psychology 4231


April 30, 2021

Psychology, the scientific study of behavior and the mind. This definition contains three elements. The first is that psychology is a scientific enterprise that obtains knowledge through systematic and objective methods of observation and experimentation. Second is that psychologists study behavior, which refers to any action or reaction that can be measured or observed—such as the blink of an eye, an increase in heart rate, or the unruly violence that often erupts in a mob. Third is that psychologists study the mind, which refers to both conscious and unconscious mental states. These states cannot actually be seen, only inferred from observable behavior.
Many people think of psychologists as individuals who dispense advice, analyze personality, and help those who are troubled or mentally ill. But psychology is far more than the treatment of personal problems. Psychologists strive to understand the mysteries of human nature—why people think, feel, and act as they do. Some psychologists also study animal behavior, using their findings to determine laws of behavior that apply to all organisms and to formulate theories about how humans behave and think.
With its broad scope, psychology investigates an enormous range of phenomena: learning and memory, sensation and perception, motivation and emotion, thinking and language, personality and social behavior, intelligence, infancy and child development, mental illness, and much more. Furthermore, psychologists examine these topics from a variety of complementary perspectives. Some conduct detailed biological studies of the brain, others explore how we process information; others analyze the role of evolution, and still others study the influence of culture and society.
Psychologists seek to answer a wide range of important questions about human nature: Are individuals genetically predisposed at birth to develop certain traits or abilities? How accurate are people at remembering faces, places, or conversations from the past? What motivates us to seek out friends and sexual partners? Why do so many people become depressed and behave in ways that seem self-destructive? Do intelligence test scores predict success in school, or later in a career? What causes prejudice, and why is it so widespread? Can the mind be used to heal the body? Discoveries from psychology can help people understand themselves, relate better to others, and solve the problems that confront them.
The term psychology comes from two Greek words: psyche, which means “soul,” and logos, ‘the study of.’ These root words were first combined in the 16th century, at a time when the human soul, spirit, or mind was seen as distinct from the body.
Psychology overlaps with other sciences that investigate behavior and mental processes. Certain parts of the field share much with the biological sciences, especially physiology, the biological study of the functions of living organisms and their parts. Like physiologists, many psychologists study the inner workings of the body from a biological perspective. However, psychologists usually focus on the activity of the brain and nervous system.
The social sciences of sociology and anthropology, which study human societies and cultures, also intersect with psychology. For example, both psychology and sociology explore how people behave when they are in groups. However, psychologists try to understand behavior from the vantage point of the individual, whereas sociologists focus on how behavior is shaped by social forces and social institutions. Anthropologists investigate behavior as well, paying particular attention to the similarities and differences between human cultures around the world.
Psychology is closely connected with psychiatry, which is the branch of medicine specializing in mental illnesses. The study of mental illness is one of the largest areas of research in psychology. Psychiatrists and psychologists differ in their training. A person seeking to become a psychiatrist first obtains a medical degree and then engages in further formal medical education in psychiatry. Most psychologists have a doctoral graduate degree in psychology.
The study of psychology draws on two kinds of research: basic and applied. Basic researchers seek to test general theories and build a foundation of knowledge, while applied psychologists study people in real-world settings and use the results to solve practical human problems. There are five major areas of research: biopsychology, clinical psychology, cognitive psychology, developmental psychology, and social psychology. Both basic and applied research is conducted in each of these fields of psychology.
This section describes basic research and other activities of psychologists in the five major fields of psychology. Applied research is discussed in the Practical Applications of Psychology section of this article.
A Biopsychology
How do body and mind interact? Are body and mind fundamentally different parts of a human being, or are they one and the same, interconnected in important ways? Inspired by this classic philosophical debate, many psychologists specialize in biopsychology, the scientific study of the biological underpinnings of behavior and mental processes.
At the heart of this perspective is the notion that human beings, like other animals, have an evolutionary history that predisposes them to behave in ways that are uniquely adaptive for survival and reproduction. Biopsychologists work in a variety of subfields. Researchers in the field of ethology observe fish, reptiles, birds, insects, primates, and other animal species in their natural habitats. Comparative psychologists study animal behavior and make comparisons among different species, including humans. Researchers in evolutionary psychology theorize about the origins of human aggression, altruism, mate selection, and other behaviors. Those in behavioral genetics seek to estimate the extent to which human characteristics such as personality, intelligence, and mental illness are inherited.
Particularly important to biopsychology is a growing body of research in behavioral neuroscience, the study of the links between behavior and the brain and nervous system. Facilitated by computer-assisted imaging techniques that enable researchers to observe the living human brain in action, this area is generating great excitement. In the related area of cognitive neuroscience, researchers record physical activity in different regions of the brain as the subject reads, speaks, solves math problems, or engages in other mental tasks. Their goal is to pinpoint activities in the brain that correspond to different operations of the mind. In addition, many biopsychologists are involved in psychopharmacology, the study of how drugs affect mental and behavioral functions.
See Biopsychology.
B Clinical Psychology
Clinical psychology is dedicated to the study, diagnosis, and treatment of mental illnesses and other emotional or behavioral disorders. More psychologists work in this field than in any other branch of psychology. In hospitals, community clinics, schools, and in private practice, they use interviews and tests to diagnose depression, anxiety disorders, schizophrenia, and other mental illnesses. People with these psychological disorders often suffer terribly. They experience disturbing symptoms that make it difficult for them to work, relate to others, and cope with the demands of everyday life.
Over the years, scientists and mental health professionals have made great strides in the treatment of psychological disorders. For example, advances in psychopharmacology have led to the development of drugs that relieve severe symptoms of mental illness. Clinical psychologists usually cannot prescribe drugs, but they often work in collaboration with a patient’s physician. Drug treatment is often combined with psychotherapy, a form of intervention that relies primarily on verbal communication to treat emotional or behavioral problems. Over the years, psychologists have developed many different forms of psychotherapy. Some forms, such as psychoanalysis, focus on resolving internal, unconscious conflicts stemming from childhood and past experiences. Other forms, such as cognitive and behavioral therapies, focus more on the person’s current level of functioning and try to help the individual change distressing thoughts, feelings, or behaviors.
In addition to studying and treating mental disorders, many clinical psychologists study the normal human personality and the ways in which individuals differ from one another. Still others administer a variety of psychological tests, including intelligence tests and personality tests. These tests are commonly given to individuals in the workplace or in school to assess their interests, skills, and level of functioning. Clinical psychologists also use tests to help them diagnose people with different types of psychological disorders.
The field of counseling psychology is closely related to clinical psychology. Counseling psychologists may treat mental disorders, but they more commonly treat people with less-severe adjustment problems related to marriage, family, school, or career. Many other types of professionals care for and treat people with psychological disorders, including psychiatrists, psychiatric social workers, and psychiatric nurses.
See Clinical Psychology; Mental Illness; Psychotherapy; Personality.
C Cognitive Psychology
How do people learn from experience? How and where in the brain are visual images, facts, and personal memories stored? What causes forgetting? How do people solve problems or make difficult life decisions? Does language limit the way people think? And to what extent are people influenced by information outside of conscious awareness?
These are the kinds of questions posed within cognitive psychology, the scientific study of how people acquire, process, and utilize information. Cognition refers to the process of knowing and encompasses nearly the entire range of conscious and unconscious mental processes: sensation and perception, conditioning and learning, attention and consciousness, sleep and dreaming, memory and forgetting, reasoning and decision making, imagining, problem solving, and language.
Decades ago, the invention of digital computers gave cognitive psychologists a powerful new way of thinking about the human mind. They began to see human beings as information processors who receive input, process and store information, and produce output. This approach became known as the information-processing model of cognition. As computers have become more sophisticated, cognitive psychologists have extended the metaphor. For example, most researchers now reject the idea that information is processed in linear, sequential steps. Instead they find that the human mind is capable of parallel processing, in which multiple operations are carried out simultaneously.
See Cognitive Psychology.
D Developmental Psychology
Are people programmed by inborn biological dispositions? Or is an individual’s fate molded by culture, family, peers, and other socializing influences within the environment? These questions about the roles of nature and nurture are central to the study of human development.
