To this day one may have the perception that rather than a science, psychology is pure intuition and common sense given that we already know a lot about people. However attempting to use this handy short cut to the truth about the behaviour of individuals will only lead to myths and stereotype. This is why the majority of psychological research is based on scientifically testing a theory, and finding evidence in support, or against that particular hypothesis. Such scientific rigour in psychology has yielded a plethora of knowledge about individuals, and contributed to the developments of numerous benefits which we often encounter with, in our daily lives. This would include research in the way individuals interact with a mobile phone, computer or car and how this informs their design, gender and educational issues, parenting, performance and safety at the workplace, decision making and many other spheres that we may encounter through our lives. This makes research in psychology highly important as it constantly affects the way we live. At the IRISS, we conduct research with a positivist approach to study what makes life better and how the findings in our research may leave a positive difference in our daily lives.
Our psychology section is split over 3 areas, as follows:
The 18th century English poet Alexander Pope wrote in his work entitled, An essay on Men that, ‘The proper study of Mankind is Man’. Whilst Pope was referring to the little that man knew despite scientific progress, many would agree with such a statement especially Psychologists, for their interest is that of understanding human behaviour. Psychology as defined by Miller (1966) is ‘the science of mental life’. Mental life refers to three phenomena namely, behaviours, thoughts and emotions. There is general consensus amongst psychologists that psychology involves all three areas. What remains controversial is the notion that psychology is a science based on the systematic collection of data under controlled conditions so that a hypothesis or theory may be tested and not on the psychologist’s intuition. John Locke may have been spot on way back in 1690, when he said that human knowledge acquired in life should not be inherited or based on ‘innate’ ideas and that a theory despite how good it may sound is only a guess unless it is objectively tested. Yet to this day we come across personal experiences which may give sufficient comprehension on why individuals behave, think and feel the way they do. Perhaps this is best reflected in proverbs and generalizations such as, “practice makes perfect”, “once bitten twice shy”, “a happy worker is a productive worker” and many more. Whilst such phrases may apply at times they certainly do not give a complete comprehension of psychology.
Whilst psychology may seem to be an old topic it is a relatively young science with the first school of thought originating at the end of the 19th century when Wilhelm Wundt founded and set up the first experimental laboratory in psychology. This school of thought was called Structuralism.
Wundt’s earliest studies consisted of investigations in sensations and imagery. The structuralists as they were eventually called claimed that complex mental experiences were ‘structures’ built up from simple mental states, just like complex chemical compounds are made of simple chemical elements.
The functionalist school formed as a reaction to the dissatisfaction with the structuralist emphasis on mental states. William James and James Angell felt that psychology should have a practical value and psychologists should find out how the mind functions to the benefit of individuals. They did not seek to answer what is consciousness but what consciousness is for and what are its purposes and functions. Because of their interest in the way individuals used mental experience in adjusting to the environment they were called functionalists.
This is an approach which was developed by Sigmund Freud considered by many to be the ‘father’ of psychoanalysis. As a medical person, psychiatrist and neurologist he was predominantly interested in finding solutions to the psychological problems that individuals faced. He was less concerned with notions of the conscious such as perception, thinking and intelligence and proposed that our psychological functioning is governed by instinctive forces (especially sex and aggression) which are generally found to be outside our consciousness in what he eventually termed ‘the unconscious’. Freud identified the unconscious to consist of:
Because the unconscious cannot be investigated by introspective analysis, Freud developed the technique of psychoanalysis which is based on an investigation of the unconscious conflicts through dialogue between a patient and a psychoanalyst. According to Freud most of these conflicts originate in childhood and are difficult to change. However when the individual lets his guard down his inner conflicts are revealed and one can understand what the individual is truly feeling. At times accidentally through slips of the tongue hence the term, ‘Freudian slips’.
Conversely to the psychoanalytic approach, behaviourism is less concerned with what is occurring inside the individual and more interested in the observable behaviour and the conditions (situations)that cause certain behaviours. B.F. Skinnner and John Watson were amongst the leading advocates of this school of thought who argued that our behaviour can be observed without the need invoke invisible concepts such as ‘unconscious’. Skinner also said that our behaviour is environmentally controlled and used the concept of reinforcer referring to a favourable outcome of behaviour which makes it more likely to repeat itself in a similar situation. On the other hand Punishment is a term he referred to when a behaviour is followed by an unpleasant outcome which is most likely to not repeat itself in a similar condition. The behaviourists also argued that behaviours rise from conflicts which they termed approach-avoidance conflict. In such a situation an individual may face conflict at the workplace whereby he or she take on extra working hours to complete a project which is reinforced by management with a bonus or promotion but also punished by the disapproval of colleagues.
