Introduction to Psychology:
Background, Application, and Goals
Goals of Psychology
Origins and History
The mystery of the human mind has been a subject of research and thought for centuries. The earliest studies of the mind can be traced back to the great Greek philosophers, including Aristotle and Plato. The mind was of great interest in the 17th and 18th century, but when scholars began to focus more on the physical world and less on the abstract and theoretical side, the field of psychology hardly moved forward at all.
In essence, Psychology is as much a science as any other because it emphasizes the scientific approach to finding answers, as opposed to relying on intuition and “gut feeling”. It’s the science of behavior, and the study of the mind’s processes. It is hoped that by studying human behavior, we can understand the internal processes.
The fundamental relationship between mind and body has been an area of research for centuries. Early philosophers wanted to understand this relationship and apply it to behavior. Their method of research was based in logic, but it also relied on assumptions of how they perceived the world to be. This turned out to be the critical flaw in their methodology, because assumptions will always be less accurate than the objective, scientific methodology of observation. An example of this flawed, assumption-based method is René Descartes’ “dualistic view” of the mind and body. To him, they were two entirely separate entities, and the mind exerted an invisible influence over the physical body through the tiny pineal gland in the brain. While Descartes was inevitably wrong in some anatomical senses, he did establish the idea of determinism, which states that our behavior is influenced by internal motivations and desires, not by external physical events.
In the 1800’s, the scientific method has been crucial to obtaining new, concrete information regarding the relationship between our nervous system and our body. German physiologists led by Hermann von Helmholtz provided new insight into the relationship by measuring the speed of nerve impulses, and others at the University of Berlin had been experimenting with electrical impulses on an exposed animal brain to test the effects on physical behavior.
The opening of Wilhelm Wundt’s laboratory at the University of Leipzig in the late 1800’s served as a kind of beginning marker for the formal, scientific study of psychology. He thought the purpose of psychology was to understand the “structures” of the mind, giving his approach the name “structuralism”.
Following Wundt, an American named William James sought to study the mind’s personal, ever-changing, functional nature of conscious experience to better understand fundamental processes. This approach was called “functionalism”.
Structuralism provided a legitimate reason for the scientific, research-based study of the mind, while functionalism expanded the field to include non-human animals and the study of behavior. Combined, they formed one of the fundamental bases for modern psychology.
Sigmund Freud introduced the concept of “psychoanalysis”, or the study of human subjects with neurotic behavior. His findings on the unconscious mind were initially hard to accept, because it meant that we are not masters of our own minds. His impact was most felt in the treatment of emotionally damaged people, because he understood the influence of emotion on behavior and could therefore find alternatives to treatment, like catharsis.
In 1913, a revolution against structuralism and function began in the United States led by John Watson. This movement was called “behaviorism”. Watson wanted to study how humans learn, or form associations, because to him, complex human behavior could be analyzed using simpler, easier-to-understand behavior.
At the same time, Gestalt Psychology was catching on in Germany, led primarily by Wolfgang Kohler, Max Wertheimer, and Kurt Kofka. They thought it was not possible to break down complex human behavior into parts, because the whole of human behavior is even deeper and more complex than the sum of its smaller sections.
Finally, humanistic psychology, led by Abraham Maslow and Carl Rogers, believes that all prior methods are impractical. They think that behavior isn’t influenced by external or internal, subconscious forces, but by the concept of free will.
Scope, Fields, and Goals of Psychology
Animals are often the focus of many psychological studies for five reasons.
- Researchers need to find a simpler model. Animal brains, behaviors, and mental processes are rarely as complex as human systems.
- Research on animals gives the researcher greater control, what with the ability to manipulate the organism through breeding and operations.
- Ethical considerations prohibit many experiments from being performed on humans.
- Animals are readily available for experimentation.
- Finally, researchers often study animals solely to learn more about animal behavior. After all, psychology is the study of behavior and mental processes, not necessarily human behavior and mental processes.
Within the scope of psychology lies many different fields and specializations. These include developmental psychology, biological psychology, experimental psychology, clinical and conciliatory psychology, positive/negative psychology, just to name a few. These fields can form the basis of the many different careers offered by a study of psychology.
American Psychology Association founded in 1982 has 137,000 members as of 2012. The APA is a psychology association that is clinically focused. Whereas the APS or Association for psychological science, founded in 1988, was created with the purpose to promote psychology as a science and not clinical. The APS has 23,000 members as of 2012.
Fields of Specialization and Careers
- Cognitive Psychology
- Developmental Psychology
- Social Psychology
- Personality Psychology
- Experimental Psychology
- Biological Psychology
- Clinical and counseling Psychology
- Education and school Psychology
- Industrial/organizational Psychology
- Engineering Psychology
- Health Psychology
- Positive Psychology
- Forensic Psychology
- Artificial intelligence and connectionism