Developmental psychology focuses on the changes that come with age. By comparing people of different ages, and by tracking individuals over time, researchers in this area study the ways in which people mature and change over the life span. Within this area, those who specialize in child development or child psychology study physical, intellectual, and social development in fetuses, infants, children, and adolescents. Recognizing that human development is a lifelong process, other developmental psychologists study the changes that occur throughout adulthood. Still others specialize in the study of old age, even the process of dying.
See Developmental Psychology; Child Development.
E Social Psychology
Social psychology is the scientific study of how people think, feel, and behave in social situations. Researchers in this field ask questions such as, How do we form impressions of others? How are people persuaded to change their attitudes or beliefs? What causes people to conform in group situations? What leads someone to help or ignore a person in need? Under what circumstances do people obey or resist orders?
By observing people in real-world social settings, and by carefully devising experiments to test people’s social behavior, social psychologists learn about the ways people influence, perceive, and interact with one another. The study of social influence includes topics such as conformity, obedience to authority, the formation of attitudes, and the principles of persuasion. Researchers interested in social perception study how people come to know and evaluate one another, how people form group stereotypes, and the origins of prejudice. Other topics of particular interest to social psychologists include physical attraction, love and intimacy, aggression, altruism, and group processes. Many social psychologists are also interested in cultural influences on interpersonal behavior.
See Social Psychology.
Whereas basic researchers test theories about mind and behavior, applied psychologists are motivated by a desire to solve practical human problems. Four particularly active areas of application are health, education, business, and law.
A Health
Today, many psychologists work in the emerging area of health psychology, the application of psychology to the promotion of physical health and the prevention and treatment of illness. Researchers in this area have shown that human health and well-being depends on both biological and psychological factors.
Many psychologists in this area study psychophysiological disorders (also called psychosomatic disorders), conditions that are brought on or influenced by psychological states, most often stress. These disorders include high blood pressure, headaches, asthma, and ulcers (see Stress-Related Disorders). Researchers have discovered that chronic stress is associated with an increased risk of coronary heart disease. In addition, stress can compromise the body’s immune system and increase susceptibility to illness.
Health psychologists also study how people cope with stress. They have found that people who have family, friends, and other forms of social support are healthier and live longer than those who are more isolated. Other researchers in this field examine the psychological factors that underlie smoking, drinking, drug abuse, risky sexual practices, and other behaviors harmful to health.
B Education
Psychologists in all branches of the discipline contribute to our understanding of teaching, learning, and education. Some help develop standardized tests used to measure academic aptitude and achievement. Others study the ages at which children become capable of attaining various cognitive skills, the effects of rewards on their motivation to learn, computerized instruction, bilingual education, learning disabilities, and other relevant topics. Perhaps the best-known application of psychology to the field of education occurred in 1954 when, in the case of Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court of the United States outlawed the segregation of public schools by race. In its ruling, the Court cited psychological studies suggesting that segregation had a damaging effect on black students and tended to encourage prejudice.
In addition to the contributions of psychology as a whole, two fields within psychology focus exclusively on education: educational psychology and school psychology. Educational psychologists seek to understand and improve the teaching and learning process within the classroom and other educational settings. Educational psychologists study topics such as intelligence and ability testing, student motivation, discipline and classroom management, curriculum plans, and grading. They also test general theories about how students learn most effectively. School psychologists work in elementary and secondary school systems administering tests, making placement recommendations, and counseling children with academic or emotional problems.
See Educational Psychology.
C Business
In the business world, psychology is applied in the workplace and in the marketplace. Industrial-organizational (I-O) psychology focuses on human behavior in the workplace and other organizations. I-O psychologists conduct research, teach in business schools or universities, and work in private industry. Many I-O psychologists study the factors that influence worker motivation, satisfaction, and productivity. Others study the personal traits and situations that foster great leadership. Still others focus on the processes of personnel selection, training, and evaluation. Studies have shown, for example, that face-to-face interviews sometimes result in poor hiring decisions and may be biased by the applicant’s gender, race, and physical attractiveness. Studies have also shown that certain standardized tests can help to predict on-the-job performance. See Industrial-Organizational Psychology.
Consumer psychology is the study of human decision making and behavior in the marketplace. In this area, researchers analyze the effects of advertising on consumers’ attitudes and buying habits. Consumer psychologists also study various aspects of marketing, such as the effects of packaging, price, and other factors that lead people to purchase one product rather than another.
D Law
Many psychologists today work in the legal system. They consult with attorneys, testify in court as expert witnesses, counsel prisoners, teach in law schools, and research various justice-related issues. Sometimes referred to as forensic psychologists, those who apply psychology to the law study a range of issues, including jury selection, eyewitness testimony, confessions to police, lie-detector tests, the death penalty, criminal profiling, and the insanity defense.
Studies in forensic psychology have helped to illuminate weaknesses in the legal system. For example, based on trial-simulation experiments, researchers have found that jurors are often biased by various facts not in evidence—that is, facts the judge tells them to disregard. In studying eyewitness testimony, researchers have staged mock crimes and asked witnesses to identify the assailant or recall other details. These studies have revealed that under certain conditions eyewitnesses are highly prone to error.
Psychologists in this area often testify in court as expert witnesses. In cases involving the insanity defense, forensic clinical psychologists are often called to court to give their opinion about whether individual defendants are sane or insane. Used as a legal defense, insanity means that defendants, because of a mental disorder, cannot appreciate the wrongfulness of their conduct or control it (see Insanity). Defendants who are legally insane at the time of the offense may be absolved of criminal responsibility for their conduct and judged not guilty. Psychologists are often called to testify in court on other controversial matters as well, including the accuracy of eyewitness testimony, the mental competence (fitness) of defendants to stand trial, and the reliability of early childhood memories.
E Other Domains of Application
Psychology has applications in many other domains of human life. Environmental psychologists focus on the relationship between people and their physical surroundings. They study how street noise, heat, architectural design, population density, and crowding affect people’s behavior and mental health. In a related field, human factors psychologists work on the design of appliances, furniture, tools, and other manufactured items in order to maximize their comfort, safety, and convenience. Sports psychologists advise athletes and study the physiological, perceptual-motor, motivational, developmental, and social aspects of athletic performance. Other psychologists specialize in the study of political behavior, religion, sexuality, or behavior in the military.
Psychologists from all areas of specialization use the scientific method to test their theories about behavior and mental processes. A theory is an organized set of principles that is designed to explain and predict some phenomenon. Good theories also provide specific testable predictions, or hypotheses, about the relation between two or more variables. Formulating a hypothesis to be tested is the first important step in conducting research.
Over the years, psychologists have devised numerous ways to test their hypotheses and theories. Many studies are conducted in a laboratory, usually located at a university. The laboratory setting allows researchers to control what happens to their subjects and make careful and precise observations of behavior. For example, a psychologist who studies memory can bring volunteers into the lab, ask them to memorize a list of words or pictures, and then test their recall of that material seconds, minutes, or days later.
As indicated by the term field research, studies may also be conducted in real-world locations. For example, a psychologist investigating the reliability of eyewitness testimony might stage phony crimes in the street and then ask unsuspecting bystanders to identify the culprit from a set of photographs. Psychologists observe people in a wide variety of other locations outside the laboratory, including classrooms, offices, hospitals, college dormitories, bars, restaurants, and prisons.
In both laboratory and field settings, psychologists conduct their research using a variety of methods. Among the most common methods are archival studies, case studies, surveys, naturalistic observations, correlational studies, experiments, literature reviews, and measures of brain activity.
A Archival Studies
One way to learn about people is through archival studies, an examination of existing records of human activities. Psychological researchers often examine old newspaper stories, medical records, birth certificates, crime reports, popular books, and artwork. They may also examine statistical trends of the past, such as crime rates, birth rates, marriage and divorce rates, and employment rates. The strength of such measures is that by observing people only secondhand, researchers cannot unwittingly influence the subjects by their presence. However, available records of human activity are not always complete or detailed enough to be useful.
Archival studies are particularly valuable for examining cultural or historical trends. For example, in one study of physical attractiveness, researchers wanted to know if American standards of female beauty have changed over several generations. These researchers looked through two popular women’s magazines between 1901 and 1981 and examined the measurements of the female models. They found that “curvaceousness” (as measured by the bust-to-waist ratio) varied over time, with a boyish, slender look considered desirable in some time periods but not in others.