With its roots in philosophy and psychology this school of thought is based on the premise on how people experience the world around them, whereby individual experiences are based on the interpretation of events. So what seems to us as being an objectively defined reality is merely the interaction of that object and our mental faculties. For example a painting exists in the sense that it consists of paint on a surface, but has greater meaning when we place our own interpretation on it and consider it to be an outstanding piece of art.
This school of thought has been primarily influenced by the ideas and notions of social psychology and cognitive psychology. It is also influenced from behaviourism and to a lesser extent phenomenology. This approach focuses on the how the information we process in our minds is used to interpret social interaction and other social-psychological phenomena such as the self. The advocates of this school of thought see the individual as inclined to understand two phenomena; the self and the social world. Albert Bandura who developed social learning theory, a major development to the behaviourist approach argues that just as an individual is a product of the environment he is surrounded with is also able to influence that same environment. This he termed the principle of reciprocal determinism. For example I may decide to have my lunch as soon as I am ready typing this article and not before. Lunch would be my reward for the work performed however it does not mean that others would follow the same behaviour even though it is considered to be a positive reinforcement. Instead different individuals will set their own goals and objectives before acting, for example skipping lunch and coffee to leave earlier from their workplace.
Five areas have been identified in psychology. These are described below. They all contribute ideas and techniques to areas of applied psychology such as sports, work, clinical, educational, health and legal psychology. At times an area of applied psychology may also develop or contribute further to areas of basic psychology.
Perhaps the “Golden Age” for the development of the social sciences occurred over the three decades of 1930 to 1960. World War II called upon social scientists to contribute by way of their expertise to research a wide range of military and domestic issues. For example the critical incident technique, a method comprising of a set of procedures for collecting direct observations of human behaviour used by psychologists became established through the Aviation Psychology Program of the United States Army Air Forces. In particular the war mobilized experts from the disciplines of psychology and sociology to form the interdisciplinary of social psychology and research military related as well as domestic issues. As the war came to an end the influence of this interdisciplinary grew and extended to broader realms and areas of social life and public policy. Social Psychology is concerned with how our behaviours, thoughts and emotions affect and are affected by other people. It considers how groups of people make decisions and how individuals exert their behaviour towards particular groups.
Physiological psychology is concerned with the neural mechanisms of perception and behaviour that is, the relationship between mind and body. For example a psychologist may be interested to learn about the effects of stress on the human body or the activity in the brain when someone experiences a positive or negative experience. Normally an empirical and practical approach is applied when studying the brain and human behaviour. Psychologists within this field believe that the mind is a phenomenon that stems from the nervous system and that by studying and gaining knowledge about the mechanisms of the nervous system, one may discover many truths about human behaviour. Unlike other subdivisions within biological psychology, the main focus of physiological psychological research is the development of theories that describe brain-behaviour relationships.
Cognitive psychology focuses on our mental process. This includes how people perceive, think, remember, weigh up information, make decisions and learn. The American Psychological Association(APA) defines cognitive psychology as “The study of higher mental processes such as attention, memory, perception, problem solving, and thinking”. Much of the work derived from cognitive psychology has been applied in various areas of applied psychology. For example in occupational psychology psychometric tests have been developed to measure how quickly and accurately a candidate is able to respond to the questions in the test to measure a variety of skills such as creativity, problem solving, decision making and intelligence.
This area of psychology is concerned with the ways in which people grow and change psychologically. Originally concerned with infants and children. The field has expanded to include change and growth throughout adult life. Developmental psychology includes issues such as the extent to which development occurs through the gradual accumulation of knowledge versus stage-like development, or the extent to which children are born with innate mental structures, versus learning through experiences. Many researchers are interested in the interaction between personal characteristics, the individual’s behaviour, and environmental factors including social context, and their impact on development; others take a more narrowly-focused approach. Developmental psychology informs several applied fields, including: educational psychology, child psychopathology and forensic developmental psychology.
Personality Psychology focuses on the individual’s tendency to behave, think and feel in certain ways. It is concerned with how people differ from each other psychologically and how such differences may be measured. The study of personality features in most of the approaches discussed earlier such as the psychodynamic, behaviourist, and social learning traditions. Research in this area is empirically driven, such as dimensional models, based on multivariate statistics, such as factor analysis, or emphasizes theory development, such as that of the psychodynamic theory. There is also a substantial emphasis on the applied field of personality testing. For example in work psychology the study of personality is usually reviewed as an important aspect when it comes to selecting candidates for employment or promotion.