What is Psychology?
Psychology is the study of mind and behaviour, and the processes that connect them. It is the discipline most interested in why and how humans function. It is a dynamic field with tremendous overlap with other fields but adhering to unique standards for research and practice, which has made it an area of study as well as a professional discipline with impact across science, industry, and government.
Psychology is a field interested in all aspects of life and goes beyond understanding just human behaviours to include comparative models with animals and forensic approaches to evidence-gathering. Its most common sub-disciplines include cognitive psychology (understanding how the brain and mind function), social psychology (individual, group, and population behaviour), clinical (dealing with mental health of sick individuals), and developmental psychology (studying the way humans age from before birth through the end of life).
As psychology has expanded as a professional discipline, so too have topics of interest in the field and overlap with other professions. Many government policies now require input from psychological research based on increased awareness that understanding the impact on behaviour is a critical aspect of leadership. Businesses have a growing interest in mobilising psychologists as a way to recruit, engage, and capitalise on the best employees. With examples like these increasing year to year, there are an equivalent number of opportunities to engage in a career through studying the subject.
While most psychologists receive general training – which typically covers between eight and ten psychological disciplines – at undergraduate level, it is common to specialise to a domain relatively early. The early years of psychology as a scientific discipline heavily focused on the brain and the mind, with early research attempting to answer fundamental questions about intelligence, personality, basic functioning, and disorder. In the mid-20th century, the field shifted heavily into what was considered the behaviourist era, which was characterised by extensive study of human (and animal) behaviours, preferences, and decision-making. Now moving into what many consider to be the third era of psychological science, the emphasis has shifted toward mass understanding of populations and interventions, aiming to capitalise on enhanced access to communication platforms that support rapidly-expanding availability of data. This has often been referred to as the bridging of fields, connecting evidence from laboratory researchers in neuroscience through to the national policymakers who require their insights to be effective in their leadership.
Thinking about studying Psychology at university?
We do more than give advice and talk about patients’ mothers
One common misunderstanding about Psychology as a field is that the main – or only – field relates to clinical psychologists and counsellors who provide guidance for those with emotional disorders. In fact, there are many disciplines in psychology that have far greater representation in both science and practice. Furthermore, clinical psychologists must complete advanced training similar to a medical degree to be licensed to practice and getting a space on these doctoral programmes are amongst the most competitive application processes in higher education.
It is not a ‘soft science’
While psychology has links to the humanities, arts, and philosophy, it is rooted in biological science. Core training in psychology, even for those who move on to social disciplines must first complete study in biological, cognitive, and experimental topics. While some ‘pop psychology’ stories may imply otherwise, the field has incredibly stringent principles and it is not uncommon for a conference to be called simply to debate the definition of a term to promote best quality research rather than have individuals across the profession working to different standards. In fact, we even have a book on standards and guidelines for how we publish our evidence that gets updated every few years and that you must follow to have your work recognised!
It is a quantitative field
Many psychology students are surprised to find out that statistics make up a significant part of their undergraduate course. This is due to the methodological standards in the field, which are both diverse and constantly evolving. While the mathematics behind it are not as intimidating as some may perceive, a core appreciation for statistics will be central to any psychological degree. Many students find they enjoy them more than expected but all graduates learn immediately how beneficial this training is when looking for a job.
No matter your interests, there is always a topic for you
Whether you are interested in why humans believe in God or what parts of the brain are activated when we choose where to spend money, there is always an opportunity to engage in the subject. It is perhaps the most diverse of all natural sciences and certainly amongst the most expanding over recent years, with little likelihood of that slowing anytime soon!
Decision-making is the cognitive process of selecting a belief or a course of action from a set of possible options. Making a choice involves assessment and judgement; that is, evaluating different options and making a decision about which option to choose. Current empirical research suggests that different people in different situations frequently think about decisions in the same way, indicating that humans have a common set of cognitive skills that are used in decision making.
Social psychology is the study of group and population behaviour, as well as how individuals function within them. At its broadest, it includes preferences, perceptions, choices, and communication from clusters of individuals from the smallest groups (e.g. couples, families, classrooms) to the largest populations (e.g. cities, countries, ethnicities). It is perhaps the most directly-linked to government and public policy, both locally and internationally, of any psychological discipline of the past 30 years. It is very closely tied with other disciplines in the field, particularly individual differences and decision-making.
There are many ways in which memory has been addressed throughout the history of psychology. Some researchers have created computer-like models to understand the functioning of memory, even simulating it with very powerful computers. Some others have studied and compared human memory to other species, like certain birds, rats, chimpanzees, or dolphins.