The Psychology Book: Big Ideas Simply Explained
Among all the sciences, psychology is perhaps the most mysterious to the general public, and the most prone to misconceptions. Even though its language and ideas have inﬁltrated everyday culture, most people have only a hazy idea of what the subject is about, and what psychologists actually do. For some, psychology conjures up images of people in white coats, either stafﬁng an institution for mental disorders or conducting laboratory experiments on rats. Others may imagine a man with a middle-European accent psychoanalyzing a patient on a couch or, if ﬁlm scripts are to be believed, plotting to exercise some form of mind control. Although these stereotypes are an exaggeration, some truth lies beneath them. It is perhaps the huge range of subjects that fall under the umbrella of psychology (and the bewildering array of terms beginning with the preﬁx “psych-”) that creates confusion over what psychology entails; psychologists themselves are unlikely to agree on a single deﬁnition of the word. “Psychology” comes from the ancient Greek psyche, meaning “soul” or “mind,” and logia, a “study” or “account,” which seems to sum up the broad scope of the subject, but today the word most accurately describes “the science of mind and behavior.”
The new science Psychology can also be seen as a bridge between philosophy and physiology. Where physiology describes and explains the physical make-up of the brain and nervous system, psychology examines the mental processes that take place within them and how these are manifested in our thoughts, speech, and behavior. Where philosophy is concerned with thoughts and ideas, psychology studies how we come to have them and what they tell us about the workings of our minds. All the sciences evolved from philosophy, by applying scientiﬁc methods to philosophical questions, but the intangible nature of subjects such as consciousness, perception, and memory meant that psychology was slow in making the transition from philosophical speculation to scientiﬁc practice. In some universities, particularly in the US, psychology departments started out as branches of the philosophy department, while in others, notably those in Germany, they were established in the science faculties. But it was not until the late 19th century that psychology became established as a scientiﬁc discipline in its own right. The founding of the world’s ﬁrst laboratory of experimental psychology by Wilhelm Wundt at the University of Leipzig in 1879 marked the recognition of psychology as a truly scientiﬁc subject, and as one that was breaking new ground in previously unexplored areas of research. In the course of the 20th century, psychology blossomed; all of its major branches and movements evolved. As with all sciences, its history is built upon the theories and discoveries of successive generations, with many of the older theories remaining relevant to contemporary psychologists. Some areas of research have been the subject of study from psychology’s earliest days, undergoing different interpretations by the various schools of thought, while others have fallen in and out of favor, but each time they have exerted a signiﬁcant inﬂuence on subsequent thinking, and have occasionally spawned completely new ﬁelds for exploration. The simplest way to approach the vast subject of psychology for the ﬁrst time is to take a look at some of its main movements, as we do in this book. These occurred in roughly chronological order, from its roots in philosophy, through behaviorism, psychotherapy, and the study of cognitive, social, and developmental psychology, to the psychology of difference.
Two approaches Even in its earliest days, psychology meant different things to different people. In the US, its roots lay in philosophy, so the approach taken was speculative and theoretical, dealing with concepts such as consciousness and the self. In Europe, the study was rooted in the sciences, so the emphasis was on examining mental processes such as sensory perception and memory under controlled laboratory conditions. However, even the research of these more scientiﬁcally oriented psychologists was limited by the introspective nature of their methods: pioneers such as Hermann Ebbinghaus became the subject of their own investigations, effectively restricting the range of topics to those that could be observed in themselves. Although they used scientiﬁc methods and their theories laid the foundations for the new science, many in the next generation of psychologists found their processes too subjective, and began to look for a more objective methodology. In the 1890s, the Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov conducted experiments that were to prove critical to the development of psychology in both Europe and the US. He proved that animals could be conditioned to produce a response, an idea that developed into a new movement known as behaviorism. The behaviorists felt that it was impossible to study mental processes objectively, but found it relatively easy to observe and measure behavior: a manifestation of those processes. They began to design experiments that could be conducted under controlled conditions, at ﬁrst on animals, to gain an insight into human psychology, and later on humans.
The behaviorists’ studies concentrated almost exclusively on how behavior is shaped by interaction with the environment; this “stimulus–response” theory became well known through the work of John Watson. New learning theories began to spring up in Europe and the US, and attracted the interest of the general public. However, at much the same time as behaviorism began to emerge in the US, a young neurologist in Vienna started to develop a theory of mind that was to overturn contemporary thinking and inspire a very different approach. Based on observation of patients and case histories rather than laboratory experiments, Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytic theory marked ❯❯ a return to the study of subjective experience. He was interested in memories, childhood development, and interpersonal relationships, and emphasized the importance of the unconscious in determining behavior. Although his ideas were revolutionary at the time, they were quickly and widely adopted, and the notion of a “talking cure” continues within the various forms of psychotherapy today.