B Case Studies
Sometimes psychologists interview, test, observe, and investigate the backgrounds of specific individuals in detail. Such case studies are conducted when researchers believe that an in-depth look at one individual will reveal something important about people in general.
Case studies often take a great deal of time to complete, and the results may be limited by the fact that the subject is atypical. Yet case studies have played a prominent role in the development of psychology. Austrian physician Sigmund Freud based his theory of psychoanalysis on his experiences with troubled patients. Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget first began to formulate a theory of intellectual development by questioning his own children. Neuroscientists learn about how the human brain works by testing patients who have suffered brain damage. Cognitive psychologists learn about human intelligence by studying child prodigies and other gifted individuals. Social psychologists learn about group decision making by analyzing the policy decisions of government and business groups. When an individual is exceptional in some way, or when a hypothesis can be tested only through intensive, long-term observation, the case study is a valuable method.
C Measures of Brain Activity
Biopsychologists interested in the links between brain and behavior use a variety of specialized techniques in their research. One approach is to observe and test patients who have suffered damage to a specific region of the brain to determine what mental functions and behaviors were affected by that damage. British-born neurologist Oliver Sacks has written several books in which he describes case studies of brain-damaged patients who exhibited specific deficits in their speech, memory, sleep, and even in their personalities.
A second approach is to physically alter the brain and measure the effects of that change on behavior. The alteration can be achieved in different ways. For example, animal researchers often damage or destroy a specific region of a laboratory animal’s brain through surgery. Other researchers might spark or inhibit activity in the brain through the use of drugs or electrical stimulation.
Another way to study the relationship between the brain and behavior is to record the activity of the brain with machines while a subject engages in certain behaviors or activities. One such instrument is the electroencephalograph, a device that can detect, amplify, and record the level of electrical activity in the brain by means of metal electrodes taped to the scalp. See Electroencephalography.
Advances in technology in the early 1970s allowed psychologists to see inside the living human brain for the first time without physically cutting into it. Today, psychologists use a variety of sophisticated brain-imaging techniques. The computerized axial tomography (CT or CAT) scan provides a computer-enhanced X-ray image of the brain. The more advanced positron emission tomography (PET) scan tracks the level of activity in specific parts of the brain by measuring the amount of glucose being used there. These measurements are then fed to a computer, which produces a color-coded image of brain activity. Another technique is magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), which produces high-resolution cross-sectional images of the brain. A high-speed version of MRI known as functional MRI produces moving images of the brain as its activity changes in real time. These relatively new brain imaging techniques have generated great excitement, because they allow researchers to identify parts of the brain that are active while people read, speak, listen to music, solve math problems, and engage in other mental activities.
See Biopsychology: Methods of Research; Brain: Brain Imaging.
D Surveys
In contrast with the in-depth study of one person, surveys describe a specific population or group of people. Surveys involve asking people a series of questions about their behaviors, thoughts, or opinions. Surveys can be conducted in person, over the phone, or through the mail. Most surveys study a specific group—for example, college students, working mothers, men, or homeowners. Rather than questioning every person in the group, survey researchers choose a representative sample of people and generalize the findings to the larger population.
Surveys may pertain to almost any topic. Often surveys ask people to report their feelings about various social and political issues, the TV shows they watch, or the consumer products they purchase. Surveys are also used to learn about people’s sexual practices; to estimate the use of cigarettes, alcohol, and other drugs; and to approximate the proportion of people who experience feelings of life satisfaction, loneliness, and other psychological states that cannot be directly observed.
Surveys must be carefully designed and conducted to ensure their accuracy. The results can be influenced, and biased, by two factors: who the respondents are and how the questions are asked. For a survey to be accurate, the sample being questioned must be representative of the population on key characteristics such as sex, race, age, region, and cultural background. To ensure similarity to the larger population, survey researchers usually try to make sure that they have a random sample, a method of selection in which everyone in the population has an equal chance of being chosen.
When the sample is not random, the results can be misleading. For example, prior to the 1936 United States presidential election, pollsters for the magazine Literary Digest mailed postcards to more than 10 million people who were listed in telephone directories or as registered owners of automobiles. The cards asked for whom they intended to vote. Based on the more than 2 million ballots that were returned, the Literary Digest predicted that Republican candidate Alfred M. Landon would win in a landslide over Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt. At the time, however, more Republicans than Democrats owned telephones and automobiles, skewing the poll results. In the election, Landon won only two states.
The results of survey research can also be influenced by the way that questions are asked. For example, when asked about “welfare,” a majority of Americans in one survey said that the government spends too much money. But when asked about “assistance to the poor,” significantly fewer people gave this response.
E Naturalistic Observations
In naturalistic observation, the researcher observes people as they behave in the real world. The researcher simply records what occurs and does not intervene in the situation. Psychologists use naturalistic observation to study the interactions between parents and children, doctors and patients, police and citizens, and managers and workers.
Naturalistic observation is common in anthropology, in which field workers seek to understand the everyday life of a culture. Ethologists, who study the behavior of animals in their natural habitat, also use this method. For example, British ethologist Jane Goodall spent many years in African jungles observing chimpanzees—their social structure, courting rituals, struggles for dominance, eating habits, and other behaviors. Naturalistic observation is also common among developmental psychologists who study social play, parent-child attachments, and other aspects of child development. These researchers observe children at home, in school, on the playground, and in other settings.
F Correlational Studies
Case studies, surveys, and naturalistic observations are used to describe behavior. Correlational studies are further designed to find statistical connections, or correlations, between variables so that some factors can be used to predict others.
A correlation is a statistical measure of the extent to which two variables are associated. A positive correlation exists when two variables increase or decrease together. For example, frustration and aggression are positively correlated, meaning that as frustration rises, so do acts of aggression. More of one means more of the other. A negative correlation exists when increases in one variable are accompanied by decreases in the other, and vice versa. For example, friendships and stress-induced illness are negatively correlated, meaning that the more close friends a person has, the fewer stress-related illnesses the person suffers. More of one means less of the other.
Based on correlational evidence, researchers can use one variable to make predictions about another variable. But researchers must use caution when drawing conclusions from correlations. It is natural—but incorrect—to assume that because one variable predicts another, the first must have caused the second. For example, one might assume that frustration triggers aggression, or that friendships foster health. Regardless of how intuitive or accurate these conclusions may be, correlation does not prove causation. Thus, although it is possible that frustration causes aggression, there are other ways to interpret the correlation. For example, it is possible that aggressive people are more likely to suffer social rejection and become frustrated as a result.
G Experiments
Correlations enable researchers to predict one variable from another. But to determine if one variable actually causes another, psychologists must conduct experiments. In an experiment, the psychologist manipulates one factor in a situation—keeping other aspects of the situation constant—and then observes the effect of the manipulation on behavior. The people whose behavior is being observed are the subjects of the experiment. The factor that an experimenter varies (the proposed cause) is known as the independent variable, and the behavior being measured (the proposed effect) is called the dependent variable. In a test of the hypothesis that frustration triggers aggression, frustration would be the independent variable, and aggression the dependent variable.
There are three requirements for conducting a valid scientific experiment: (1) control over the independent variable, (2) the use of a comparison group, and (3) the random assignment of subjects to conditions. In its most basic form, then, a typical experiment compares a large number of subjects who are randomly assigned to experience one condition with a group of similar subjects who are not. Those who experience the condition compose the experimental group, and those who do not make up the control group. If the two groups differ significantly in their behavior during the experiment, that difference can be attributed to the presence of the condition, or independent variable. For example, to test the hypothesis that frustration triggers aggression, one group of researchers brought subjects into a laboratory, impeded their efforts to complete an important task (other subjects in the experiment were not impeded), and measured their aggressiveness toward another person. These researchers found that subjects who had been frustrated were more aggressive than those who had not been frustrated.
Psychologists use many different methods in their research. Yet no single experiment can fully prove a hypothesis, so the science of psychology builds slowly over time. First, a new discovery must be replicated. Replication refers to the process of conducting a second, nearly identical study to see if the initial findings can be repeated. If so, then researchers try to determine if these findings can be applied, transferred, or generalized to other settings. Generalizability refers to the extent to which a finding obtained under one set of conditions can also be obtained at another time, in another place, and in other populations.
