010. What is psychology for?locked

  • Gillian Butler
  •  and McManus Freda


Psychology has many practical uses. It helps us to understand, explain, predict, or modify what goes on in the mind: the control centre for cognition, affect, and behaviour. ‘What is psychology for?’ looks at where professional psychologists work, the uses and abuses of psychology, the progress and complexity of psychology today, and what the future holds. One exciting challenge for psychologists today is in bringing together the products of some of its different specializations. This endeavour has contributed to the development of ‘cognitive science’, in which scientists from many different fields, not just psychology, are now working together to further our understanding of mental functions — of brain and behaviour.

As well as being an academic discipline, psychology has many practical uses. Academic research helps us to understand, explain, predict, or modify what goes on in the mind: the control centre for cognition, affect, and behaviour (what we think, feel, and do). It also contributes to the development of theories and hypotheses to test, and to stimulating original research in applied settings, so that developments in the academic and professional fields can influence each other, with especially productive results when communication between them is good. Kahneman's work (Chapter 4) provides a good example. Experimental studies of the processes involved in thinking and reasoning revealed the biases that influence the judgements we make, and these ideas underpin the new field of behavioural economics. But they have also been used in medical diagnosis, legal judgements, intelligence analysis, philosophy, finance, statistics, and military strategy. Equally, the observations of professional psychologists may stimulate academic interest. For example, psychologists working in clinics noticed that patients with health anxiety (hyperchondriasis) often spent long periods looking up health-related information on the Internet. This led to experimental investigation of ‘cyberchondria’, which finds that Internet searching does indeed fuel anxiety about health. Similarly, observations of young people's use of the numerous products of information technology has led to explorations of their effects on social relationships, on language p. 131use, and on the brain—just to begin with. Research in these areas is developing fast.

Where do professional psychologists work?

Psychologists are interested in mental functioning in both humans and animals, across a range of settings, hence they work in numerous different places as applied or professional psychologists. Clinical or health psychologists usually work in health care settings such as hospitals, clinics, GP practices, or in private practices. Clinical psychologists mainly use psychological techniques to help people overcome difficulties and distress. They deliver and evaluate therapy and other interventions, and use their research skills to develop new techniques and methods: to teach and supervise others, and to contribute to the planning, development, and management of services generally. Health psychologists are more concerned with the psychological aspects of their patients’ physical health, and apply their knowledge to aid the treatment or prevention of illness and disability. For example, devising education and prevention programmes about AIDS or diet; finding out about how best to communicate with patients and help them adhere to treatment plans, or helping people to manage chronic health-related problems such as diabetes.

Professional psychologists also work outside health care settings. For example, forensic psychologists work with prison, probation, or police services, and use their skills in helping to solve crimes, predict the behaviour of offenders or suspects, and in rehabilitating offenders. Educational psychologists specialize in all aspects of children's education, such as assessing learning disabilities (e.g. dyslexia) and developing plans to maximize learning. Environmental psychologists are interested in the interactions between people and their environment, and work in areas such as town planning, ergonomics, and designing housing so as to reduce crime or offices to maximize performance at work. Sports p. 132psychologists try to help athletes maximize their performance, and develop training schemes and ways of dealing with the stresses of competition.

Many areas of business also utilize professional psychologists. Occupational psychologists consider all aspects of working life, including selection, training, staff morale, ergonomics, managerial issues, job satisfaction, motivation, and sick leave. Frequently they are employed by companies to enhance the satisfaction and/or performance of employees. Consumer psychologists focus on marketing issues such as advertising, shopping behaviour, market research, and the development of new products for changing markets.

People who have studied psychology often find that a grounding in the subject is useful in both their personal lives and their work. There are many advantages in knowing something about how the mind works and in knowing how to determine whether intuitions or preconceptions about its workings are justified. Both the findings of psychologists and the methods they use to discover things are potentially useful in a range of professional roles such as management and personnel, communications, marketing, teaching, social work, policing, nursing and medicine, research (e.g. for TV or radio programmes), political advising or analysis, journalism or writing, and also training or caring for animals. The discipline of psychology teaches skills that are widely applicable, as it provides training in thinking scientifically and critically as well as in research methodology and statistical analysis.

