Psychology is the science of mind and behavior. Psychologists study thoughts, brain function, behaviors, emotions, personality, and human development, and take into account all the different aspects of being a person, says Adam Borland, PsyD, a clinical psychologist at Cleveland Clinic in Ohio.
The field of psychology is categorized as a hub science as it is intertwined with medical science and social sciences. Some skeptics contend that psychology isn’t a “real" science because some theories and concepts can be harder to measure objectively than in other “harder” sciences, like biology and physics. Others counter that this doesn’t make psychology less valid. (1)
“Psychology is a science in that there are some very measurable constructs, but there is fluidity in our understanding of the mind,” says Neda F. Gould, PhD, an associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in Baltimore. “The mind is something that can be challenging to quantify; the brain and behavior are more measurable,” she says.
Common Questions & Answers
What Does Personality Mean?
Personality can be described as an individual’s psychology — how does an individual think, feel, and behave? Part of what we mean by personality is how we relate to people and our surroundings, says Dr. Gould. “One way personality could be described is as a stable temperament that develops over time and is influenced by many environmental factors, as well as genetics. It dictates how we relate to people and how we experience the world,” she says.
The study of personality can be divided into two categories: (2)
- Understanding individual differences in specific personality characteristics, such as sociability or irritability
- Understanding how the various parts of a person come together as a whole
There are several different models to describe what makes up personality. The most often used model began with the research of D.W. Fiske, and suggests that there are five core personality traits: openness to experience, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism. (3)
A Brief History of the Field of Psychology
The term “psychology” comes from the word “psyche” — Greek for “breath, spirit, soul” — plus “ology,” meaning “study or science of.” It was first used to mean “study (or science) of the soul,” and later, “study of the mind.” (4)
Psychology’s beginning as a science, in which theories were tested using scientific methods, is traced back to 1879 in Leipzig, Germany, when Wilhelm Wundt, known as the “father of psychology,” established the first psychological laboratory in the world. Previously, psychology was considered a branch of philosophy, but Wundt applied scientific methodology to study the conscious experience, conducting experiments on how people reacted to various outside stimuli and recording his results in a systematic way. (5)
In the United States, William James wrote The Principles of Psychology, which defined the budding discipline as the science of mental life; the topics and challenges he explored anticipated many areas that would be researched more than 100 years later. (6)
Major Influences on Modern Psychology
Sigmund Freud (1856–1939) is considered the founding father of psychoanalysis, a form of talk therapy that seeks to examine the unconscious motivations and desires that influence behavior. He developed a structural model of the mind that includes what he called the id, the ego, and the superego. (7) His research and writings still influence American psychology in areas like personality, development, motivation, the study of mental disorders, and psychological treatment. (8)
Carl Jung (1875–1961) founded the field of analytic psychology?and believed the majority of human suffering derived from the?distresses of the soul or psyche. He introduced the concept of introversion and extroversion, archetypes, and modern dream analysis. (9)
Abraham Maslow (1908–1970) posited that each individual has a hierarchy of needs that must be satisfied, beginning with the basics of food, water, warmth, and rest, and progressing to relationships, feelings of accomplishment, and ultimately, self-actualization, which he defined as a person reaching his or her full potential. (10) He helped lay the foundation for humanistic psychology, a branch of psychology that emphasizes individual human potential and strengths.
Frederick “Fritz” Perls (1893–1970) collaborated with his wife, Laura Perls, to found Gestalt therapy in the early 1950s. This approach helps clients work through issues by focusing on the present moment. Personal responsibility, self-awareness, and mindfulness are all?key principles of Gestalt. One goal of the therapy is to make a person aware of their own negative thought patterns or behaviors that might be contributing to their unhappiness. (11)
Aaron Beck (b. 1921) is considered the father of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). The basic premise of CBT is that the way that individuals perceive a situation is more closely connected to their reaction than the situation itself. CBT seeks to change how a person thinks and responds to situations. When people are going through a difficult time, their perspective can be inaccurate, and their thoughts might not be grounded in reality. This therapy seeks to help people identify when this distortion is happening, change their thinking, problem solve, and proactively work on changing their behavior. (12)
What Shapes and Determines an Individual’s Psychology?