H Literature Reviews
Because the science of psychology proceeds in small increments, many studies must be conducted before clear patterns emerge. To summarize and interpret an entire body of research, psychologists rely on two methods. One method is a narrative review of the literature, in which a reviewer subjectively evaluates the strengths and weaknesses of the various studies on a topic and argues for certain conclusions. Another method is meta-analysis, a statistical procedure used to combine the results from many different studies. By meta-analyzing a body of research, psychologists can often draw precise conclusions concerning the strength and breadth of support for a hypothesis.
I Ethical Considerations in Research
Psychological research involving human subjects raises ethical concerns about the subject’s right to privacy, the possible harm or discomfort caused by experimental procedures, and the use of deception. Over the years, psychologists have established various ethical guidelines. The American Psychological Association recommends that researchers (1) tell prospective subjects what they will experience so they can give informed consent to participate; (2) instruct subjects that they may withdraw from the study at any time; (3) minimize all harm and discomfort; (4) keep the subjects’ responses and behaviors confidential; and (5) debrief subjects who were deceived in some way by fully explaining the research after they have participated. Some psychologists argue that such rules should never be broken. Others say that some degree of flexibility is needed in order to study certain important issues, such as the effects of stress on test performance.
Laboratory experiments that use rats, mice, rabbits, pigeons, monkeys, and other animals are an important part of psychology, just as in medicine. Animal research serves three purposes in psychology: to learn more about certain types of animals, to discover general principles of behavior that pertain to all species, and to study variables that cannot ethically be tested with human beings. But is it ethical to experiment on animals?
Some animal rights activists believe that it is wrong to use animals in experiments, particularly in those that involve surgery, drugs, social isolation, food deprivation, electric shock, and other potentially harmful procedures. These activists see animal experimentation as unnecessary and question whether results from such research can be applied to humans. Many activists also argue that like humans, animals have the capacity to suffer and feel pain. In response to these criticisms, many researchers point out that animal experimentation has helped to improve the quality of human life. They note that animal studies have contributed to the treatment of anxiety, depression, and other mental disorders. Animal studies have also contributed to our understanding of conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease, obesity, alcoholism, and the effects of stress on the immune system. Most researchers follow strict ethical guidelines that require them to minimize pain and discomfort to animals and to use the least invasive procedures possible. In addition, federal animal-protection laws in the United States require researchers to provide humane care and housing of animals and to tend to the psychological well-being of primates used in research. See Animal Experimentation.
One of the youngest sciences, psychology did not emerge as a formal discipline until the late 19th century. But its roots extend to the ancient past. For centuries, philosophers and religious scholars have wondered about the nature of the mind and the soul. Thus, the history of psychological thought begins in philosophy.
A Philosophical Roots
From about 600 to 300 bc, Greek philosophers inquired about a wide range of psychological topics. They were especially interested in the nature of knowledge and how human beings come to know the world, a field of philosophy known as epistemology. The Greek philosopher Socrates and his followers, Plato and Aristotle, wrote about pleasure and pain, knowledge, beauty, desire, free will, motivation, common sense, rationality, memory, and the subjective nature of perception. They also theorized about whether human traits are innate or the product of experience. In the field of ethics, philosophers of the ancient world probed a variety of psychological questions: Are people inherently good? How can people attain happiness? What motives or drives do people have? Are human beings naturally social?
Early thinkers also considered the causes of mental illness. Many ancient societies thought that mental illness resulted from supernatural causes, such as the anger of gods or possession by evil spirits. Both Socrates and Plato focused on psychological forces as the cause of mental disturbance. For example, Plato thought madness results when a person’s irrational, animal-like psyche (mind or soul) overwhelms the intellectual, rational psyche. The Greek physician Hippocrates viewed mental disorders as stemming from natural causes, and he developed the first classification system for mental disorders. Galen, a Greek physician who lived in the 2nd century ad, echoed this belief in a physiological basis for mental disorders. He thought they resulted from an imbalance of the four bodily humors: black bile, yellow bile, blood, and phlegm. For example, Galen thought that melancholia (depression) resulted from a person having too much black bile.
More recently, many other men and women contributed to the birth of modern psychology. In the 1600s French mathematician and philosopher René Descartes theorized that the body and mind are separate entities. He regarded the body as a physical entity and the mind as a spiritual entity, and believed the two interacted only through the pineal gland, a tiny structure at the base of the brain. This position became known as dualism. According to dualism, the behavior of the body is determined by mechanistic laws and can be measured in a scientific manner. But the mind, which transcends the material world, cannot be similarly studied.
English philosophers Thomas Hobbes and John Locke disagreed. They argued that all human experiences—including sensations, images, thoughts, and feelings—are physical processes occurring within the brain and nervous system. Therefore, these experiences are valid subjects of study. In this view, which later became known as monism, the mind and body are one and the same. Today, in light of years of research indicating that the physical and mental aspects of the human experience are intertwined, most psychologists reject a rigid dualist position. See Philosophy of Mind; Dualism; Monism.
Many philosophers of the past also debated the question of whether human knowledge is inborn or the product of experience. Nativists believed that certain elementary truths are innate to the human mind and need not be gained through experience. In contrast, empiricists believed that at birth, a person’s mind is like a tabula rasa, or blank slate, and that all human knowledge ultimately comes from sensory experience. Today, all psychologists agree that both types of factors are important in the acquisition of knowledge.
B Physiological Roots
Modern psychology can also be traced to the study of physiology (a branch of biology that studies living organisms and their parts) and medicine. In the 19th century, physiologists began studying the human brain and nervous system, paying particular attention to the topic of sensation. For example, in the 1850s and 1860s German scientist Hermann von Helmholtz studied sensory receptors in the eye and ear, investigating topics such as the speed of neural impulses, color vision, hearing, and space perception. Another important German scientist, Gustav Fechner, founded psychophysics, the study of the relationship between physical stimuli and our subjective sensations of those stimuli. Building on the work of his compatriot Ernst Weber, Fechner developed a technique for measuring people’s subjective sensations of various physical stimuli. He sought to determine the minimum intensity level of a stimulus that is needed to produce a sensation.
English naturalist Charles Darwin was particularly influential in the development of psychology. In 1859 Darwin published On the Origin of Species, in which he proposed that all living forms were a product of the evolutionary process of natural selection. Darwin had based his theory on plants and nonhuman animals, but he later asserted that people had evolved through similar processes, and that human anatomy and behavior could be analyzed in the same way. Darwin’s theory of evolution invited comparisons between humans and other animals, and scientists soon began using animals in psychological research.
In medicine, physicians were discovering new links between the brain and language. For example, French surgeon Paul Broca discovered that people who suffer damage to a specific part of the brain’s left hemisphere lose the ability to produce fluent speech. This area of the brain became known as Broca’s area. A German neurologist, Carl Wernicke, reported in 1874 that people with damage to a different area of the left hemisphere lose their ability to comprehend speech. This region became known as Wernicke’s area.
Other physicians focused on the study of mental disorders. In the late 19th century, French neurologist Jean Charcot discovered that some of the patients he was treating for so-called nervous disorders could be cured through hypnosis, a psychological—not medical—form of intervention. Charcot’s work had a profound impact on Sigmund Freud, an Austrian neurologist whose theories would later revolutionize psychology.
C Pseudoscientific Schools of Thought
Psychology was predated and somewhat influenced by various pseudoscientific schools of thought—that is, theories that had no scientific foundation. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, Viennese physician Franz Joseph Gall developed phrenology, the theory that psychological traits and abilities reside in certain parts of the brain and can be measured by the bumps and indentations in the skull. Although phrenology found popular acceptance among the lay public in western Europe and the United States, most scientists ridiculed Gall’s ideas. However, research later confirmed the more general point that certain mental activities can be traced to specific parts of the brain.
Another Viennese physician of the 18th century, Franz Anton Mesmer, believed that illness was caused by an imbalance of magnetic fluids in the body. He believed he could restore the balance by passing his hands across the patient’s body and waving a magnetic wand over the infected area. Mesmer claimed that his patients would fall into a trance and awaken from it feeling better. The medical community, however, soundly rejected the claim. Today, Mesmer’s technique, known as mesmerism, is regarded as an early forerunner of modern hypnosis.