Uses and abuses of psychology

People frequently make assumptions about what psychologists are able to do—for example, they assume that psychologists can tell what they are thinking from their body language or read their minds. While such assumptions are understandable, they are erroneous. Psychologists can, as we have seen, study aspects of p. 133thinking, use rewards to change behaviour, intervene with people who are distressed, and predict future behaviour with some accuracy. Nevertheless they cannot read people's minds or manipulate people who are free agents against their will.

Psychology can also be misused, as indeed can any other scientific body of information. Some of its misuses are relatively trivial; as in providing superficial answers to difficult questions, such as how to become a good parent; but others are not at all trivial: for example, treating people with certain political opinions as mentally ill, or using what psychologists have discovered about the effects of sensory deprivation to devise methods of torture. The fact that psychology, like any other discipline, can be misunderstood and misused does not detract from its value. However, psychology is in a special position because it is a subject about which everyone can express an opinion, based on personal information and subjective experience. For example, having spent many years researching various kinds of unhappiness, psychologists are now turning their attention to more positive emotions, and have conducted surveys into the happiness of women in their marriages. A representative survey of American women reported that half of those married five years or more said they were ‘very happy’ or ‘completely satisfied’ with their marriages and 10 per cent reported having had an affair during their current marriage. In contrast to this, Shere Hite, in her report on Women and Love, claimed that 70 per cent of women married five years or more were having affairs and 95 per cent of women felt emotionally harassed by the men they loved. Unlike the results of the first survey, these findings were widely reported in the media, and Shere Hite herself placed great weight on the results because 4,500 women had responded to her survey. However, less than 5 per cent of the people sampled responded (so we do not know the views of over 95 per cent of them), and only women belonging to women's organizations were contacted in the first place. Thus the respondents (the small percentage of women belonging to women's organizations who chose to respond to the p. 134survey) were not representative of the whole relevant population of women. This kind of reporting raises problems as we know that people have a tendency to accept information that fits with their hunches or preconceptions, and that attention is easily grabbed by startling, novel, or alarming information.

The point is that psychology is not about being led by hunches, and neither is it about common sense. In order properly to understand psychological findings people need to know something about how to evaluate the status and nature of the information they are given. Psychologists can, and do, contribute to debates such as those about marriages and related happiness, and they can help us to ask the kinds of questions that can be answered using scientific methods. Not ‘Are marriages happy?’ but ‘What do women who have been married five years or more report about the happiness of their marriages?’ The scientific, methodological nature of the study of psychology therefore determines what psychology is for—hence the importance of developing appropriate methods of inquiry, reporting results in demonstrably objective ways, and also educating others about the discipline of psychology.

Like any science, the nature of psychology has been, and is being, determined by the scientific methods and technology at its disposal. As techniques for measuring the workings of a living human brain—brain imaging techniques—have been developed, psychologists have been able to study the brain directly and begin to link changes in its functioning to the psychological phenomena of thoughts, feelings, and behaviours. Developments in computer technology help psychologists to carry out sophisticated, random sampling procedures, and to check that the samples they study are truly representative of the population in which they are interested. For example, response rates should not differ between important subgroups: for example, providing fewer responses from older people when studying the whole population. A sample of equal numbers of Caucasian and non-Caucasian people would be as p. 135unrepresentative in Zambia as it would in Russia. Statistical considerations are paramount, and these suggest, for example, that a random sample of 1,500 people could provide a reasonably accurate estimate of the views of 100 million people—provided it was representative. Having 4,500 people in the survey does not make it more accurate than a sample of 1,500 people if the composition of the sample differs in important ways from that of the population about whom conclusions are drawn. Once again the field of psychology is in an especially difficult position because some of its tools are widely available. Anyone can conduct a survey but knowing how to do it properly is a different matter.