New ﬁelds of study In the mid-20th century, both behaviorism and psychoanalysis fell out of favor, with a return to the scientiﬁc study of mental processes. This marked the beginning of cognitive psychology, a movement with its roots in the holistic approach of the Gestalt psychologists, who were interested in studying perception. Their work began to emerge in the US in the years following World War II; by the late 1950s, cognitive psychology had become the predominant approach. The rapidly growing ﬁelds of communications and computer science provided psychologists with a useful analogy; they used the model of information processing to develop theories to explain our methods of attention, perception, memory and forgetting, language and language acquisition, problem-solving and decision-making, and motivation. Even psychotherapy, which mushroomed in myriad forms from the original “talking cure,” was inﬂuenced by the cognitive approach. Cognitive therapy and cognitive-behavioral therapy emerged as alternatives to psychoanalysis, leading to movements such as humanist psychology, which focused on the qualities unique to human life. These therapists turned their attention from healing the sick to guiding healthy people toward living more meaningful lives. While psychology in its early stages had concentrated largely on the mind and behavior of individuals, there was now an increasing interest in the way we interact with our environment and other people; this became the ﬁeld of social psychology. Like cognitive psychology, it owed much to the Gestalt psychologists, especially Kurt Lewin, who had ﬂed from Nazi Germany to the US in the 1930s. Social psychology gathered pace during the latter half of the 20th century, when research revealed intriguing new facts about our attitudes and prejudices, our tendencies toward obedience and conformity, and our reasons for aggression or altruism, all of which were increasingly relevant in the modern world of urban life and ever-improving communications. Freud’s continuing inﬂuence was felt mainly through the new ﬁeld of developmental psychology. Initially concerned only with childhood development, study in this area expanded to include change throughout life, from infancy to old age. Researchers charted methods of social, cultural, and moral learning, and the ways in which we form attachments. The contribution of developmental psychology to education and training has been signiﬁcant but, less obviously, it has inﬂuenced thinking about the relationship between childhood development and attitudes to race and gender. Almost every psychological school has touched upon the subject of human uniqueness, but in the late 20th century this area was recognized as a ﬁeld in its own right in the psychology of difference. As well as attempting to identify and measure personality traits and the various factors that make up intelligence, psychologists in this growing ﬁeld examine deﬁnitions and measures of normality and abnormality, and look at how much our individual differences are a product of our environment or the result of genetic inheritance.
An inﬂuential science The many branches of psychology that exist today cover the whole spectrum of mental life and human and animal behavior. The overall scope has extended to overlap with many other disciplines, including medicine, physiology, neuroscience, computer science, education, sociology, anthropology, and even politics, economics, and the law. Psychology has become perhaps the most diverse of sciences. Psychology continues to inﬂuence and be inﬂuenced by the other sciences, especially in areas
such as neuroscience and genetics. In particular, the nature versus nurture argument that dates back to Francis Galton’s ideas of the 1920s continues to this day; recently, evolutionary psychology has contributed to the debate by exploring psychological traits as innate and biological phenomena, which are subject to the laws of genetics and natural selection. Psychology is a huge subject, and its ﬁndings concern every one of us. In one form or another it informs many decisions made in government, business and industry, advertising, and the mass media. It affects us as groups and as individuals, contributing as much to public debate about the ways our societies are or might be structured as it does to diagnosing and treating mental disorders. The ideas and theories of psychologists have become part of our everyday culture, to the extent that many of their ﬁndings about behavior and mental processes are now viewed simply as “common sense.” However, while some of the ideas explored in psychology conﬁrm our instinctive feelings, just as many make us think again; psychologists have often shocked and outraged the public when their ﬁndings have shaken conventional, long-standing beliefs. In its short history, psychology has given us many ideas that have changed our ways of thinking, and that have also helped us to understand ourselves, other people, and the world we live in. It has questioned deeply held beliefs, unearthed unsettling truths, and provided startling insights and solutions to complex questions. Its increasing popularity as a university course is a sign not only of psychology’s relevance in the modern world, but also of the enjoyment and stimulation that can be had from exploring the richness and diversity of a subject that continues to examine the mysterious world of the human mind.
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