D The Birth of Psychology as a Science
Modern psychology is deeply rooted in the older disciplines of philosophy and physiology. But the official birth of psychology is often traced to 1879, at the University of Leipzig, in Leipzig, Germany. There, physiologist Wilhelm Wundt established the first laboratory dedicated to the scientific study of the mind. Wundt’s laboratory soon attracted leading scientists and students from Europe and the United States. Among these were James McKeen Cattell, one of the first psychologists to study individual differences through the administration of “mental tests”; Emil Kraepelin, a German psychiatrist who postulated a physical cause for mental illnesses and in 1883 published the first classification system for mental disorders; and Hugo Münsterberg, the first to apply psychology to industry and the law. Wundt was extraordinarily productive over the course of his career. He supervised a total of 186 doctoral dissertations, taught thousands of students, founded the first scholarly psychological journal, and published innumerable scientific studies. His goal, which he stated in the preface of a book he wrote, was “to mark out a new domain of science.”
Compared to the philosophers who preceded him, Wundt’s approach to the study of mind was based on systematic and rigorous observation. His primary method of research was introspection. This technique involved training people to concentrate and report on their conscious experiences as they reacted to visual displays and other stimuli. In his laboratory, Wundt systematically studied topics such as attention span, reaction time, vision, emotion, and time perception. By recruiting people to serve as subjects, varying the conditions of their experience, and then rigorously repeating all observations, Wundt laid the foundation for the modern psychology experiment.
In the United States, Harvard University professor William James observed the emergence of psychology with great interest. Although trained in physiology and medicine, James was fascinated by psychology and philosophy. In 1875 he offered his first course in psychology. In 1890 James published a two-volume book entitled Principles of Psychology. It immediately became the leading psychology text in the United States, and it brought James a worldwide reputation as a man of great ideas and inspiration. In 28 chapters, James wrote about the stream of consciousness, the formation of habits, individuality, the link between mind and body, emotions, the self, and other topics that inspired generations of psychologists. Today, historians consider James the founder of American psychology.
James’s students also made lasting contributions to the field. In 1883 G. Stanley Hall (who also studied with Wundt) established the first true American psychology laboratory in the United States at Johns Hopkins University, and in 1892 he founded and became the first president of the American Psychological Association. Mary Whiton Calkins created an important technique for studying memory and conducted one of the first studies of dreams. In 1905 she was elected the first female president of the American Psychological Association. Edward Lee Thorndike conducted some of the first experiments on animal learning and wrote a pioneering textbook on educational psychology.
E Structuralism and Functionalism
During the first decades of psychology, two main schools of thought dominated the field: structuralism and functionalism. Structuralism was a system of psychology developed by Edward Bradford Titchener, an American psychologist who studied under Wilhelm Wundt. Structuralists believed that the task of psychology is to identify the basic elements of consciousness in much the same way that physicists break down the basic particles of matter. For example, Titchener identified four elements in the sensation of taste: sweet, sour, salty, and bitter. The main method of investigation in structuralism was introspection. The influence of structuralism in psychology faded after Titchener’s death in 1927.
In contradiction to the structuralist movement, William James promoted a school of thought known as functionalism, the belief that the real task of psychology is to investigate the function, or purpose, of consciousness rather than its structure. James was highly influenced by Darwin’s evolutionary theory that all characteristics of a species must serve some adaptive purpose. Functionalism enjoyed widespread appeal in the United States. Its three main leaders were James Rowland Angell, a student of James; John Dewey, who was also one of the foremost American philosophers and educators; and Harvey A. Carr, a psychologist at the University of Chicago.
In their efforts to understand human behavioral processes, the functional psychologists developed the technique of longitudinal research, which consists of interviewing, testing, and observing one person over a long period of time. Such a system permits the psychologist to observe and record the person’s development and how he or she reacts to different circumstances. See Functionalism.
F Freud and Psychoanalysis
Alongside Wundt and James, a third prominent leader of the new psychology was Sigmund Freud, a Viennese neurologist of the late 19th and early 20th century. Through his clinical practice, Freud developed a very different approach to psychology. After graduating from medical school, Freud treated patients who appeared to suffer from certain ailments but had nothing physically wrong with them. These patients were not consciously faking their symptoms, and often the symptoms would disappear through hypnosis, or even just by talking. On the basis of these observations, Freud formulated a theory of personality and a form of psychotherapy known as psychoanalysis. It became one of the most influential schools of Western thought of the 20th century.
Freud introduced his new theory in The Interpretation of Dreams (1899), the first of 24 books he would write. The theory is summarized in Freud’s last book, An Outline of Psychoanalysis, published in 1940, after his death. In contrast to Wundt and James, for whom psychology was the study of conscious experience, Freud believed that people are motivated largely by unconscious forces, including strong sexual and aggressive drives. He likened the human mind to an iceberg: The small tip that floats on the water is the conscious part, and the vast region beneath the surface comprises the unconscious. Freud believed that although unconscious motives can be temporarily suppressed, they must find a suitable outlet in order for a person to maintain a healthy personality.
To probe the unconscious mind, Freud developed the psychotherapy technique of free association. In free association, the patient reclines and talks about thoughts, wishes, memories, and whatever else comes to mind. The analyst tries to interpret these verbalizations to determine their psychological significance. In particular, Freud encouraged patients to free associate about their dreams, which he believed were the “royal road to the unconscious.” According to Freud, dreams are disguised expressions of deep, hidden impulses. Thus, as patients recount the conscious manifest content of dreams, the psychoanalyst tries to unmask the underlying latent content—what the dreams really mean.
From the start of psychoanalysis, Freud attracted followers, many of whom later proposed competing theories. As a group, these neo-Freudians shared the assumption that the unconscious plays an important role in a person’s thoughts and behaviors. Most parted company with Freud, however, over his emphasis on sex as a driving force. For example, Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung theorized that all humans inherit a collective unconscious that contains universal symbols and memories from their ancestral past. Austrian physician Alfred Adler theorized that people are primarily motivated to overcome inherent feelings of inferiority. He wrote about the effects of birth order in the family and coined the term sibling rivalry. Karen Horney, a German-born American psychiatrist, argued that humans have a basic need for love and security, and become anxious when they feel isolated and alone.
Motivated by a desire to uncover unconscious aspects of the psyche, psychoanalytic researchers devised what are known as projective tests. A projective test asks people to respond to an ambiguous stimulus such as a word, an incomplete sentence, an inkblot, or an ambiguous picture. These tests are based on the assumption that if a stimulus is vague enough to accommodate different interpretations, then people will use it to project their unconscious needs, wishes, fears, and conflicts. The most popular of these tests are the Rorschach Inkblot Test, which consists of ten inkblots, and the Thematic Apperception Test, which consists of drawings of people in ambiguous situations.
Psychoanalysis has been criticized on various grounds and is not as popular as in the past. However, Freud’s overall influence on the field has been deep and lasting, particularly his ideas about the unconscious. Today, most psychologists agree that people can be profoundly influenced by unconscious forces, and that people often have a limited awareness of why they think, feel, and behave as they do. See Psychoanalysis; Psychotherapy: Psychodynamic Therapies.
G Other Pioneers in the Study of the Mind
In addition to Wundt, James, and Freud, many others scholars helped to define the science of psychology. In 1885 German philosopher Hermann Ebbinghaus conducted a series of classic experiments on memory, using nonsense syllables to establish principles of retention and forgetting. In 1896 American psychologist Lightner Witmer opened the first psychological clinic, which initially treated children with learning disorders. He later founded the first journal and training program in a new helping profession that he named clinical psychology. In 1905 French psychologist Alfred Binet devised the first major intelligence test in order to assess the academic potential of schoolchildren in Paris. The test was later translated and revised by Stanford University psychologist Lewis Terman and is now known as the Stanford-Binet intelligence test. In 1908 American psychologist Margaret Floy Washburn (who later became the second female president of the American Psychological Association) wrote an influential book called The Animal Mind, in which she synthesized animal research to that time.
In 1912 German psychologist Max Wertheimer discovered that when two stationary lights flash in succession, people see the display as a single light moving back and forth. This illusion inspired the Gestalt psychology movement, which was based on the notion that people tend to perceive a well-organized whole or pattern that is different from the sum of isolated sensations. Other leaders of Gestalt psychology included Wertheimer’s close associates Wolfgang Köhler and Kurt Koffka. Later, German American psychologist Kurt Lewin extended Gestalt psychology to studies of motivation, personality, social psychology, and conflict resolution. German American psychologist Fritz Heider then extended this approach to the study of how people perceive themselves and others. See Gestalt Psychology.