There are many factors that go into shaping a person’s psychology, says Dr. Borland. Genetics may give us certain tendencies, or how we’re “wired,” he says. “For example, some people might be more intense or have a shorter temper whereas other people tend to be more laid back and slow to anger,” says Borland.
But genetics are only part of the picture; there are environmental factors at work as well, he says. “What was their family life like? What did they experience? What type of parenting did they have? Were there any traumatic episodes that occurred?” he says. All of those things and more influence a person’s psychology, adds Borland.
The different elements that shape human psychology include:
- Genes?Genes play a role in how our brains perceive situations as well as how we behave in response. Individual differences in behavior are influenced by genetic factors that result from many different genes, each with a small effect. (13) Research into the behavior and personalities of twins who were raised in different environments has shown that virtually every trait, from social attitudes to mental disorders, is influenced by genetics. (14)
- Environment?The situation a person was raised in or their current environment can influence their psychology.
- Family?Personality, beliefs, and values begin to be shaped by our family from the day we are born. A study published in December 2014 in Child Development suggested that the emotional support that a child gets during the first 3 and a half years of life has an impact on social life and romantic relationships in a person’s twenties and thirties. (15)
- Social Aspects?The social environment that encompasses many facets of everyday life, including government and economic systems, relative wealth, health services, cultural practices, religious institutions, education level, and social inequality, can all influence personality. (16)
- Race and Ethnicity?A person’s physical characteristics and cultural traditions can impact personality development in different ways. Not only does a person’s race often give them an advantage or disadvantage in their social environment, it also shapes how a person sees themself in the world. Minorities in the United States and around the world can experience inequality, injustice, and exclusion which can lead to feelings of isolation or inferiority. (17)
- Gender?Although the degree to which personality traits differ between the “average” male and “average” female varies from study to study, they do exist. It’s likely these exist for a multitude of reasons, including the biological differences between men and women and how we’ve evolved, as well as the social environment and how the genders are treated differently. (18)
- Trauma?Childhood traumas?can significantly impact aspects of personality, and are associated with depression, anxiety, and interpersonal problems in adulthood. (19) Trauma experienced as an adult can affect the personality as well, causing difficulty regulating emotions and feelings of numbness or detachment to what’s happening around them. It can also make a person less hopeful about the future and increase their?fear that bad things will happen. (20)
- Maturity?As we grow older, our personality can change. Research suggests that many people can become more conscientious and agreeable as they age, with openness to new experiences declining slightly. (21)
How Do Clinical Psychologists Treat Emotional and Behavioral Problems?
Clinical psychologists are trained to help people with a variety of issues, such as depression, anxiety, anger, or how to cope with a stressful situation, such as loss of a loved one or a new job. “The way a therapist will approach an issue will vary depending on their orientation and what kind of therapy they practice,” says Gould.
For example, if a person who has anxiety goes to a psychoanalyst, they might delve into childhood and infancy and explore how experiences during that time of life could have contributed to feelings of anxiety, says Gould.
Gould uses cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and mindfulness strategies in her practice. “Those areas of therapy are the most well-researched and have the most robust support behind them, in part because the methods are more structured and so they’re easier to research,” she says.
In CBT, we look at behaviors that the person is engaging in or avoiding that are maintaining or sustaining the anxiety, as well as thoughts they’re having that are unhelpful, inaccurate, or maladaptive, says Gould. “We examine the thoughts that could be maintaining or exacerbating the condition and then work to change both the thoughts and the behaviors in a systematic way to improve it,” she says.
There are many types of therapy, and some of the more common forms include:
Psychoanalysis or Psychodynamic?Therapy?This type of talk therapy focuses on changing problem thoughts and behaviors by getting to the unconscious origin or motivation, often working through unresolved conflicts from childhood. (22)
Behavioral Therapy This method emphasizes the role of learning in developing helpful and unhelpful behaviors. It focuses on current problems and behaviors and solutions. Behavior therapy is a type of CBT (sometimes called “big B CBT”). Another example is behavioral activation for depression, in which people are encouraged to initiate behaviors such as getting up at a certain time and going to the gym, or reaching out to a friend even if they’re feeling down or anxious. The idea behind this kind of behavioral therapy is that doing enjoyable and important things leads to a sense of reward, which improves mood.
