Understanding Psychology: The Basics for Beginners

What is psychology in simple words?

“Does that mean you can read minds?”, “Can you tell me what I’m thinking right now?”, “Okay, so I should be careful around you.” These are some of the cliched statements one has heard upon mentioning the discipline of Psychology. Psychology is not about reading minds; it’s not a discipline on how to join the X-Men. Psychology is about people’s minds but not in the way people would like to think it is. So, what is Psychology? At first, psychology was the study of the consciousness, of what goes on inside one’s mind; this was according to Wundt. His research focused on analysing feelings and sensations through introspection, describing what is going on in one’s mind. However, this kind of perspective was gradually dismissed. Soon, with Watson, psychology came to be known as the study of what can be observe, that is, overt behavior. This is known as behaviourism.

Psychology-for-beginners

Major changes occurred in the 1960s. The discipline expanded its scope to examine mental events that Watson had dismissed. Advancements in technology allowed for studying these mental events (or cognitive processes). Individuals reactions to stimuli could be measured and thus inferences could be drawn. Additionally, there was a growing body of research on mental processes. Together these two developments can be described as the cognitive revolution. Now, taking all these developments into consideration, Psychology can be defined as “the science of behaviour and cognitive processes” (Baron, 1998). In other words, psychology looks into “every aspect of human behavior and human experience” (Baron, 1998). The definition has two components: behavior and cognitive processes. Behavior is any observable action by an organism. Cognitive processes, on the other hand, are one’s thoughts, mental images, how one reasons, one’s memories and so on.

Key Perspectives in Psychology

There are various perspectives when examining behavior that one should keep in mind. Before getting into them one would like to put forward a scenario to be able to understand them better: as a woman steps onto the stage, the audience claps and then, she begins to sing. According to the behavioural perspective -which is focused on overt behavior, what is one doing- emphasis would be on the overt actions of the singer and the audience. The cognitive perspective which looks into the cognitive processes, what is one thinking and how is one reasoning; here, emphasis or focus would be on the singer’s thoughts, her memories that are concerned with the song she is singing. Third is the biological which deals with “the biological events and processes that underlie behaviour” (Baron, 1998). According to this perspective, one would look into her emotions as she sings, the audience’s emotions and how these reflect physiologically. Socio-cultural looks into the aspects of social behavior as well as the impact of culture on one’s behavior; so, one would wonder if singing on a stage is a regular event/ activity in this culture. The psychodynamic explores one’s personality and the unconscious processes on behavior; with this perspective in mind, one might wonder about her personality and motives (conscious or unconscious) that brought her to that stage to sing. Evolutionary perspective looks into the possible role of inherited tendencies on behavior.

Read: 10 famous Psychologists and Contributions

Methods in Psychology

The scientific method has been incorporated to explain human behavior, to provide a better understanding of it. Here systematic methods are used to collect data. Data is collected as accurately as possible and is free from bias. This incorporation makes “psychology a science” (Baron, 1998). There are certain methods used by psychologists to understand human behavior. These are the basic concepts that are taught in an introductory course in Psychology. Observation is a basic technique for understanding behavior. There are two kinds of observation: naturalistic observation and systematic observation. The former involves observing behaviour as it naturally occurs; for example, the mere act of people-watching in, say, a mall. The latter involves observing and measuring in a careful manner the events and processes of the world or behavior, in this case; for example, watching children play during recess, to understand how they interact and play.

Next is the case study method which involves gathering detailed information about a certain individual which is then used to develop principles about behavior. An example of this could be gathering detailed information about Joe Goldberg, attempting to understand why he does what he does. However, if the said individual is particularly unique it may be in appropriate to generalize from them to others. With this method, there is also a risk of developing a bias. The survey method involves a large group of people answering questions regarding their views or behavior. This is method can gather information from a large group and can be constructed quickly. A simple example of this could those surveys that appear before YouTube videos.

The correlational method deals with determining whether two variables are related and to what extent they are related. For example, the more coffee one drinks, one is able to stay awake for longer.  Psychologists look for correlations between variables so as to be able “to make accurate predictions about behavior” (Baron, 1998). However, one must keep in mind that correlation does not mean causation; there may be other factors at play. Lastly, in the experimental method, one variable – independent variable- is changed systematically and the effects of such changes on the other variable- dependent variable are measured. So, if one variable does produce changes in the other then, the variables are said to have a causal relationship. For example, a researcher can look into the effects of varying amounts of sleep (independent variable) on performance (dependent variable). Additionally, the experimenter will have to be wary of confounding variables, factors that influence the experiment.

Subfields of Psychology

Psychology is a vast discipline with a number of concepts to keep in mind. There are several subfields of this discipline. First is Clinical Psychology which looks into the “diagnosis, causes and treatment of mental disorder” (Baron, 1998). Experimental Psychology- as the name suggests- is involved in understanding the basic psychological processes like learning, perception, motivation. Biopsychology looks into the biological bases of behavior. It is here that one understands that everything that is biological is psychological and vice-versa. Developmental Psychology examines how people change not just physically but also cognitively and socially over their lifespan. This subfield is vast in itself and one will encounter prominent figures in this subfield like Piaget and Vygotsky. Educational Psychology deals with all aspects related to the educational process. It focuses on how teachers teach and how students learn and more importantly, how to improve learning. Social Psychology deals with aspects of social behavior and social thought, how one thinks about and interacts with others. It deals with concepts like non- verbal communication, attitudes, interpersonal relationships, social cognition and the like.

Cognitive Psychology looks into the cognitive processes like memory, decision making, reasoning and so on. Industrial Psychology examines behavior in the workplace. It deals with factors like group behavior, decision making, motivation, job analysis and training in an organization/ workplace. Counselling Psychology is involved in helping people with personal problems that are not related to mental disorders. There are many other subfields like Sports Psychology, Cross- cultural Psychology, Positive Psychology and so on. It seems as though the discipline is ever-evolving.

Psychologist vs Psychiatrist

When one is introduced to Psychology, one exposed to the basic concepts and ideas as stated above. Another crucial concept that should be known to one who is interested in this field is the difference between a psychologist and psychiatrist. They are similar yet different. Psychologists are trained in graduate programs of psychology. A psychiatrist, on the other hand, is a physician who has specialized in treating mental disorders. However, many psychologists specialize in treating these disorders and thus they focus on the same problems as psychiatrists. Additionally, the two work “together in the same mental health facilities” (Baron, 1998).

Conclusion

The concepts covered in the article are explained very briefly and probably are introduced in the first few classes of a basic Psychology course. As the subject is vast, it is difficult to cover all that Psychology has to offer in one article. Psychology is quite an interesting and useful discipline. It is useful in the sense that one is able to understand people and oneself better; one is able to understand the inner workings of the human mind and thus, can understand why people do what they do. With Psychology, one can attempt to be a better version of oneself and perhaps, if one be interested, help others along the way. One may not be able read another’s mind but one would like to think it does come pretty close to it.

 

References

Baron, R. A. (1998). Chapter 1 Psychology A Science… and a Perspective. Psychology (4th ed.), pp. 5- 23. Pearson.

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