H Behaviorism
William James had defined psychology as “the science of mental life.” But in the early 1900s, growing numbers of psychologists voiced criticism of the approach used by scholars to explore conscious and unconscious mental processes. These critics doubted the reliability and usefulness of the method of introspection, in which subjects are asked to describe their own mental processes during various tasks. They were also critical of Freud’s emphasis on unconscious motives. In search of more-scientific methods, psychologists gradually turned away from research on invisible mental processes and began to study only behavior that could be observed directly. This approach, known as behaviorism, ultimately revolutionized psychology and remained the dominant school of thought for nearly 50 years.
Among the first to lay the foundation for the new behaviorism was American psychologist Edward Lee Thorndike. In 1898 Thorndike conducted a series of experiments on animal learning. In one study, he put cats into a cage, put food just outside the cage, and timed how long it took the cats to learn how to open an escape door that led to the food. Placing the animals in the same cage again and again, Thorndike found that the cats would repeat behaviors that worked and would escape more and more quickly with successive trials. Thorndike thereafter proposed the law of effect, which states that behaviors that are followed by a positive outcome are repeated, while those followed by a negative outcome or none at all are extinguished.
In 1906 Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov—who had won a Nobel Prize two years earlier for his studies of digestion—stumbled onto one of the most important principles of learning and behavior. Pavlov was investigating the digestive process in dogs by putting food in their mouths and measuring the flow of saliva. He found that after repeated testing, the dogs would salivate in anticipation of the food, even before he put it in their mouth. He soon discovered that if he rang a bell just before the food was presented each time, the dogs would eventually salivate at the mere sound of the bell. Pavlov had discovered a basic form of learning called classical conditioning (also referred to as Pavlovian conditioning) in which an organism comes to associate one stimulus with another. Later research showed that this basic process can account for how people form certain preferences and fears. See Learning: Classical Conditioning.
Although Thorndike and Pavlov set the stage for behaviorism, it was not until 1913 that a psychologist set forward a clear vision for behaviorist psychology. In that year John Watson, a well-known animal psychologist at Johns Hopkins University, published a landmark paper entitled “Psychology as the Behaviorist Views It.” Watson’s goal was nothing less than a complete redefinition of psychology. “Psychology as the behaviorist views it,” Watson wrote, “is a purely objective experimental branch of natural science. Its theoretical goal is the prediction and control of behavior.” Watson narrowly defined psychology as the scientific study of behavior. He urged his colleagues to abandon both introspection and speculative theories about the unconscious. Instead he stressed the importance of observing and quantifying behavior. In light of Darwin’s theory of evolution, he also advocated the use of animals in psychological research, convinced that the principles of behavior would generalize across all species.
Many American psychologists were quick to adopt behaviorism, and animal laboratories were set up all over the country. Aiming to predict and control behavior, the behaviorists’ strategy was to vary a stimulus in the environment and observe an organism’s response. They saw no need to speculate about mental processes inside the head. For example, Watson argued that thinking was simply talking to oneself silently. He believed that thinking could be studied by recording the movement of certain muscles in the throat.
The most forceful leader of behaviorism was B. F. Skinner, an American psychologist who began studying animal learning in the 1930s. Skinner coined the term reinforcement and invented a new research apparatus called the Skinner box for use in testing animals. Based on his experiments with rats and pigeons, Skinner identified a number of basic principles of learning. He claimed that these principles explained not only the behavior of laboratory animals, but also accounted for how human beings learn new behaviors or change existing behaviors. He concluded that nearly all behavior is shaped by complex patterns of reinforcement in a person’s environment, a process that he called operant conditioning (also referred to as instrumental conditioning). Skinner’s views on the causes of human behavior made him one of the most famous and controversial psychologists of the 20th century. See Learning: Operant Conditioning.
Skinner and others applied his findings to modify behavior in the workplace, the classroom, the clinic, and other settings. In World War II (1939-1945), for example, he worked for the U.S. government on a top-secret project in which he trained pigeons to guide an armed glider plane toward enemy ships. He also invented the first teaching machine, which allowed students to learn at their own pace by solving a series of problems and receiving immediate feedback. In his popular book Walden Two (1948), Skinner presented his vision of a behaviorist utopia, in which socially adaptive behaviors are maintained by rewards, or positive reinforcements. Throughout his career, Skinner held firm to his belief that psychologists should focus on the prediction and control of behavior. See Behaviorism; Behavior Modification.
I Humanistic Psychology: “The Third Force”
Faced with a choice between psychoanalysis and behaviorism, many psychologists in the 1950s and 1960s sensed a void in psychology’s conception of human nature. Freud had drawn attention to the darker forces of the unconscious, and Skinner was interested only in the effects of reinforcement on observable behavior. Humanistic psychology was born out of a desire to understand the conscious mind, free will, human dignity, and the capacity for self-reflection and growth. An alternative to psychoanalysis and behaviorism, humanistic psychology became known as “the third force.”
The humanistic movement was led by American psychologists Carl Rogers and Abraham Maslow. According to Rogers, all humans are born with a drive to achieve their full capacity and to behave in ways that are consistent with their true selves. Rogers, a psychotherapist, developed person-centered therapy, a nonjudgmental, nondirective approach that helped clients clarify their sense of who they are in an effort to facilitate their own healing process. At about the same time, Maslow theorized that all people are motivated to fulfill a hierarchy of needs. At the bottom of the hierarchy are basic physiological needs, such as hunger, thirst, and sleep. Further up the hierarchy are needs for safety and security, needs for belonging and love, and esteem-related needs for status and achievement. Once these needs are met, Maslow believed, people strive for self-actualization, the ultimate state of personal fulfillment. As Maslow put it, “A musician must make music, an artist must paint, a poet must write, if he is ultimately to be at peace with himself. What a man can be, he must be.”
J The Cognitive Revolution
From the 1920s through the 1960s, behaviorism dominated psychology in the United States. Eventually, however, psychologists began to move away from strict behaviorism. Many became increasingly interested in cognition, a term used to describe all the mental processes involved in acquiring, storing, and using knowledge. Such processes include perception, memory, thinking, problem solving, imagining, and language. This shift in emphasis toward cognition had such a profound influence on psychology that it has often been called the cognitive revolution. The psychological study of cognition became known as cognitive psychology.
One reason for psychologists’ renewed interest in mental processes was the invention of the computer, which provided an intriguing metaphor for the human mind. The hardware of the computer was likened to the brain, and computer programs provided a step-by-step model of how information from the environment is input, stored, and retrieved to produce a response. Based on the computer metaphor, psychologists began to formulate information-processing models of human thought and behavior.
The pioneering work of Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget also inspired psychologists to study cognition. During the 1920s, while administering intelligence tests in schools, Piaget became interested in how children think. He designed various tasks and interview questions to reveal how children of different ages reason about time, nature, numbers, causality, morality, and other concepts. Based on his many studies, Piaget theorized that from infancy to adolescence, children advance through a predictable series of cognitive stages.
The cognitive revolution also gained momentum from developments in the study of language. Behaviorist B. F. Skinner had claimed that language is acquired according to the laws of operant conditioning, in much the same way that rats learn to press a bar for food pellets. In 1959, however, American linguist Noam Chomsky charged that Skinner’s account of language development was wrong. Chomsky noted that children all over the world start to speak at roughly the same age and proceed through roughly the same stages without being explicitly taught or rewarded for the effort. According to Chomsky, the human capacity for learning language is innate. He theorized that the human brain is “hardwired” for language as a product of evolution. By pointing to the primary importance of biological dispositions in the development of language, Chomsky’s theory dealt a serious blow to the behaviorist assumption that all human behaviors are formed and maintained by reinforcement.
Before psychology became established in science, it was popularly associated with extrasensory perception (ESP) and other paranormal phenomena (phenomena beyond the laws of science). Today, these topics lie outside the traditional scope of scientific psychology and fall within the domain of parapsychology. Psychologists note that thousands of studies have failed to demonstrate the existence of paranormal phenomena. See Psychical Research.
