What is Psychology?
Psychology is the scientific study of the mind and behaviour, according to the American Psychological Association. Psychology is a multifaceted discipline and includes many sub-fields of study such areas as human development, sports, health, clinical, social behaviour and cognitive processes.
The Beginnings of Psychology as a Discipline
In the early days of psychology there were two dominant theoretical perspectives regarding how the brain worked, structuralism and functionalism.
Structuralism was the name given to the approach pioneered by Wilhelm Wundt (1832-1920), which focused on breaking down mental processes intro the most basic components.
The term originated from Edward Titchener, an American psychologist who had been trained by Wundt. Wundt was important because he separated psychology from philosophy by analyzing the workings of the mind in a more structured way, with the emphasis being on objective measurement and control.
Structuralism relied on trained introspection, a research method whereby subjects related what was going on in their minds while performing a certain task.
However, introspection proved to be an unreliable method because there was too much individual variation in the experiences and reports of research subjects.
Despite the failure of introspection Wundt is an important figure in the history of psychology as he opened the first laboratory dedicated to psychology in 1879, and its opening is usually thought of as the beginning of modern experimental psychology.
An American psychologist named William James (1842-1910) developed an approach which came to be known as functionalism, that disagreed with the focus of Structuralism.
James argued that the mind is constantly changing and it is pointless to look for the structure of conscious experience. Rather, he proposed the focus should be on how and why an organism does something, i.e. the functions or purpose of the brain.
James suggested that psychologists should look for the underlying cause of behaviour and the mental processes involved. This emphasis on the causes and consequences of behaviour has influenced contemporary psychology.
The Perspectives of Psychology
Structuralism and functionalism have since been replaced by several dominant and influential approaches to psychology, each one underpinned by a shared set of assumptions of what people are like, what is important to study and how to study it.
Psychoanalysis, founded by Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) was the dominant paradigm in psychology during the early twentieth century. Freud believed that people could be cured by making conscious their unconscious thoughts and motivations, thus gaining insight.
Freud’s psychoanalysis was the original psychodynamic theory, but the psychodynamic approach as a whole includes all theories that were based on his ideas, e.g., Jung (1964), Adler (1927) and Erikson (1950).
The classic contemporary perspectives in psychology to adopt scientific strategies were the behaviourists, who were renowned for their reliance on controlled laboratory experiment and rejection of any unseen or unconscious forces as causes of behaviour.
Later, the humanistic approach became the ‘third force’ in psychology and proposed the importance of subjective experience and personal growth.
During the 1960s and 1970s psychology began a cognitive revolution, adopting a rigorous, scientific, lab based scientific approach with application to memory, perception, cognitive development, mental illness, and much more.
The Goals of Psychology
The four main goals of psychology are to describe, explain, predict and change the behaviour and mental processes of others