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Social Sciences: What is Psychology?

Over the last few years, Psychology has become more and more popular as a topic of everyday discussion. It’s not unusual to open Instagram to find “5 Easy Psychology Tips” or to hear a friend unofficially diagnosing someone as “manic” or “mentally ill.” 

This focus on psychology, especially mental health, has only increased during COVID-19. Basketball and football games now display Mental Health Public Service announcements.  But such popularity brings up big questions. What exactly is Psychology What defines it as a research field? How does it utilize the scientific method? And how do people use it in real life? Let’s take a look.

What is Psychology as a Research Field?

Simply defined, Psychology is the scientific study of the mind and behavior. Psychology attempts to understand how the mind creates emotions and motivates behavior. It is generally divided into many subfields, with focuses on different key aspects and applications of the discipline. 

The main subfields include: 

  1. Brain Science and Cognitive Psychology, which focuses on the mechanisms of thinking and learning in the brain, 
  2. Clinical Psychology, which focuses on how Psychology can treat mental illness, 
  3. Developmental Psychology, which studies how people grow and adapt throughout their lives, 
  4. Social Psychology, which focuses on how we perceive ourselves and respond to the world around us. 

Other subfields designated by the American Psychological Association include Climate and Environmental Psychology, Counseling Psychology, Experimental Psychology, Forensic Psychology, Health Psychology, Human Factors and Engineering Psychology, Industrial and Organizational Psychology, Psychology of Teaching and Learning, Quantitative Psychology, Rehabilitation Psychology, and Sport and Performance Psychology. 

How do Psychological Researchers Conduct Studies?

Psychology is a social science that follows scientific procedures for its research process to reach evidence-based conclusions. Psychology uses the scientific method to conduct its studies: starting with an observation and question, and moving on to a hypothesis, tested by an experiment, that leads to a conclusion and an eventually sharing of results. This process ensures that studies are able to be repeated and results can be tested, as well as enables the sharing of important findings with a larger research community, who can refute it, support it, or even add on to its findings. 

The types of studies that psychological researchers use also vary. An ideal scenario might be an experimental study, because it allows for a more isolated study of variables. An experimental study manipulates or changes an independent variable, while keeping everything else constant, to see the results on a dependent variable. For example, when studying the effect of caffeine on sleep habits, caffeine is the independent variable because it is changed, and sleep is the dependent variable because the outcome is affected by the amount of caffeine. Such a study allows for more clear conclusions to be made, because it is easier to eliminate confounding variables, which might affect the relationship between the independent and dependent variables and lead to misleading conclusions (see more on experimental variables here). 

In reality, however, experimental studies are not always possible or ethical. For example, when studying the effects of hormones on mood, psychologists can sometimes make physical changes in hormone levels in lab animals to see their effects, but that may not be ethical or possible in human beings. Additionally, it is unethical to expose research subjects to extreme psychological distress to see how they respond. 

Psychology has a long history of unethical studies (like the well known Stanford Prison Experiment); therefore, psychology, like all science disciplines, now follows strict regulations around how research is conducted.  

When experimental studies are not possible, psychologists utilize other types of studies. Observational studies do not manipulate an independent variable, but simply record and measure data on what is already happening (more on observational studies here). Such methods allow researchers to observe psychological phenomena more realistically. In these studies it is important that scientists either obtain consent to observe people, or operate under supervision of an Independent Review Board to ensure they are behaving ethically and maintaining confidentiality of observed subjects. While observational studies are closer to real life, researchers must be careful to explain their results in the context of the observation. Psychology places emphasis on utilizing scientific methods for its work to conduct ethical studies that create valid, reliable conclusions (see more on reliability and validity in Science For Georgia’s piece on Political Science). 

How Do People Use Psychology In Real Life?

Whether or not you realize it, psychology plays a part in many aspects of everyday life. 

Well known applications include therapy and research, but there are many other ways in which psychologists work. Forensic psychologists work with the government and often testify in court about how Psychology supports cases. Environmental psychologists help utilize Psychology to improve humans’ impact on the Earth. Educational psychologists often work in schools to help devise more effective teaching and learning strategies (see more on careers in psychology here). 

The impact of Psychology goes outside simply those who study it. Many psychological research studies have changed the way that people live their lives. For example, the findings that spanking children is ineffective and leads to negative outcomes have led to a decrease in the number of parents using spanking as a disciplinary method with their children (see more here). When social psychologists released a study revealing that the phrasing “Be a Voter” was more effective than telling people to “Go Vote,” politicians quickly began using the new phrasing. Further, the continued and persistent work by psychological researchers has led to breakthroughs in the treatment of many mental illnesses, from new medications for various mental illnesses (see here) to new methods of treatment like using Virtual Reality to help treat phobias, addiction, and PTSD (see more here). Simply put, Psychology’s real life effects are vast and valuable.

See other pieces in our Social Science series:

Why “Soft Sciences” Matter

What Is Political Science?

Ethics in Social Sciences

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