Humanistic Therapy This type of therapy tries to look at the whole person and is grounded in the belief that humans are innately good. By emphasizing a person’s positive traits and behaviors, the therapist encourages the client to use their own personal instincts and strengths to find growth and fulfillment. (23) Gestalt and client-centered therapy are types of humanistic therapy.
Depending on the nature of the problem or behavior, medication might be used in conjunction with therapy. Except in a few states, most psychologists aren’t licensed to prescribe medication. (24)
“One thing that I always tell my patients is that if they are coming to therapy, then they believe that change is possible,” says Borland. “People have to remind themselves that they do have a choice in all of this. Sometimes we can get bogged down in thinking that certain patterns or behaviors are inevitable — like, ‘I’ve always had a temper, and I can’t change that or control it,’” he says. “If you’re coming to therapy, there is some room for change and growth,” says Borland.
Working in Psychology: Specialties and Careers in the Field
There are many different subspecialties in psychology and dozens (and sometimes hundreds) of different kinds of jobs a person can do within each one. Here are some of the more well-known areas in psychology, as well as some careers within those disciplines:
Social Psychology?How does an individual fit with the rest of the world and how does being part of a group influence human behavior? Those are the kinds of questions that are explored in social psychology.
Social psychologists can work for universities or the government to conduct research on how social influence, perception, and interactions with others impact human behavior. These specialists can also work in a variety of fields in the private sector, including marketing, politics, and human resources. (26)
Forensic Psychology?Thanks to shows like CSI and Criminal Minds,?forensic psychology is more well known than other many specialties in this science. Forensic psychology applies the research of clinical, cognitive, and social psychology to the legal arena and could include psychological assessment of people accused of crimes, threat assessment for child custody evaluations, or competency evaluations. (27)
Cognitive Psychology?This field focuses on how people think as well as their capacity for understanding, interpreting, and retaining different kinds of information. There is a huge variety in the kinds of things a cognitive psychologist can study; a few examples of the diverse opportunities include how we learn new concepts and languages, how to address learning disabilities, how humans and computers interact, the breakdown of mental processes that happen in diseases like 础濒锄丑别颈尘别谤’蝉, or the healing power of music therapy. (28)
Sports Psychology?Sports psychologists can help athletes and teams in a wide array of settings and levels of competition, from little league to the Olympic games. These experts specialize in sport specific psychological assessment and mental skills to help athletes train and perform better in competition. Sports psychology also includes counseling and clinical interventions about issues like motivation, eating disorders, depression, burn-out, and career transitions. (29)
Humanistic Psychology?Humanistic psychology is based on the study of human strengths and what psychotherapy techniques can help a person function better, or “live their best life.” Based on the teaching and theories of Abraham Maslow, this field chooses to “focus on the positive,” and view humans as intrinsically good. Counseling and therapy are a main focus in this field, and people who study this often work as therapists or social workers. This branch of psychology is sometimes criticized because it relies heavily on the subjective experiences of individuals, which makes gathering and recording evidence in a traditional scientific way difficult. (23)
Positive Psychology?The term “positive psychology” was first coined by Martin E.P. Seligman, PhD, former president of the American Psychological Association,?and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, PhD, a psychology professor at Claremont Graduate University in California. Dr. Seligman and Dr.?Csikszentmihalyi believed that modern psychology focused too much on treating mental illness rather than promoting mental health; their goal was to create a field that focused on how people’s strengths and virtues could improve their well-being.
Although positive psychology and the psychologists who promote it are often highlighted in popular media, critics point to a lack of hard evidence linking a positive outlook with improved health outcomes. Skeptics fear that people with conditions like cancer or depression may blame themselves for not having the “right” mindset if they don’t get better. (31) A closer analysis of many studies suggests the benefits of positive psychology are often exaggerated. (32)
Evolutionary Psychology?This field considers human behavior, thoughts, and feelings through the lens of how humans have had to evolve and adapt to survive over time; the way we compete, connect, and cooperate can all be explained by our basic drive to survive and pass on our genes. This specialty arose in the late 1980s as a synthesis of findings in several areas including ethology (the scientific study of animal behavior), cognitive psychology, evolutionary biology, anthropology, and social psychology. (33) Jobs in evolutionary psychology can range from work in museums or zoos, resource management, research, or as a professor.
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