What is Psychology? Definition, Origin, and Psychological Issues

Psychology: Man and His World

The words "man" and "his" are used here in a generic sense. Psychologists are people who have been trained to observe, analyze, and evaluate behavior. Psychology has a wide scope. Through psychology, we learn why some people act or fail to act in a particular way. Human and animal behavior can be covert (concealed) or overt (manifest).

Psychology is also concerned with issues such as why some people conform and others do not, why people forget or remember, why others behave differently in a similar situation, and why employees engage in counterproductive work behavior.

There are different branches of psychology, including industrial and organizational psychology, social and personality psychology, developmental psychology, and clinical psychology, and counseling psychology. However, the kind of psychologist known to most people is the clinical psychologist, someone who tries to help depressed, worried, or other troubled people. This is just an aspect of psychology.

Many people might think that taking a psychology course of this nature will enable them to analyze people, discover the hidden aspects of their personalities, and even control them. This is not true. Of course, taking a course in psychology will enable an individual to understand certain aspects of behavior, but such an individual will not be able to analyze people, discover the hidden aspects of their personalities, or talk less about controlling them. After this course, for instance, you may become skeptical of those who claim to understand people's personalities from small samples of their behavior.

Psychology is both a science and a profession. Some psychologists are scientists who conduct research to create new knowledge. Others are teachers who disseminate knowledge to students. Still others apply psychology to solve problems in mental health, education, business, sports, law, and medicine.

Definition of Psychology

Scholars of different schools of thought have variously defined psychology. However, the variations observed in the definitions of psychology are a reflection of the different schools of thought that exist in the discipline. Etymologically, the word psychology originated from two Greek words: "psyche," which means mind or soul, and "logos," meaning to study or read. Based on the aforementioned, psychology was originally defined as the study of the mind or soul.

The definition of psychology has changed just as the focus of psychology has also changed. At various times in history, psychology has been defined as the study of the psyche or the mind, of the spirit, of consciousness, and more recently as the study of, or the science of, behavior.

Perhaps we can arrive at an acceptable definition of modern psychology by noting and observing the activities of contemporary psychologists. These may include:

  • Seeking the biological correlates of mental processes such as sensation, perception, or ideation;
  • Trying to understand the principles that govern learning and memory:
  • Seeking to understand humans by studying non-human animals;
  • Studying unconscious motivations;
  • Seeking to improve industrial-organizational productivity. educational practices, or child-rearing practices by utilizing psychological principles;
  • Attempting to explain human behavior in terms of evolutionary theory;
  • Further attempts to account for individual differences among people in such areas as personality, intelligence, and creativity:
  • Perfecting therapeutic tools that can be used to help individuals with mental disturbances;
  • Focusing on the strategies that people use in adjusting to the environment or in problem solving;
  • Studying how language develops and how, once developed, it relates to a variety of cultural activities;
  • Exploring computer programs as models for understanding human thought processes and
  • Studying how humans change over the course of their lives as a function of maturation and experience.

These are just a few activities that contemporary psychologists engage themselves in.

However, because the mind can't be studied directly, psychology is now defined as the scientific study of behavior and mental processes. What does behavior refer to in the definition of psychology? Anything you do—eating, sleeping, talking, or sneezing—is a behavior. So are dreaming, gambling, watching television, basket weaving, and reading this book. Naturally, we are interested in overt behaviors (observable actions and responses). But also study covert behaviors. These are hidden, internal events, such as thinking and remembering.

The Origin of Psychology

Psychology is said to have a long but short history. Wilhelm Wundt's founding of the first psychology laboratory in 1879 in Leipzig. Germany is known to have given birth to modern scientific psychology. Way back in the fifth and sixth centuries B.C., the Greeks began to study human behavior and decided that people's lives were dominated not so much by the gods as by their own minds: people were rational.

These early philosophers attempted to construe the world they observed around them in terms of human perceptions with regards to whether objects were hot or cold, wet or dry, hard or soft. These qualities influenced people's experience of the world around them.

Although the Greek philosophers did not study human behavior systematically, they provided a foundation for the development of the sciences, including psychology. The reliance of the Greek philosophers on observation as a means of knowing their world made the scientific foundation they laid all the more formidable.

