Introduction and Overview of Psychological Science

What is Psychology?

Psychology represents many disciplines and many professionals from other disciplines have made significant contributions to the field. Examples: Wilhelm Wundt was a physiologist and philosopher; Ivan Pavlov was a Russian physiologist; Sigmund Freud was a physician, Jean Piaget was a biologist; and, William James was a philosopher.

Major Foci

Psychology has had several major foci:
--It began as the science of mental life.
--In the 1920s to 1960s, the definition focused on the science of observable behavior.
--In the 1960s, there was a reemphasis on mind and mental processes.
 It became the science of behavior and mental processes.
--The latter part of the 1960s also ushered in the focus on the study of animal behavior
and development of animals.

Current Definitions

Psychology can be described in some of the following ways:
--The science or study of individual mental activity and behavior.
--Focuses on processes occurring within the individual.
--Focuses on connections between mind and body.
--Is a philosophical science. Has its roots in philosophy.
--Is a science. Has its roots in biology, medicine and physics.
--Is systematic and scientific (is structured, has a methodology, and is empirical).
--Is concerned with animal development.

Two comprehensive definitions of psychology are stated below:

"Psychology is the scientific study of behavior and mental processes and how they are affected by an organism's physical state, mental state, and external environment." (Wade and Tarvis, 1990)

"Psychology is an interdisciplinary approach to the study of animal and human processes and behavior. Psychology examines the impact of proper or improper physical and mental functioning on behavior; and, the effects of the external environment on behavior." (R. King, 1996)


Animal Development in Psychology

While psychology has always used animals in research, there is a growing body of psychologists and other scientists interested in studying animal development. Examples of research include: Chimpanzees, Gorillas, Orangutans and Bonobos being taught language through such mechanisms as sign language, symbol systems, human communication, and computers. Dogs have been taught to assist humans and are proficient at understanding human language. Dolphins have been used by the US Navy to assist with its missions, such as mine sweeping, tracking ships and other top secret projects. John C. Lily conducted a decade of research attempting to teach Dolphins to talk. Dolphins have the cognitive skills to understand simple language, including concepts, directions and basic rules governing the sequence of words. Dolphins also talk back in their own way.

The scientific study of animal behavior in psychology is called "ethology." Ethologists and behaviorists have
 discovered that animals combine learning, cognition and instinct to organize their behavior.


Psychology and Technology

Technology has advanced theory and science in psychology. Sophisticated technology such as Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI)and Positron Emission Tomography (PET) has enabled us to see the inner workings of the body and brain. Other technology has enabled us to detail a single nerve cell - a neuron.

With technology, we are now able to confirm early theories and hypotheses advanced by scientists who speculated about certain phenomenon, but could only speculate in the absence of appropriate technological tools for precise verification and measurement. For example, John Watson believed there was a relationship between the larynx and tongue in the formation of speech, but had no tools to measure it. Technology enabled his speculation to be verified.


Basic Questions in Psychology

--How do humans and animals act?

--How do they know?

--How do they interact with each other?

--How do they develop?

--How do they differ among themselves?


The Organization of Introduction to Psychology

If you were to examine the your textbook's table of contents, you would begin to see that
the chapters could be reordered and would have 5 major areas of focus:

 I. Action
II. Development
III. Cognition
IV. Individual Differences
V. Social Behavior

Each is described below.


Overt behavior and its physiological basis.

Biological Bases of Behavior -
the biological underpinning of human and animal action. The brain and nervous system and its operation.

Motivation -
directed, motivated behavior and the biological bases of such acts. Topics of discussion include, self-regulatory motives, like thirst and hunger; the emergency reactions of strong fear, rage and the various states of arousal.

Learning -
how organisms learn to behave in new ways. Includes discussions of classical and operant conditioning, behavior theory, and so on.


How humans came into being. How beings (humans and animals) develop.
 Explains the mechanics of development - how organisms work.
 Development focuses on understanding all aspects of development - physical, cognitive and psychosocial. Examples of discussion areas include: prenatal development, motor development, social growth and development, moral reasoning, sex roles, attachment, early socialization, effects of different kinds of child rearing, adulthood and aging, death and dying.


What humans know, how they come to know it, and how this knowledge is retrieved through memory, transformed through thinking, and communicated by language.

Examples Include:

Sensory Processes -
How the senses can provide us with information about the world outside, which leads to the perception of objects and events. We look at our sensory system - especially vision and hearing.

