What is psychology?

by Professor Dorothy Bishop FBA

31 May 2019

When strangers ask you what you do, if you say you're a psychologist you tend to get one of two reactions. Either they say, 'are you going to read my mind?’, or they regard you as the kind of personal life-coach whose outputs fill airport bookstores. These responses capture a grain of truth, in that psychologists are interested in how the mind works, and some of them use that knowledge to devise therapeutic solutions to common mental health problems. But there is a big difference between academic psychologists and the kinds of 'experts’ whose tomes tell you how to live your life: we treat the study of the human mind as worthy of scholarly investigation, typically adopting experimental and observational methods to resolve questions of interest.

Many psychologists focus on general aspects of human perception and memory. They ask questions such as ‘why does our brain sometimes trick us into misperceiving visual stimuli?’ or ‘what makes something easy or difficult to remember?’ There is also a rich literature on human reasoning, which shows that humans are seldom entirely rational. We tend to ignore evidence that goes against our preconceptions, and are subject to a host of cognitive biases that influence how we make decisions on issues such as money management, or medical choices. To understand such questions we need to consider emotional as well as cognitive factors. In times of peace and prosperity, the worst that may happen is that these biases are exploited by advertising agencies, but in darker political times, they may form the basis for effective propaganda, persuading people to act against their own best interests.

Related subfields of psychology consider questions such as the brain basis of behaviour (neuropsychology), how cognition and emotion change with age (developmental psychology) or how humans differ from other animals (comparative psychology). These approaches may involve complex techniques such as brain scanning, or ingenious methods allowing us to infer what a baby or chimpanzee thinks or knows.

The photograph of Sarah Marshall-Pescini photographing chimpanzee surrounded by greenery.
Sarah Marshall-Pescini studies a young chimpanzee in the sanctuary on Ngamba Island, Lake Victoria, Uganda. The chimp is working on an ‘artificial fruit’, having seen someone open it one of several ways, to test for copying behaviour. Photo Andrew Whiten.

A second level of focus is individual differences between people, for example, why are some people anxious, while others are typically calm? Why do some children have difficulty learning to read, while others become literate with barely any effort? The study of these individual differences can extend to conditions that cause impairment or distress, such as autism, or depression. Clinical psychologists focus mainly on mental health conditions, and may work closely with psychiatrists, who typically adopt a more medical approach to disorders, involving the use of drugs. Psychologists, by contrast, are more likely to intervene to target the cognitive and emotional aspects of disorder directly, with methods such as cognitive behaviour therapy.

At yet another level, social psychologists are interested in how people behave in groups. What makes someone feel part of a group, or antagonistic to another group? One of the classic studies in this area, the Stanford Prison experiment, has recently been criticised for weak methodology and misleading results, but it has been influential precisely because it focused on a question of enormous relevance to all of us: what makes people be willing to mistreat others, and is this something specific to certain individuals, or could any of us behave this way under specific social conditions?

Black and white photograph showing men participating in the Stanford Prison Experiment.
Zimbardo and participants of the Stanford Prison Experiment. Image credit: Teodorvasic97 via CC BY-SA 4.0.

I've drawn a distinction between areas of psychology that focus on humans in general, individual differences between people, and behaviour of groups, but divisions between these levels are not sharp, and indeed, some of the most interesting research is at the interfaces between them. If we want to understand developmental dyslexia, for instance, we may need to incorporate knowledge of learning and memory, language, developmental psychology and neuroscience. Furthermore, we may consider how society reacts to a label of dyslexia – whether it leads to stigmatisation or acceptance. Ultimately, by combining these different approaches, psychology has the potential to address questions of importance for all of us: how to understand ourselves and our fellow human beings.

Dorothy Bishop FBA is Professor of Developmental Neuropsychology at the University of Oxford and a Wellcome Trust Principal Research Fellow.


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