What is psychology?

Psychology is the scientific study of behaviour and mental processes.

This definition of psychology reflects its concern with an objective study of observable behaviour. It also recognizes the importance of understanding mental processes that cannot be directly observed but must be inferred from behavioural and neurological data.

Approaches to psychology

There are five approaches to psychology and each provides an insight into the major conceptions of modern psychology. It should be noted that these approaches are not mutually exclusive; rather, they tend to focus on different aspects of a complex problem. There is no “right” or “wrong” approach to the study of psychology. Most psychologists use a synthesis of several approaches in explaining psychological phenomenon.

Neurological Approach

The human brain, with its 12 billion never cells and almost infinite number of interconnections, may be the most complex structure in the universe . In principle, all psychological events are represented in some manner by the activity of the brain and nervous system.

This approach seeks to specify the neurological processes that underline behaviour and mental events. Psychologists using this approach would be interested in changes in the nervous system as the result of learning a new task.

It is clear that there is an intimate relationship between the brain’s activity and behaviour and experience. Emotional reactions, such as fear and rage, can be produced in animals by mild eclectic stimulation of specific areas deep in the brain. Electric stimulation of certain areas of the brain will produce sensations of pleasure and even vivid memories of past events.

Because of complexity of the brain and the fact that live human brains are seldom available for study, tremendous gap exists in our knowledge of neural functioning. For this reason, other methods are used to investigate psychological phenomena.

Behavioural Approach

Eating breakfast, riding a bike, talking, laughing, and blushing are behaviours. Behaviour thus refers to all those activities of an organism that can be observed. With the behavioural approach, a psychologists studies individuals by looking at their behaviour rather than their internal working.

John B. Watson first advanced the view that observable behaviour should be the sole subject matter of psychology in the early 1900’s. Before that, psychology had been defined as the study of mental experience, and its data were largely self-observations in the form of introspection.

Introspection refers to an individual’s careful observing and recording of his/her own perceptions and feelings. Introspective observation can be reported by one observer, whereas any qualified scientist can replicate an observation in natural sciences.

Watson argued that if psychology was to be a science, its data must be observable and measurable. Introspection was a futile approach to psychology. He thus argued that only by studying what people do- their behaviour- would psychology become an objective science.

Behaviourism, as Watson’s position came to be called, helped share the course of psychology during the first half of the twentieth century. The outgrowth of behaviourism, stimulus-response (S-R) psychology is still influential today due to the works of Harvard psychologist B.F. Skinner. S-R psychology is not concerned with what goes on inside the organism. The activities of the nervous system are ignored.

Today few, psychologists would regard themselves as strict behaviourists.

Cognitive Approach

Cognitive psychologists argue that we are not passive receptors of stimuli the mind actively processes the information it receives and transforms it into new forms and categories.

Cognition refers to the mental processes of perception, memory, and information processing by which the individual acquires knowledge, solves problems, and plans for the future.

Cognitive psychology is the scientific study of cognition. It’s goal is to conduct experiments and develop theories that explain how mental processes are organized and function. This approach was partially a response to the narrowness of the S-R view in psychology, To conceive of human actions solely in terms of stimulus input and response output may be adequate for the study of simple forms of behaviour, but not for complex human behaviour.

Kenneth Craik, a British psychologists and one of the early advocates of cognitive psychology, proposed that the brain is like a computer capable of modeling or paralleling external events, He said:

If the organism carries a “small-scale” model of external reality and of its own possible actions within its head, it is able to try out various alternative, conclude which is best, react to future situations before the arise, utilize knowledge of past events in dealing with the future, and in every way react in a much fuller, safer and more competent manner to the emergencies which face it.

The notion of a “mental model of reality” is central to a cognitive approach to psychology

Psychoanalytic Approach

The psychoanalytic conception of human behaviour was developed by Sigmund Freud in Europe about the same time that behaviourism was evolving in the United States. Psychoanalytic concepts are based on extensive case studies of individual patients rather than experimental studies. Psychoanalytic ideas have had a profound influence on psychological thinking.

The basic assumption of Freud’s theory is that much of our behaviour stems from processes that are unconscious. By unconscious Freud meant thoughts, fears, and wishes a person is unaware of but which nevertheless influence behaviour. According to Freud, unconscious impulses find expression in dreams, slips of speech, mannerisms, and symptoms of mental illness as well as through such socially approved behaviour as artistic or literary activity.

Freud believed that all of our actions have a cause but that the cause is often some unconscious motive rather than the rational reason we may give for our behaviour.

Phenomenological/Humanistic Approach

The humanistic approach focuses on subjective experience. It is concerned with the individual’s person view of the world an interpretation of events- the individual’s phenomenology. This apporch seeks to understand events, or phenomena, as they are experiences by the individual and to do so without imposing any preconceptions or theoretical ideas.

Phenomenological psychologists believe that we can learn more about human nature by studying how people view themselves and their world than we can by observing their actions. It emphasizes internal mental processes rather than behaviour that may be observed. In this way it is similar to the cognitive approach. The major difference  between these two approaches is in the kinds of problems studied. Cognitive psychologists are concerned primarily with how individuals perceive events and code, categorise and represent information in memory. They seek to identify variables that influence perception and memory and to develop a theory of how the mind worlds so as to predict behaviour. Phenomenological psychologists, are more concerned with understanding the inner life and experiences of individuals than with developing theories or predicting behaviour. They are interested in a person’s self-concept, feeling of esteem, and self awareness.

Phenomenological psychologists tend to reject the notion that behaviour is controlled by unconscious impulses or be external stimuli. They prefer to believe that we are not “acted on” by forces beyond our control but instead are “actors” capable of controlling our own destiny. We are free to make choices and set goals.

Some phenomenological theories are also called humanistic because they emphasize those qualities that distinguish people from animals- in addition to free will, primarily the drive to self-actualization. With it emphasis on developing one’s potential humanistic psychology has been closely associated with encounter groups and types of ‘conscious-expanding’ experiences. In some respects this approach is more aligned with literature and the humanities that with science. In fact some humanists reject scientific psychology, claiming that its methods can contribute nothing worthwhile to understanding human nature.

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