Intro to Psychology

The origins, scope, history, fields, and goals of psychology

Origins of Psychology

Elements of psychology have been present as long as man. Some of the earliest philosophers such as Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, and Locke asked questions important to modern psychology, especially pertaining to how the mind interacts with the body. These philosophers applied logical reasoning to assumptions in order to find conclusions. The issue being that these assumptions were not scientifically objective and in turn skewed their conclusions.


For example, Descartes’ position called dualism separated entirely the mind and body, joining them only at a gland in the brain. While this was an incorrect conclusion, Decartes’ work directly influenced the modern idea of free will. This, however, goes against the position of determinism largely accepted by psychologists which says that all physical events are caused or determined by other physical events.

Psychology is closely tied in history to physiologists who are interested in the bodily functions. Physiologists in history depended on observation and the scientific method which ultimately led to the more empirical structure of modern psychology.

Scope of Psychology

So what exactly does psychology study? Well first and foremost, psychology is formally defined as: the scientific study of the behavior of humans and other animals. Given such a general definition, one can expect several sub-categories in the field of psychology. These include cognitive, developmental, social, personality, biological, clinical/counseling, and forensic psychology. These are only a few of the vast fields of psychology.


Cognitive psychology focuses on mental processes, such as our ability to map and navigate through a campus. Developmental psychology studies factors that affect our development and shape behavior throughout our lives. Social psychology deals with the impact of social environments on individuals. Personality psychology probes into the uniqueness of any individual and discovers the key elements that make up their personalities. Biological psychology studies the relationship between physiological processes and behavior. Clinical and counseling psychology focuses on diagnosing and treating things such as developmental disorders, substance abuse, relationship difficulties, etc. Finally, forensic psychology is used to create personality profiles of criminal offenders to help law-enforcement understand their familial/substantial problems. As seen, psychology covers a wide breadth of topics. A single psychology class would surely not be enough to cover all of psychology.

History of Psychology

Structuralism (Wilhelm Wundt)

  • Wundt’s 1879 establishment of a laboratory at the University of Leipzig marked start to psychology as a science

  • Defined psychology as the study of the structure of the conscious adult mind

  • Tried to break down mental processes into basic elements to study like chemistry, physics, and physiology

  • introspection - looking inward to observe mental process

  • experimental self-observation

Functionalism (William James)

  • Emphasized the fluid, functional, practical nature of the mind

  • Influenced by Darwin’s theory of evolution

  • Tried to learn how mental processes helped humans adapt

  • Introduced collecting data by observation

  • Expanded research to nonhuman animals

Psychoanalysis (Sigmund Freud)

  • Catharsis and talking therapy introduced

  • Helped to legitimize study of human sexuality

  • Emphasized unconscious mind

  • Widely criticized because results can’t be tested in a laboratory

Behaviorism (John Watson)

  • opposed introspection as unscientific

  • argued objective study of mind was impossible

  • observation between stimuli and responses

  • believe human behavior was through learned associations

  • insistence on empirical, objective science of behavior free of theories of mind or free will

Gestalt Psychology (Wolfgang Kohler)

  • the whole of our perception is more than the sum of its parts the sensory elements

  • explains a lot of perceptual phenomena

Humanistic Psychology (Abraham Maslow)

  • emphasize free will and the ability to make conscious, rational decisions

  • self actualization, natural inclination to fulfill human potential

  • criticized for nonscientific approach

Fields of Psychology

Cognitive psychology:

Focuses on thinking, memory, problem solving, language, creativity, reference to internal and mental processes, rather than visible stimulus. The cognitive psychologists are more focused the mental precession rather than how the person behaves or reacts physically.


Social psychology:

Understanding of social environments the impact it has on people. Social psychologists focus on conformity to crowds, social roles and expectations, prejudice, impersonal attraction between people and aggression.


Forensic psychology:

Helps mostly court and law officials with figuring out why a criminal would have committed a crime and try to predict a future crime based on their history. Also, it helps with court officials try to decide on parol based on the disposition of the offender.


Cultural psychology:

Looks into the cultural and religious aspect of psychology. Cultural psychology investigates how these aspects of ones life influences their behavior.

Goals of Psychology

Understanding, predicting, controlling, and influencing

Behavioral control is controversial as a legitimate goal of psychology. However, it can be used to benefit people. For example, reducing prejudice in schoolchildren or developing more effective therapy techniques. There are ethical concerns when it comes to certain behavioral control however.


The biggest goal of psychology is more research, the gaining of more knowledge. Theories and hypotheses along with the scientific method give rise to better information. Psychologists are far from predicting who will be a murderer or a daycare teacher but the field is growing quickly to help more people.

Top 10 Facts - Psychology