Perception -
How we organize and interpret sensory information - which leads to our perception of objects and events.
Discovering the processes involved in perceptual organization - a brain-based phenomenon.

Learning -
Acquisition of knowledge and understanding of information processing.

Memory -
Information processing, retrieval, etc.
Deals with the way knowledge is stored in memory, maintained overtime and retrieved when called for later.

Problem-Solving -
Understanding and diagnosing problems.

Thinking -
The way knowledge is reorganized through thinking. Types of thinking processes.

Language -
A crucial component of the human cognitive system and the primary means of communicating knowledge.

One critical question is: Does thought control language - or does language control thought?


The ways in which humans differ from each other.
Under the field of psychology known as Differential Psychology.


Intelligence -
Focuses on IQ analytical models, mental testing in general and intelligence testing in particular.
Also discusses the nature-nurture (heredity vs. environment) controversy in determining differences.

Personality -
Primarily examines explanations or theories about personality development, methods of personality assessment and the theoretical approaches to personality.

Psychopathology (Abnormal Behavior) and Methods of Treatment -
Examines the major categories of illness and their causes; treatments and therapies.


Behavior as it occurs in a social context, not merely as action but as interaction,
 and the social impact on individual behavior.


Social Perception and Cognition -
Ways in which people perceive and interpret the social world.
Includes discussion of attitudes, attitude change, attribution processes, and more, such as
how people interact with other individuals and in groups.
 Includes discussion of social exchange, conformity, compliance, crowd behavior, altruism,
 social facilitation, and much more.

-Adapted from: Henry Gleitman, Basic Psychology, New York: WW Norton & Company, 1992.-


Seven Themes of Psychological Science

1. Psychology is an empirical science.

2. Nature and nurture are inextricably entwined.

3. The brain and mind are inseparable.

4. A new biological revolution is energizing research in psychology.

5. The mind is adaptive.

6. Psychological science crosses levels of analysis.

7. We often are unaware of the multiple influences on how we think, feel and act.

-Source:Gazzaniga, Michael, Todd Heatherton and Daine Halpern. (2010). Psychological Science. New York:W.W. Norton.-


Objectives of Psychological Science

       --to understand behavior or events
       --to make descriptions
       --to provide explanations
       --to make predictions

       --to modify behavior and mental processes
       --to develop theories

       --to monitor ethical standards and a code of conduct
       --to protect human subjects
       --to gain subjects' informed consent
       --to treat animals ethically in research


Roles of Psychologists

To conduct or engage in pure (original) research.

To discover practical applications to research -- ways to apply findings in real life settings (Applied Research).

To conduct counseling and therapy.

Consulting and diagnosing occurs in many aspects and sub fields of psychology.


Observations (occurs in many aspects and subfields of psychology).

Evaluation and Assessment (individual, group, large-scale, national and international).


Psychology's Relatives
Relationship to the Natural and Social Sciences

Psychology is an integrated hub science.  It is a global discipline. It is a bridge between the natural and social sciences.  The disciplines below play an integral role in psychology.

Psychology belongs to a family of disciplines known as the social sciences: Sociology, Anthropology, Economics, Political Science,, Geography, and History.

Psychology also belongs to the natural sciences: Biology, Physics, Chemistry, Math.

Psychology belongs to Medicine: Psychiatry, Neuroscience.

Psychology's Relationship to the Social Sciences

SOCIOLOGY - the study of groups and institutions within society, such as family, religious institutions, the workplace and social cliques. Sociologists usually focus on variables external to the individual.

[Note: Social Psychology is a mix of psychology and sociology, to some extent. It focuses on how social groups and situations affect an individual's behavior. Because psychology has a field that is a blend of sociology and psychology, the field of psychology does not rely heavily on the field of sociology.  Social psychology is one of the largest subfields in psychology.]

ANTHROPOLOGY - is concerned with the physical and cultural origins and development of the human race. Anthropologists focuses on entire societies, and in the past there was much focus on non technological societies. But today, anthropologists also may study technological societies, schools and communities.

My personal opinion is that anthropology is one of the most interesting fields of study closely related to psychology. Anthropology is the study of human beings. It is concerned with humans in all places of the world. It traces human evolution and cultural development from millions of years ago to the present day.

Anthropologists study all varieties of people and aspects of those people's experiences. A primary concern is to understand culture.