Grounded in the conviction that mind and behavior must be studied using statistical and scientific methods, psychology has become a highly respected and socially useful discipline. Psychologists now study important and sensitive topics such as the similarities and differences between men and women, racial and ethnic diversity, sexual orientation, marriage and divorce, abortion, adoption, intelligence testing, sleep and sleep disorders, obesity and dieting, and the effects of psychoactive drugs such as methylphenidate (Ritalin) and fluoxetine (Prozac).
In the last few decades, researchers have made significant breakthroughs in understanding the brain, mental processes, and behavior. This section of the article provides examples of contemporary research in psychology: the plasticity of the brain and nervous system, the nature of consciousness, memory distortions, competence and rationality, genetic influences on behavior, infancy, the nature of intelligence, human motivation, prejudice and discrimination, the benefits of psychotherapy, and the psychological influences on the immune system.
A The Plasticity of the Brain
Psychologists once believed that the neural circuits of the adult brain and nervous system were fully developed and no longer subject to change. Then in the 1980s and 1990s a series of provocative experiments showed that the adult brain has flexibility, or plasticity—a capacity to change as a result of usage and experience.
These experiments showed that adult rats flooded with visual stimulation formed new neural connections in the brain’s visual cortex, where visual signals are interpreted. Likewise, those trained to run an obstacle course formed new connections in the cerebellum, where balance and motor skills are coordinated. Similar results with birds, mice, and monkeys have confirmed the point: Experience can stimulate the growth of new connections and mold the brain’s neural architecture.
Once the brain reaches maturity, the number of neurons does not increase, and any neurons that are damaged are permanently disabled. But the plasticity of the brain can greatly benefit people with damage to the brain and nervous system. Organisms can compensate for loss by strengthening old neural connections and sprouting new ones. That is why people who suffer strokes are often able to recover their lost speech and motor abilities.
B The Nature of Consciousness
In 1860 German physicist Gustav Fechner theorized that if the human brain were divided into right and left halves, each side would have its own stream of consciousness. Modern medicine has actually allowed scientists to investigate this hypothesis. People who suffer from life-threatening epileptic seizures sometimes undergo a radical surgery that severs the corpus callosum, a bridge of nerve tissue that connects the right and left hemispheres of the brain. After the surgery, the two hemispheres can no longer communicate with each other.
Beginning in the 1960s American neurologist Roger Sperry and others tested such split-brain patients in carefully designed experiments. The researchers found that the hemispheres of these patients seemed to function independently, almost as if the subjects had two brains. In addition, they discovered that the left hemisphere was capable of speech and language, but not the right hemisphere. For example, when split-brain patients saw the image of an object flashed in their left visual field (thus sending the visual information to the right hemisphere), they were incapable of naming or describing the object. Yet they could easily point to the correct object with their left hand (which is controlled by the right hemisphere). As Sperry’s colleague Michael Gazzaniga stated, “Each half brain seemed to work and function outside of the conscious realm of the other.”
Other psychologists interested in consciousness have examined how people are influenced without their awareness. For example, research has demonstrated that under certain conditions in the laboratory, people can be fleetingly affected by subliminal stimuli, sensory information presented so rapidly or faintly that it falls below the threshold of awareness. (Note, however, that scientists have discredited claims that people can be importantly influenced by subliminal messages in advertising, rock music, or other media.) Other evidence for influence without awareness comes from studies of people with a type of amnesia that prevents them from forming new memories. In experiments, these subjects are unable to recognize words they previously viewed in a list, but they are more likely to use those words later in an unrelated task. In fact, memory without awareness is normal, as when people come up with an idea they think is original, only later to realize that they had inadvertently borrowed it from another source.
C Memory Distortions
Cognitive psychologists have often likened human memory to a computer that encodes, stores, and retrieves information. It is now clear, however, that remembering is an active process and that people construct and alter memories according to their beliefs, wishes, needs, and information received from outside sources.
Without realizing it, people sometimes create memories that are false. In one study, for example, subjects watched a slide show depicting a car accident. They saw either a “STOP” sign or a “YIELD” sign in the slides, but afterward they were asked a question about the accident that implied the presence of the other sign. Influenced by this suggestion, many subjects recalled the wrong traffic sign. In another study, people who heard a list of sleep-related words (bed, yawn) or music-related words (jazz, instrument) were often convinced moments later that they had also heard the words sleep or music—words that fit the category but were not on the list. In a third study, researchers asked college students to recall their high-school grades. Then the researchers checked those memories against the students’ actual transcripts. The students recalled most grades correctly, but most of the errors inflated their grades, particularly when the actual grades were low. See Memory.
D Competence and Rationality
When scientists distinguish between human beings and other animals, they point to our larger cerebral cortex (the outer part of the brain) and to our superior intellect—as seen in the abilities to acquire and store large amounts of information, solve problems, and communicate through the use of language.
In recent years, however, those studying human cognition have found that people are often less than rational and accurate in their performance. Some researchers have found that people are prone to forgetting, and worse, that memories of past events are often highly distorted. Others have observed that people often violate the rules of logic and probability when reasoning about real events, as when gamblers overestimate the odds of winning in games of chance. One reason for these mistakes is that we commonly rely on cognitive heuristics, mental shortcuts that allow us to make judgments that are quick but often in error. To understand how heuristics can lead to mistaken assumptions, imagine offering people a lottery ticket containing six numbers out of a pool of the numbers 1 through 40. If given a choice between the tickets 6-39-2-10-24-30 or 1-2-3-4-5-6, most people select the first ticket, because it has the appearance of randomness. Yet out of the 3,838,380 possible winning combinations, both sequences are equally likely.
E Genetic Influences
One of the oldest debates in psychology, and in philosophy, concerns whether individual human traits and abilities are predetermined from birth or due to one’s upbringing and experiences. This debate is often termed the nature-nurture debate. A strict genetic (nature) position states that people are predisposed to become sociable, smart, cheerful, or depressed according to their genetic blueprint. In contrast, a strict environmental (nurture) position says that people are shaped by parents, peers, cultural institutions, and life experiences.
Researchers can estimate the role of genetic factors in two ways: (1) twin studies and (2) adoption studies. Twin studies compare identical twins with fraternal twins of the same sex. If identical twins (who share all the same genes) are more similar to each other on a given trait than are same-sex fraternal twins (who share only about half of the same genes), then genetic factors are assumed to influence the trait. Other studies compare identical twins who are raised together with identical twins who are separated at birth and raised in different families. If the twins raised together are more similar to each other than the twins raised apart, childhood experiences are presumed to influence the trait. Sometimes researchers conduct adoption studies, in which they compare adopted children to their biological and adoptive parents. If these children display traits that resemble those of their biological relatives more than their adoptive relatives, genetic factors are assumed to play a role in the trait.
In recent years, several twin and adoption studies have shown that genetic factors play a role in the development of intellectual abilities, temperament and personality, vocational interests, and various psychological disorders. Interestingly, however, this same research indicates that at least 50 percent of the variation in these characteristics within the population is attributable to factors in the environment. Today, most researchers agree that psychological characteristics spring from a combination of the forces of nature and nurture.
F Infancy
In 1890 William James described the newborn’s experience as “one great blooming, buzzing confusion.” However, with the aid of sophisticated research methods, psychologists have discovered that infants are smarter than was previously known.
To learn about the perceptual world of infants, researchers measure infants’ head movements, eye movements, facial expressions, brain waves, heart rate, and respiration. Using these indicators, psychologists have found that shortly after birth, infants show a distinct preference for the human face over other visual stimuli. Also suggesting that newborns are tuned in to the face as a social object is the fact that within 72 hours of birth, they can mimic adults who purse the lips or stick out the tongue—a rudimentary form of imitation. Newborns can distinguish between their mother’s voice and that of another woman. And at two weeks old, nursing infants are more attracted to the body odor of their mother and other breast-feeding females than to that of other women. Taken together, these findings show that infants are equipped at birth with certain senses and reflexes designed to aid their survival. See Infancy; Child Development.
G The Nature of Intelligence
In 1905 French psychologist Alfred Binet devised the first major intelligence test for the purpose of identifying slow learners in school. In doing so, Binet assumed that intelligence could be measured as a general intellectual capacity and summarized in a numerical score, or intelligence quotient (IQ). Consistently, testing has revealed that although each of us is more skilled in some areas than in others, a general intelligence underlies our more specific abilities.
