Introduction to Psychology




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.



Normal and Schizophrenic Brains

Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) reveals structural differences between a normal adult brain, left, and the brain of a person with schizophrenia, right. The schizophrenic brain has enlarged ventricles (fluid-filled cavities), shown in light gray. However, not all people with schizophrenia show this abnormality.

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.


Clinical Psychology

Prevalence of Mental Disorders

This chart illustrates the percentage of people in the United States who experience a particular mental illness at some point during their lives. The figures are derived from the National Comorbidity Survey, in which researchers interviewed more than 8000 people aged 15 to 54 years. Homeless people and those living in prisons, nursing homes, or other institutions were not included in the survey.

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.


Cognitive Psychology

Stroop Test

To take the Stroop test, name aloud each color in the two columns at left as quickly as you can. Next, look at the right side of the illustration and quickly name the colors in which the words are printed. Which task took longer to complete? The test, devised in 1935 by American psychologist John Stroop, shows that people cannot help but process word meanings, and that this processing interferes with the color-naming task.

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.

Kanzi Listening to Human Speech

Kanzi, a male bonobo, or pygmy chimpanzee, identifies an object that he has just heard named through headphone speakers. At a young age, Kanzi learned to understand simple human speech and to communicate by using lexigrams, abstract symbols that represent objects and actions. A keyboard of lexigrams is pictured in the background.

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.

Simplified Model of Memory

In this information-processing model of memory, information that enters the brain is briefly recorded in sensory memory. If we focus our attention on it, the information may become part of working memory (also called short-term memory), where it can be manipulated and used. Through encoding techniques such as repetition and rehearsal, information may be transferred to long-term memory. Retrieving long-term memories makes them active again in working memory.

See Cognitive Psychology.


Developmental Psychology

Learning Aggression Through Observation

Pygmy Mammoth Productions

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.


Social Psychology

Milgram’s Obedience Experiment

A “shock generator,” top, was used by American psychologist Stanley Milgram in experiments designed to test the obedience of people to authority. An experimenter instructed subjects to administer what they believed were painful electric shocks to Mr. Wallace, bottom, an accomplice of the experimenter who was strapped into a chair and connected to the generator by electrodes on his skin. No actual shocks occurred. The experimenter ordered the subjects to continue as the shocks increased to a level the subjects believed were dangerous or even lethal. In Milgram’s initial study, 65 percent of people obeyed the experimenter and delivered the maximum shock of 450 volts. Milgram discusses his conclusions in this sound clip.

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.