Just What is Psychology Anyway?

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Ever tried to define psychology? You might find that such a task is not as simple or as easy as it might seem at first. And that might just be because the field of psychology is an ever-evolving discipline.

The word ‘psychology’ derives from the Greek word literally meaning the “study of” or research into the “spirit” or “soul.” Although the term ‘psychology’ wasn’t widely applied to the emerging discipline it was to become until the 16th century, the effort to understand the human “psyche” dates back to the various philosophies of ancient times, particularly those advanced by Aristotle and Plato. It took many years for psychology to emerge as a branch of knowledge distinct from philosophy.

In modern times, there has been an ongoing debate within the psychological community about whether the discipline is primarily an art or a science and whether its focus is the study of the “mind” or of behavior. More commonly, this debate is reconciled by accepting the premise that in many ways, psychology is both an art and a science and that its domain is both the study of mind and behavior. But it’s also become quite apparent that it’s fairly impossible to strictly or narrowly define a field that inherently possesses many different domains of focus. And over the years, many different schools of thought have tended to dominate the field at one time or another (e.g., psychoanalytic, gestalt, existentialism, behaviorism). Each of these has made significant contributions to the field, and today’s psychology curricula generally attempt to incorporate principles from all of these approaches.

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Most psychology departments in institutions of higher learning offer specialized tracks of study within psychology. Specialty areas have varied over the years and have included some of these sub-disciplines, among several others:

experimental psychology
uses empirical and hypothetico-deductive methods to infer causal and correlational relationships between variables and thereby discover fundamental principles
clinical and counseling psychology
focuses on applying principles of human cognition and behavior to assessing and treating various types of emotional and psychological distress and dysfunction
developmental psychology
studies the development of various aspects of mental and behavioral functioning throughout the human lifespan
neurobiological psychology
focuses on the biological underpinnings of human brain development, learning, memory, etc.

Even the concept of who or what a psychologist is and what a practicing psychologist does has undergone quite an evolution over the years. There was a time when the popular perception of a psychologist was that of an analyst who probed the deepest recesses of a person’s unconscious mind while his or her client lay upon the proverbial therapy “couch.” But many of today’s psychologists are ardent researchers, exploring many things, including attention, memory, and perception, as well as the very nature of cognition itself. And in addition to psychologists being researchers, many are also practitioners of various social intervention arts, bringing their knowledge of psychological principles into the practical realm of improving the human condition. Thus, the model of psychologist as “scientist-practitioner” has been one of the more dominant models for many years. Some psychology practitioners specialize in treating mental disorders and personality problems; others consult to industries and organizations, using their knowledge of the inter-relationship between environmental and human factors to possibly improve the productivity of a company or the quality of working life. In fact, there are so many different realms of human life which a psychologist might wish to focus upon, that the potential specialty areas of practice are virtually endless.

Lest you think that being a psychologist necessarily dictates having an inherent identity disorder of sorts, let me emphasize the tremendous range of opportunity that awaits anyone contemplating entering the field. If there’s anything psychology has taught us, it is that for all our common wants, needs, and attributes, we are all uniquely gifted. So, depending on what your natural interests and aptitudes are, if the field of psychology interests you, there’s probably a novel and intriguing career track tailor-made and waiting just for you.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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