What next? Progress and complexity

A hundred years ago psychology as we know it today hardly existed. Great advances have been made in all aspects of the subject—and more can be expected. For example, we now know that, to a large extent, we construct our experience of the world and our understanding of what happens in it, and do not just use our faculties of perception, attention, learning, and memory to provide us with a passive reflection of external reality. Our mental life turns out to be far more active than was supposed by the early psychologists who began by documenting its structures and functions, and it has been shaped over the millennia by evolutionary forces of adaptation to be this way. Psychologists have enabled us to understand the basics about how mental processes work, and some of the basics about why they work in the way that they do. But as well as providing answers, their findings continue to raise questions. If memory is an activity not a repository, how do we understand its dynamics? Why do intelligent beings use so many illogical ways of thinking and reasoning? Can we simulate thinking to create artificially ‘intelligent’ machines that process prodigious quantities of information—a brain is said to include a trillion moving parts—and also help us to understand other, more human, aspects of mental life? How can we understand the processes involved in p. 136creative or non-verbal thinking and communication? What is the precise nature of the relationships between language and thought, and between thoughts and feelings? How do people change their minds? Or modify outdated or unhelpful patterns of thinking? We know that answers to these questions, and many more like them, will be complex as so many factors influence psychological aspects of functioning, but as increasingly powerful techniques of research and analysis are being developed, and as relevant variables are sorted from irrelevant ones, answers become increasingly likely.

A surprising amount of psychologists’ work has been stimulated by social and political problems. For example, strides were made in the understanding and measurement of intelligence and personality during the Second World War, when the armed forces needed better means of recruitment and selection. The behaviour of people in wartime provoked Milgram's famous studies on obedience. Social deprivation in large cities provided the context for the Head Start project, from which we have learned about compensating for environmental disadvantages in early childhood. Developing business as well as political cultures provides the context for studies of leadership, team working, and goal setting. The collapse of the American energy company Enron in 2001 (the largest bankruptcy in American history at the time) prompted a series of studies on the problem of dishonesty. Obvious social problems have produced an urgent need to understand more about prejudice and about how to deal with the stresses and strains of modern life. Following riots in London in 2011 researchers have explored the effects of social networking (amongst other variables) on crowd attitudes and behaviour, and have been able to find out more about the motivation and moment-to-moment behaviour of different subgroups of those involved. It is likely that the development of psychology in the next century will continue to be influenced by the social and environmental problems we face. Psychologists are now working together with others interested in cognitive-neuroscience to discover how the brain works. However, in the early stages of p. 137research each breakthrough seems to raise more questions than it answers. The product of research is often to refine the questions that guide future hypotheses.

Psychology is a far more diverse and scientific a subject than it was even 50 years ago. Its complexity means that it may never develop as a science with a single paradigm, but it will continue to provide an understanding of mental life from many different perspectives—cognitive and behavioural, psychophysiological, biological, and social. Like any other discipline, it is the site of conflicting theories as well as consensus, which makes it an exciting discipline within which to work. For example, the more experimental and the more humanistic branches of psychology separated long ago, and have largely developed separately. Perhaps one of the more exciting challenges for psychologists today is in bringing together the products of some of its different specializations. This kind of endeavour has contributed to the development of ‘cognitive science’, in which scientists from many different fields, not just psychology, are now working together to further our understanding of mental functions—of brain and behaviour. Psychologists have always been interested in the biological basis of human life and behaviour, and are now contributing to a developing understanding of how genetics and the environment—nature and nurture—interact.

Close collaboration between research psychologists and their colleagues in applied fields also opens up exciting possibilities. To mention just two of these: first, advances in the understanding of how memories of stressful or traumatic events are encoded and stored has led to advances in the alleviation of conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder by psychological interventions. Early claims that were once not testable are becoming testable, as different branches of psychology come together and inform each other. Second, research on determinants of honesty and dishonesty shows that cheating can be potentially

p. 138decreased by reminding people of acceptable moral standards at the time they are facing temptation. Various reminders were tested by Ariely and his colleagues, including trying to recall the ten commandments, signing an honour code, and signing the top of a form before completing it, rather than completing it first and then signing it at the bottom. All of these methods decreased dishonest reporting, and they suggest ways of reducing cheating in academic tests, tax evasion, insurance fraud, and even false reporting of golf scores. Undoubtedly future research will raise as many questions as it answers and, equally certainly, psychology will continue to fascinate people who know about it only from their own subjective experience as well as those who make it their life's work.