In the mid-1500s, Nicolaus Copernicus (1473–1543) published the idea that Earth was, contrary to previously held views, not the center of the universe. Earth, according to Copernicus, revolved around the sun. Later, Galileo Galilei (1564–1642) used a telescope to validate Copernicus' predictions about star position and movement. During the Renaissance, the concept of modern experimentation was refined through observation.

Seventeenth-century philosophers popularized the idea of dualism, the concept that the mind and body are separate and distinct. The French philosopher René Descartes (1596–1650) disagreed, however, proposing that a link existed between mind and body. He reasoned that the mind controlled the body's movements, sensations, and perceptions.

René Descartes approach to understanding human behavior was based on the assumption that the mind and body influence each other to create a person's experiences. Exactly how this interaction takes place is still a subject of interest today.

Hilgard (1987) opined that modern science began to develop by combining philosophers' reflections, logic, and mathematics with the observations and ingenuity of practical people.

By the nineteenth century, biologists had begun to accept the idea that cells are the building blocks of life. Later, chemists developed the periodic table of elements, and physicists made significant progress in advancing our understanding of atomic forces. Many natural scientists were studying complex phenomena by reducing them to simpler parts. It was in this environment that the science of psychology was formed.

For emphasis, the science of psychology began in 1879 in Leipzig, Germany, where Wundt established the first psychology laboratory. There, the "father of psychology," Wilhelm Wundt, set up the laboratory to study conscious experience. How, he wondered, do we form sensations, images, and feelings? To provide answers to this question, Wundt observed and measured stimuli of various kinds (lights, sounds, and weights).

A stimulus is any physical energy that evokes a sensory response (stimulus: singular; stimuli: plural). Wundt then used introspection, or "looking inward," to probe his reactions to various stimuli. (For instance, if you stop reading right now and carefully examine your thoughts, feelings, and sensations, you will have done some introspection.).

Wundt called his approach experimental self-observation because he used both trained introspection and objective measurement. Wundt's methods had many limitations. Nevertheless, he got psychology off to a good start by emphasizing careful observation and measurement.

Philosophical Issues in Psychology

Many of the philosophical issues that are of great concern to psychologists today have their origins in ancient Greek philosophers, given the fact that psychology as a discipline originated from philosophy. Though psychology has separated from philosophy in its methods of inquiry, it continues to show interest in some of the same issues.

The three most important of such issues are free will versus determinism, the mind-body/mind-brain question, and the nature-nurture issue.

Free Will Versus Determination

Some psychologists are convinced that the most important causes of behavior emanate from the self. For this class of psychologists, behavior is freely chosen and thus independent of physical or psychical causes. This belief is termed free will. The conviction that everything that happens in the observable world has a cause or determinant is known as determinism.

Determinism shapes the actions of scientists. Some psychologists are of the view that free will is an illusion; they opine that what you call a conscious intention is more of a prediction than a cause of your behavior. Other psychologists and philosophers submit that we do make decisions in the sense that something within individuals initiated the action. Nonetheless, laws of cause and effect still guide human behavior.

The mind-body/mind-brain question asks how physical, chemical, and electrical activities of the brain can explain intricate activities such as feeling, thinking, and learning. For a very long time, philosophers and scientists have given different answers to the mind-body question, some having the conviction that the mind and brain are separate entities and others suggesting that the mind and brain are one and the same.

The understanding that the mind is distinct from the brain but somehow controls the brain and therefore the rest of the body is termed dualism. The belief that the mind and brain are the same and therefore inseparable from one another is called monism.

The Nature-Nurture Question

The nature-nurture issue asks how nature—hereditary or genetic factors—interacts with nurture—environmental factors—in the development of a person's intellectual, emotional, physical, and social abilities. Some psychologists believe that a good chunk of our behaviors are the result of genetics or inheritance.

Others opine that most of our behaviors are the result of experience and learning. Separating biological and environmental causes of behavior is very difficult. Typically, behavior develops as a result of the interface of both heredity and environment.

The quest to resolve all these philosophical issues that confronted the discipline of psychology led the founding fathers of the discipline to begin to develop scientific psychology, which later developed into various schools of thought that exist in psychology today.

