What is Psychology?
Psychology is the scientific study of thoughts, feelings and behaviour (Weiten, 2004). Compared to biology, chemistry or physics, psychology is a young scientific field. In 1879, William Wundt established the first psychology research lab at the University of Leipzig. In 1881, the first psychology journal was established, also by Wundt. Other important early contributors to psychology include William James (“stream of consciousness”), John B. Watson (behaviourism) and Sigmund Freud (the “unconscious”) (Weiten, 2004). Traditional influences include philosophy and physiology; however, as a multidisciplinary field, psychology is now influenced by disparate areas including computer science, medicine, music, feminism and social science.
In the rest of this article, I briefly introduce important aspects of psychology. First, I consider some differences between psychology and counselling. Second, I explain important scientific concepts relevant to psychology. Finally, I describe some subfields and applications of psychology. The goal of this article is to provide some insights into psychology that perhaps are less well known so that people can make more informed decisions about whether or not psychology is right for them.
Differences between counselling and psychology
People sometimes think that counselling is synonymous with psychology. Although both have a strong human-centred focus, there are some key differences that are important to acknowledge.
First, whereas counselling is focused on human activity involving mental wellbeing, psychology is focused on a broader range of human activity that may not necessarily involve mental being. For example, psychologists may just be interested in analysing the tasks performed by staff for the purposes of organisational redesign (Xiao & Sanderson, 2014).
Second, whereas counselling is focused on problems that require therapeutic intervention, psychology is focused on a broader range of problems that need not involve psychotherapy. For example, psychologists may study culture in order to improve international relations (Yang, Liu, Fang & Hong, 2013).
Third, compared to counselling, there is a stronger emphasis on scientific research in psychology that may or may not have immediate practical (much less therapeutic) applications. For example, psychologists may conduct basic perception experiments, the relevance of which may not be immediately obvious in terms of real world applications (Arnold, Erskine, Roseboom & Wallis, 2010).
Psychology is a scientific field. Indeed, to emphasise this point, it is often referred to as Psychological Science. Therefore, just like biology, physics or chemistry, psychology involves the use of the scientific method to learn and test ideas about the world. Without going into the philosophy of science (Chalmers, 2013), I explain some key scientific concepts of greatest relevance to psychology:
Theory. A theory is an explanation about something that can be tested. For example, psychologists have developed and tested various theories that explain how humans process, store and recall information (Reed, 2013). Note that a theory is only a proposed explanation; it has not been proven to be true. If a theory is proven to be true, then it becomes law. However, a lot of scientific evidence is needed for a theory to become law. Because psychology is a young science, we have very few laws compared to other sciences like physics (e.g. Newton’s laws of motion).
Model. For the purposes of this article, a model is defined as a diagram that shows the relationships among different factors as predicted by a particular theory. For example, according to the classic levels of processing theory (Craik & Lockhart, 1972), deeper processing of incoming information in the brain (e.g. creating meaningful connections with existing information) supports better information recall compared to shallow processing. To create a model of this predicted relationship, we would include the factors of ‘levels of processing’ and ‘information recall’. In addition, we can draw an arrow going from ‘levels of processing’ to ‘information recall’ and add a positive sign on that line to indicate that we predict a positive relationship between the two factors. Models are a useful way of visualising hypotheses, another important concept which is explained next.
Hypothesis. A hypothesis is a specific prediction about the quality of the relationship between different factors as suggested by a particular theory. You can predict that there is no relationship between certain factors (i.e. null hypothesis) or you can predict that there is a positive or negative relationship between certain factors. In summary, a hypothesis is derived from a theory in order to test the ‘correctness’ of that theory, and a model can be created to visualise the hypothesis.
Research design. One of the greatest challenges for psychologists is to design experiments that can show for certain that a particular factor has an effect on another factor (Mitchell & Jolley, 2007). The reason is that there are so many factors in a situation that it can be very difficult to say that the effects we are looking at is just due to a particular factor. Therefore, we need to be very clever about controlling the other factors in a situation so that we can say with greater certainty that it was this factor that created that effect (Mitchell & Jolley, 2007). Essentially, research design is about controlling the factors in a situation.
For example, say we wanted to test the effect of Therapy X on depression. We could design an experiment where participants are randomly allocated into two groups and only one group receives Therapy X. Then, we could measure depression in both groups to see if depression is reduced for the group that received Therapy X. The problem with this design is that there may be other factors that differ between the groups which also reduced depression. Maybe the therapist was better in the Theory X group or there is something about the people in the Theory X group that made them more likely to respond to treatment. To control for these ‘other factors’, we could improve the design by making sure the same therapist is used across the two groups. We could also get the same group of people to experience both therapy conditions. (However, to do this, we would need to make some further changes to reduce the effect of the order in which the people experience the different conditions).
As you can see, designs can start to get quite complicated as we try to control or reduce the effects of other factors. However, research design is a very serious matter because if we are not aware of and try to control for the effects of other factors, then, we cannot say with any confidence that what we have found is related to the factors that we are interested in (Mitchell & Jolley, 2007). Another important part of research design is how you collect your data. However, to avoid overwhelming readers with too much information, I will not talk about this part of research design. If you are curious, there are many useful resources you can check out (Creswell, 2009; Mitchell & Jolley, 2007; Symon & Cassell, 1998).
