What is Psychology?

Learning Objectives

  • Define Psychology

What is creativity? Why do some people become homeless? What are prejudice and discrimination? What is consciousness? The field of psychology explores questions like these. Psychology refers to the scientific study of the mind and behavior. Psychologists use the scientific method to acquire knowledge. To apply the scientific method, a researcher with a question about how or why something happens will propose a tentative explanation, called a hypothesis, to explain the phenomenon. A hypothesis should fit into the context of a scientific theory, which is a broad explanation or group of explanations for some aspect of the natural world that is consistently supported by evidence over time. A theory is the best understanding we have of that part of the natural world. The researcher then makes observations or carries out an experiment to test the validity of the hypothesis. Those results are then published or presented at research conferences so that others can replicate or build on the results.

sculpture of a winged man embracing a woman

Figure 1. Antonio Canova’s sculpture depicts Eros and Psyche. Psyche, which means soul, represents the human soul’s triumph over life—as Psyche was a mortal woman who completed a series of impossible tasks to reunite with her love (Aphrodite’s son, Eros) and become a goddess herself.

Scientists test that which is perceivable and measurable. For example, the hypothesis that a bird sings because it is happy is not a hypothesis that can be tested since we have no way to measure the happiness of a bird. We must ask a different question, perhaps about the brain state of the bird, since this can be measured. However, we can ask individuals about whether they sing because they are happy since they are able to tell us. Thus, psychological science is empirical, based on measurable data.

In general, science deals only with matter and energy, that is, those things that can be measured, and it cannot arrive at knowledge about values and morality. This is one reason why our scientific understanding of the mind is so limited, since thoughts, at least as we experience them, are neither matter nor energy. The scientific method is also a form of empiricism. An empirical method for acquiring knowledge is one based on observation, including experimentation, rather than a method based only on forms of logical argument or previous authorities.

It was not until the late 1800s that psychology became accepted as its own academic discipline. Before this time, the workings of the mind were considered under the auspices of philosophy. Given that any behavior is, at its roots, biological, some areas of psychology take on aspects of a natural science like biology. No biological organism exists in isolation, and our behavior is influenced by our interactions with others. Therefore, psychology is also a social science.

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Glossary

empirical method: method for acquiring knowledge based on observation, including experimentation, rather than a method based only on forms of logical argument or previous authorities
ology: suffix that denotes “scientific study of”
psyche: Greek word for soul
psychology: the scientific study of mental processes and behavior

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