What is psychology? Can psychology be defined? Yes, according to the American Psychological Association Web site: “Psychology is the study of mind and behavior.” No, others argue. Psychology embraces diverse subfields and applications; we can point to them individually, but we cannot define an essence shared by all. Psychology’s definition has been debated throughout its history.
Philosophers had always pondered the nature of mind. In the 1800s, physiologists studying the senses were puzzled by, and theorized about human perception. Neurologists noticed brain injuries affecting mental processes. In 1879, Wilhelm Wundt saw in these trends the need for an independent science, a science of immediate experience, the systematic analysis of the conscious human subjective world.
In 1890, William James defined psychology as “the science of mental life…its phenomena and their conditions. The phenomena are… feelings, desires, cognitions, reasonings, decisions, and the like” (p. 1). Both Wundt and James established early laboratories to study the experience of adult: human perception, cognition, and feeling. These topics have been part of experimental (laboratory) psychology ever since, though methods and concepts have changed radically. Biopsychology, which combines physiological study with the study of mental processes, is also an active contemporary subfield.
Englargements and Modifications of Psychology
But is psychology simply the study of human consciousness? Not since Sigmund Freud. Based on case studies of patients, Freud insisted that unconscious processes were central to understanding human personality and its motivations. (The study of personality remains an important contemporary subfield.)
Animal behavior became part of psychology in 1897. Then Edward L. Thorndike, interested in the evolution of mind, brought various animals into his laboratory and studied their learning processes. Thus began comparative psychology, the subfield that compares the behavior of different species. And children became part of psychology’s concern when G. Stanley Hall and others took on the study of the development of mind from infancy through maturity, the subarea of developmental psychology.
Originally psychology was concerned with universal qualities of experience. Quantitative study of human differences began soon after mathematicians invented statistics. Francis Galton in 1884 and Alfred Binet in 1905 used statistics in constructing tests to measure intelligence. Statistics are now used in many subfields, and assessment of human differences remains a lively subarea.
In 1913, John Watson called for a new definition of psychology’s subject matter and method. The only way to make psychology into a true science was to base it on systematic behavioral observations. Psychology should abandon the study of mental life completely and become the science of behavior. Research psychologists heeded his call to base the field on systematic. Repeatable, behavioral observations—a position many, but not all, hold today. Though some continued to study mental processes, often through inferences from behavior (Wolfgang Kohler, Jean Piaget), mainstream experimental psychology embraced the definition: Psychology is the science of behavior.
Several trends converged mid-century to restore mental processes to the mainstream of experimental psychology. Computers, machines that process information, inspired investigators to study how people process information as they perceive and think. Developments in linguistics inspired psychologists to explore mental processes underlying language, making psycholinguistics a major subarea. Piaget’s works, many written earlier, became recognized as major contributions to cognitive development. George Miller’s (1962) textbook announced the new emphasis in its title: Psychology: The Science of Mental Life (but even in 1997. Carlson called his text Psychology: The Science of Behavior).
Factors outside psychology also broadened psychology’s subject matter. Events surrounding World War II gave impetus to social psychology (an area that borders on sociology) as many new investigators joined the small cadre who had been studying the impact of social life on psychological processes. Social psychologists now focused on such topics as interpersonal relations, social influence, attitudes and attitude change, prejudice, and conflict resolution—as they still do today.
Psychology’s Applied Fields
Most definitions emphasize psychology as a domain of study. But if psychology is what psychologists do, applications as well as research areas are defining parts of the field, and have been almost from the beginning.
Freud constructed his psychoanalytic model of the mind in conjunction with developing psychotherapy. Himself a physician, he realized medical degrees were not necessary for doing psychotherapy. Today, a psychotherapist may be a psychiatrist (with an M.D.), a clinical or counseling psychologist (with a Ph.D. or a Psy.D.), or a social worker (with an M.S.W). Some psychotherapists are psychoanalytic; some are behavioral; some are cognitive; still others draw from different traditions or create their own blends.
Other applied professions have emerged as well. Educational psychologists work with schools and curricula. Industrial, organizational, and human engineering psychologists work in organizational settings and deal with problems such as how to organize work, choose workers, or design machines that are easy for people to use. Experts in psychological testing have applied their expertise to the development of tests explicitly for applied settings, such as education, industry, and the military. Applied cognitive psychologists work in artificial intelligence using knowledge of human problem solving to make machines “smarter.” Some applied social psychologists work in conflict resolution; others do survey research and polling. Health psychologists apply principles, such as how to reduce stress, in order to enhance physical well-being. Forensic psychologists apply principles to various activities in the legal system.
Recent Developments in Psychology
Psychology’s subject matter continues to enlarge. Recently, psychologists concerned about the environment developed environmental psychology. New sensitivity to variations in human experience spawned areas such as cultural psychology (which borders on anthropology), the psychology of women, African American psychology, and subfields within subfields (e.g., within developmental psychology, the study of aging). Some psychologists have returned to psychology’s roots in philosophy, examining and reflecting on the assumptions and implications of various philosophical and psychological approaches (the subfields of theoretical and philosophical psychology).
Psychologists continue to debate psychology’s methods. Advocates of a new subarea, narrative psychology, question whether psychology should define itself as a science at all and suggest methods typical of literary studies, such as searching for themes as people tell their stories. Many others disagree. They draw on increasingly sophisticated laboratory and statistical methodologies and see these as essential to psychology’s scientific base.
Amid all this variety in subfield and application, amid all this disagreement on method and subject matter, is there any way to characterize what makes psychology psychology? Some say no. Others sense a common concern for all psychologists, be they in basic research—from biopsychology to cultural psychology— or in applications. One way to speak of this common concern is this: Psychologists study individuals’ meaningful activities and their conditions: activities in the mind as mental processes or observable as behavior, perhaps conscious, perhaps not: human activities first of all, but also animal; activities particular to a person, a social context, or culture, or humanly universal: meanings revealed in the activities in a single episode or in the patterning of a lifetime.
- Asch, S. (1987). Social psychology. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Baars, B. J. (1986). The cognitive revolution in psychology. New York: Guilford Press.
- Carlson, N. R. (1997). Psychology: The science of behavior. Needham Heights, MA: Allyn & Bacon.
- Gleitman, H. (1996). Psychology. New York: Norton.
- James, W (1890). Principles of psychology. New York: Henry Holt.
- Koch, S., & Leary. D. E. (Eds.). (1985). A century of psychology as a science. New York: McGraw-Hill.
- Leahey, T. H. (1993). A history of modern psychology. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
- Miller, G. A. (1962). Psychology: The science of mental life. Reading, MA: Addison Wesley.