Today, many psychologists believe that there is more than one type of intelligence. American psychologist Howard Gardner proposed the existence of multiple intelligences, each linked to a separate system within the brain. He theorized that there are seven types of intelligence: linguistic, logical-mathematical, spatial, musical, bodily-kinesthetic, interpersonal, and intrapersonal. American psychologist Robert Sternberg suggested a different model of intelligence, consisting of three components: analytic (“school smarts,” as measured in academic tests), creative (a capacity for insight), and practical (“street smarts,” or the ability to size up and adapt to situations). See Intelligence.
H Human Motivation
Psychologists from all branches of the discipline study the topic of motivation, an inner state that moves an organism toward the fulfillment of some goal. Over the years, different theories of motivation have been proposed. Some theories state that people are motivated by the need to satisfy physiological needs, whereas others state that people seek to maintain an optimum level of bodily arousal (not too little and not too much). Still other theories focus on the ways in which people respond to external incentives such as money, grades in school, and recognition. Motivation researchers study a wide range of topics, including hunger and obesity, sexual desire, the effects of reward and punishment, and the needs for power, achievement, social acceptance, love, and self-esteem.
In 1954 American psychologist Abraham Maslow proposed that all people are motivated to fulfill a hierarchical pyramid of needs. At the bottom of Maslow’s pyramid are needs essential to survival, such as the needs for food, water, and sleep. The need for safety follows these physiological needs. According to Maslow, higher-level needs become important to us only after our more basic needs are satisfied. These higher needs include the need for love and belongingness, the need for esteem, and the need for self-actualization (in Maslow’s theory, a state in which people realize their greatest potential).
I Prejudice and Discrimination
One of the most tenacious social problems of modern times is prejudice, the negative evaluation of others based solely on their membership in a particular group. Social psychologists once believed that prejudice was caused by competition among racial and ethnic groups for valuable but limited resources. However, this explanation did not account for the fact that people throughout the world harbor deep prejudices against groups that pose no realistic threat to them.
Research now shows that prejudice arises, to some extent, as an innocent by-product of the way people think. Human beings naturally sort each other into groups based on sex, race, age, and other attributes. This process of social categorization leads people to see others as either similar to themselves or as different. There are two consequences of this process. First, once we distinguish between “us” and “them,” we begin to assume that “they” are all alike. This belief makes it easy to view in stereotyped ways others who are different. Second, research suggests that people needing a boost in self-esteem are often motivated to belittle “them” in order to feel better about “us.”
J Benefits of Psychotherapy
Psychotherapy is an important form of treatment for a host of psychological problems, including low self-esteem, social problems, anxiety disorders, and substance abuse. But is psychotherapy effective? For years, clinical psychologists have debated the assumed benefits of psychotherapy. Many studies have compared psychotherapy to various drug treatments or to no treatment at all. By statistically combining hundreds of these studies, researchers have confirmed that overall, psychotherapy is better than no treatment at all. These studies have shown that most patients who improve with psychotherapy do so within six months of beginning treatment.
Surprisingly, these studies also indicate that all major types of psychotherapy—despite differences in theoretical orientations or in techniques used—are about equally effective. Psychologists theorize that despite surface differences, all psychotherapies have in common three factors that help to promote change: a supportive and trusting relationship, an opportunity to open up and talk freely, and positive expectations for improvement. See Psychotherapy: Effectiveness of Psychotherapy.
K Psychological Influences on the Immune System
The immune system is a complex surveillance system that fights bacteria, viruses, and other foreign substances that invade the body. This defense relies on the actions of specialized white blood cells called lymphocytes, which circulate through the bloodstream and secrete chemical antibodies. Scientists have discovered that the immune system is linked to other systems of the body, including the brain and nervous system. Psychoneuroimmunology is the study of the relationship between psychological influences, the nervous system, and the immune system.
Researchers in this field have found that psychological factors such as stress can influence immune cell activity and increase vulnerability to physical illness. In controlled animal experiments, rats exposed to overcrowding, noise, or inescapable shocks—and primates separated from social companions—exhibit a significant drop in immune cell activity compared to unstressed animals. In addition, studies on humans have shown that immune cell activity changes in response to divorce, the death of a spouse, loss of employment, and other negative life events. This research helps to explain why stress increases the risk of illnesses ranging from the common cold to certain forms of cancer. It has also sparked interest in how optimism, social support, and other psychological factors can be used to protect the body. See Stress.
Because the field of psychology is so diverse, psychologists work in a wide range of specialty areas. About half of psychologists with a Ph.D. degree are clinical or counseling psychologists who treat people with psychological problems or conduct research on mental disorders. Other psychologists specialize in developmental psychology, educational psychology, school psychology, social psychology, health psychology, cognitive psychology, biopsychology, or other areas.
Psychologists work in a variety of employment settings. Many work in colleges, universities, and professional schools. Working at an educational institution enables a psychologist to pursue several interests at once. For example, psychology professors will often combine teaching, research, and counseling. A large number of psychologists work in hospitals, clinics, and mental health centers. School psychologists usually work in elementary or secondary schools. Other psychologists work for businesses, government agencies, or other organizations. For example, large corporations and consulting firms often employ industrial-organizational psychologists to provide advice about employee training, hiring practices, and worker morale and productivity. Finally, many psychologists are self-employed as therapists or consultants in private practice.
A person who plans a career in psychology must first obtain a bachelor’s degree at a college or university. An undergraduate major in psychology is helpful preparation for graduate coursework in psychology but is not required. To become a psychologist, a person must attend graduate school and obtain either a master’s degree or a doctoral degree. A master’s degree typically requires two to three years of graduate work. Career opportunities in psychology are greatest for those with a doctoral degree. For this reason, most psychologists obtain a doctoral degree, usually a Ph.D. (doctor of philosophy). Clinical psychologists may obtain a Psy.D. (doctor of psychology) instead, and many counseling psychologists choose to earn an Ed.D. (doctor of education) in counseling. These doctoral degrees typically require four to six years of graduate study. In addition, clinical and counseling psychologists often complete a one-year internship at a psychological clinic following graduate school. Most states require a licensing exam for psychologists who practice as psychotherapists or counselors.
As a discipline, psychology is growing in size. From 1980 to 1991 the number of psychologists worldwide doubled to about 500,000. The United States, Canada, Western Europe, and Australia are home to the largest number of psychologists. In most developing nations psychology is still in its infancy. China, with its 1.2 billion people, has fewer than 5,000 psychologists and only eight psychology departments. In the countries of sub-Saharan Africa, less than 20 universities had a psychology department by the mid-1980s. In many developing countries, the growth of psychology is stunted by insufficient funding, political instability, a shortage of qualified teachers, poor career prospects for those who enter the field, and a lack of legal or social recognition for the profession.
According to the U.S. Department of Education, psychology is the second-most popular college major, behind business administration. There are now more women entering the field than ever before. In 1997 44 percent of psychologists with Ph.D. degrees were women, compared with 20 percent in 1973. This proportion is rapidly increasing; in 1996 women earned 69 percent of doctoral degrees in psychology awarded in the United States. Similar trends have occurred in Canada. In 1975 women made up only 22 percent of the membership of the Canadian Psychological Association (CPA), the main professional organization for Canadian psychologists. By 1995, 49 percent of CPA members were women. About 68 percent of Canadian doctoral students in psychology in 1995 were female.
Racial and ethnic minorities are underrepresented in psychology. Surveys indicate that most psychologists in the United States are white, although more members of minority groups are entering psychology than in the past. In 1997 8.5 percent of doctoral-level psychologists in the United States were minorities, up from only 2 percent in 1973.
The chief professional association for psychologists in the United States is the American Psychological Association (APA), which was founded in 1892. The APA now consists of approximately 50 specialty divisions dedicated to the study of topics such as addictions, military problems, religion, families, peace and conflict, women’s issues, hypnosis, and aging. A second major professional organization is the American Psychological Society (APS), which was founded in 1988 to represent the interests of research psychologists. The Canadian Psychological Association, established in 1939, maintains about 25 specialty sections on various topics in psychology.
Contributed By:
Saul Kassin

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