Subfields of Psychology

As the field of psychology expanded, it was divided into a number of subfields. For easy understanding, it can broadly be classified as pure/basic (encompasses branches of psychology that conduct research and develop theories and models that are used to solve problems in different settings) and applied (any branch of psychology that applies psychological principles to the solution of practical problems).

Within these two major divisions or classifications, there are many branches or areas of psychology. The major subfields of psychology include:

1. Clinical Psychology

A branch of psychology that deals with the application of psychological principles to the diagnosis and treatment of mental disorders and personal problems. Clinical psychologists may work in private offices, mental hospitals, prisons, and clinics.

2. Counselling Psychology

The psychologists here usually work in schools or industrial firms, advising and assisting people with the problems of everyday life.

They help people adjust to the challenges of life.

3. School Psychology

It is a branch of psychology that is concerned with the identification of the educational needs of children, devising a plan to meet those needs, and then either implementing the plan themselves or advising teachers on how to implement it.

4. Educational Psychology

Specialists in this branch deal with topics related to teaching children and young adults, such as intelligence, memory, problem solving, and motivation. Educational psychologists may evaluate teaching methods, devise tests, and develop new instructional devices.

5. Industrial/Organisational (I/O) Psychology

This is a psychological study of people at work. It is concerned with issues such as matching the right person with the right job, developing work teams, determining salaries and bonuses, and providing feedback to employees about their performance. planning organizational structure and organizing the workplace in order to ensure workers' productivity and satisfaction.

6. Social Psychology

This is a branch of psychology that investigates the ways in which our thoughts, feelings, and actions are influenced by the social environments in which we live—by other people or our thoughts about them (for instance, we imagine how they would react to actions we might perform).

7. Developmental Psychology

This involves the study of physical, emotional, cognitive, and social development and changes that occur throughout life. Develop: mental psychologists study children, the elderly, and even the process of dying.

8. Forensic Psychology

Studies problems of crime and crime prevention, rehabilitation programs, prisons, and courtroom dynamics; selects candidates for police work.

9. Cross-cultural Psychology

Compares the behavior of people from different cultures. This branch of psychology is closely related to social psychology, except that it compares one culture to another.

10. Environmental Psychology

It involves the study of the effects of the environment on people. Environmental psychologists may look at the effects of natural disasters, overcrowding, and pollution on the population in general as well as individuals and families.

Experimental psychology includes the areas of sensation, perception, learning, human performance, motivation, and emotion. Experimental psychologists conduct much of their research with both animal and human subjects under carefully controlled laboratory conditions.

Areas of Contribution to Psychology

Psychology's relevance has been demonstrated in some areas. For instance, in the area of military strategies, the work of Hovland, Lumsdaine, and Sheffield (1949) helped train some selected pilots to overcome fear and subsequently return to combat.

Apart from the area of military strategies, psychology has made so many useful contributions to our lives, many of which are taken for granted. Psychological testing and assessment pioneered by Kasschau and Lewin are of tremendous benefit to humanity today.

Psychology has also proved its own relevance in the field of teaching and learning. The role of psychology in education has enabled teachers and educators to know what to teach learners of different ages. The influential role played by psychologists today has made the world of work more humanized than ever before.

The roles of psychologists in the areas of health and well-being cannot be overemphasized in the present day. In order to ensure the health and well-being of the populace, a subfield of psychology called health psychology emerged. It concerns itself with how people's behavior can enhance health and prevent illness and how behavior can contribute to recovery from illness.

Conclusion

Psychologists are people who have been trained to practice psychology (that is, observe, analyze, and evaluate behavior). Psychology is so broad in scope. Psychology is both a science and a profession. The discipline has come a long way since the days of studying bumps on skulls.

Many of the psychological issues that are of great concern to psychologists today could be traced back to ancient Greek philosophers simply because psychology as a discipline emanated from philosophy. The quest to resolve all these philosophical issues brought to the discipline of psychology by its founding fathers led to the development of scientific psychology, which later developed into the different schools of thought that we have in psychology today.

As the field of psychology progressed, various schools of thought arose to compete and offer new approaches to the science of behavior. The field of psychology has also expanded; it is divided into a number of subfields. For easy understanding, it can broadly be classified as pure/basic (encompasses branches of psychology that conduct research and develop theories and models that are used to solve problems in different settings) and applied (any branch of psychology that uses psychological principles for the solution of practical problems).

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