Statistics. Because psychology is a science, we need systematic and objective tools for testing if the data that we have collected support the hypothesis we have predicted. Statistics (from mathematics) provides such a set of tools because it is an established, objective and systematic approach to organising and describing various types of data. Therefore, statistics is a very important part of psychology (Field, 2000). In addition, one of the strengths of psychologists is our ability to apply complex statistical tools to the analysis of data for the purposes of solving human problems. Not being able to understand statistical concepts and techniques means that you cannot use the tools of our trade (Field, 2000).
What can a psychologist do?
As mentioned earlier, one of the main differences between psychology and counselling is that it has broader interests and applications. Here, I highlight some of the areas in which a psychologist can specialise. Note that there are many overlaps among these subfields (Bayne & Horton, 2003). But, to keep things simple, I have tried to focus on aspects that highlight their differences.
Cognitive Psychology is mainly focused on understanding how information is processed, stored and used in the mind. Key topics include perception, attention, memory, learning, judgment and decision-making, and creativity. Most cognitive psychologists continue to do research in universities or research institutions. However, cognitive psychologists can also find themselves working for organisations that want to understand how people make decisions in order to design environments or systems that encourage certain behaviours (e.g. advertising and consumer behaviour, human-computer interaction, psychological warfare in the military).
Neuropsychology is mainly focused on the understanding, assessment and treatment of psychological disorders associated with the brain. Key topics include brain anatomy and physiology, brain trauma, brain imaging techniques, and neuro-cognitive disorders. Neuropsychologists may choose to do research in private or public research institutions, work in hospitals, private practice or a combination of these options.
Developmental Psychology is mainly focused on understanding how human beings change over the lifespan. Key topics include temperament, attachment, personality and cognitive development, identity development and aging. Developmental psychologists may choose to do research in private or public research institutions or they may work in various organisations (e.g. schools, various government departments).
Social Psychology is mainly focused on understanding how people’s thoughts, emotions and behaviours are influenced by the presence of other people (real or imagined). Key topics include social identity, social norms, social roles, conformity, groupthink, bystander effect, prejudice and social cognition. Social psychologists may choose to do research in private or public research institutions or they may work for various government or non-government, for-profit or not-for-profit organisations.
Clinical Psychology is usually what most people associate with psychology. As one of the more established subfields of psychology, it is mainly focused on the application of psychological theory to the enhancement of mental wellbeing. Key topics include normal and abnormal personality, psychopathology, and various therapies (e.g. Cognitive Behavioural, Person-Centred, Gestalt, Psychodynamic etc). Clinical psychologists can provide various types of psychological assessments and interventions in various domains ranging from private practice to public hospitals and institutions.
Organisational Psychology (also Occupational, Industrial or Work Psychology) is mainly focused on the application of psychological theory to work situations. Key topics include leadership, motivation, job satisfaction, job design, organisation change and commitment. Organisational psychologists can find themselves working in areas like personnel recruitment and selection, training and evaluation, career coaching, organisational development, and occupational health and safety as either internal staff or external consultants.
Educational Psychology is mainly focused on the application of psychological theory to learning. Key topics include teaching methods, special needs education, learning difficulties and adult learning. Educational psychologists can find themselves working in school systems or local education communities as either internal staff or private consultants.
Sports Psychology is mainly focused on the application of psychological theory to physical activity. Key topics include training methods, skill acquisition, sports medicine, motivation, and performance anxiety. Sports psychologists can find themselves working for professional sport athletes, teams or institutions or in the education system.
Forensic Psychology is mainly focused on the application of psychological theory to criminological and legal situations. Key topics include psychological assessment, psychopathology, professional ethics, and the criminal justice system. Forensic psychologists can find themselves working in prisons, legal institutions and they often appear as expert witnesses in the judicial system.
In summary, the purpose of this article was to highlight some, perhaps, less well known aspects of psychology. Key differences between counselling and psychology were considered, important relevant scientific concepts were explained, and various subfields were introduced. If I was to sum up the field of psychology in one word, it would be ‘complexity’. The reason is that humanity is so variable that we will most likely never fully understand all of it. Part of the problem (or opportunity depending on how we see it!) is that human society is constantly changing. New things arrive, such as new technology, which change the nature of human problems and possibilities. If you are someone who enjoys dealing with change and uncertainty, if you are comfortable with constantly feel like you know nothing, then this is the profession for you. If not, then perhaps think carefully before you jump into this web of uncertainty and complexity.
Einstein once said that ‘If we knew what we were doing, then it wouldn’t be called research’. This quote definitely applies to psychological research and practice. However, so long as we follow the principles of science, then at least there is critique and transparency which are essential for the continuing improvement of the psychological science profession.
This article was written by Tania Xiao, Ph.D, MAPS, a registered psychologist and lecturer for AIPC, with close to ten years’ experience conducting research and consulting in various industries including mining, rail, healthcare and aviation. She also has extensive experience teaching in the field of psychology. Tania holds a Masters Degree in Organisational Psychology and a Ph.D in Human Factors and Ergonomics from the University of Queensland.
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