Psychology relies heavily on the field of anthropology.  The work and research of anthropologists is important to the field of psychology.

Major fields in anthropology include: 1) physical (biological) anthropology, which includes "human paleontology" or "paleoanthropology," "primatology" and those focusing on human variation; 2) "cultural anthropology," which includes "archeology," "linguistics," and "ethnology."

-Studies the development of human physical characteristics over time and how these physical characteristics affect human behavior.

-Studies fossils of early humans and their ancestors.

-Examines similarities and differences between humans and other creatures, especially apes (primatologists).

-Asks questions about how and why contemporary human populations vary biologically.


-Traces the origins, evolutionary development and genetic diversity.

-Studies the biocultural prehistory of homos to understand the nature, the evolution of the brain and nervous system.


-Studies the way of life of groups of people: their ideas, behavior patterns and material objects they create. Examines why people do what they do.

-Studies the origin and significance of cultural diversity.

-Sub fields of cultural anthropology include:

1) Archeology - the study of past cultures through their material remains and artifacts. Most archeologists deal with prehistory, the time before written records (e.g., examining cave paintings, pictographs, discarded stone tools, earthenware, vessels, religious figurines, etc.).

2) Linguistics - the study of language--its history, evolution and internal structure. Studies the changes in language over time and present variations in language. There are two subspecialties in psychology and sociology: psycholinguistics - the study of language development; and sociolinguistics - the study of how language is used in social contexts.

3) Ethnohistory - an ethnohistorian studies how the ways of life of a particular group may change over time. Investigates written documents. In psychology, we have psychohistory and psychohistorians, such as Erik Erikson.

4) The Cross-cultural Researcher - examines why certain cultural characteristics may be found in some societies but not in others.


-Studies human health and illness. Focuses on understanding the cultural context in which people spend their lives (their economy, diet, patterns of social interaction) and their attitudes and beliefs regarding illness and health and the biological aspects related to genetics and human variation.


-Studies patterns of thought and behavior, such as marriage customs, kinship, organization, political and economic systems, religion, folk art and music. Examines similarities and differences between modern societies.

-Also studies the dynamics of culture (how cultures develop and change).

-Generally use data collected through observation and interviewing of living peoples.

-Includes the "ethnographer" who conducts in-depth observations and study of a people's customs, behaviors and beliefs, economic and political behaviors, how people adapt to environmental conditions, etc.

Anthropologists contribute much to psychologists understanding about human behavior, but mainly from a qualitative perspective. However, they provide experimental psychologists much information for study in the laboratory.

ECONOMICS - the study of how people produce, distribute and consume goods and services. Economists study the production, distribution, and allocation of the material goods and services of a society. They want to know what goods are being produced at what rate and at what cost; and, the variables that determine who gets what. Economics is the study of how people make choices to satisfy their wants.

There are two branches: 1) Microeconomics - the study of particular aspects of an economy; and 2) Macroeconomics -the study of behavior of the economy as a whole (e.g., unemployment) including the role of government and expenditure in determining the general level of economic activity.

POLITICAL SCIENCE - the study of political behavior and the establishment and conduct of government. How people attain ruling positions in society, how they maintain them, as well as their consequences and impacts on those who are governed. Also the study of voting behavior, use of deception in political campaigns and much more.

GEOGRAPHY - the scientific study of the earth's surface and physical features, climate, products and population. The study of physical features and arrangement of a place.

The five themes of geography are:

1. Location - the placement (absolute or relative) of something in space and time.

2. Place - given the location of an object what are the characteristics of the location.

3) Human/Environment Interaction - how man and the environment influence and affect each other.

4) Movement - of ideas, people, goods, etc.

5) Regions - how they form and change.

HISTORY - the study and recording of past events, particularly those of social significance. Historians attempt to establish the context, or social milieu of the event -- the important persons, ideas, institutions, social movements, etc., that influence the outcomes. History helps to determine the most important elements that help to explain the past and connect past events to future attitudes, perspectives and events.

History is important to psychology because of the impact of the history of a place, region or people has much to do with their state of consciousness, how they develop, as well as the extent of their development.

Psychology's Relationship to the Natural Sciences

The Natural Sciences: Biology

Study of the structure and functioning of all living things, from trees to turtles.
Bio-psychologists study the biological basis and underpinnings  of behavior.

The Natural Sciences-Physics

The study of the natural or material world and phenomena; natural philosophy.
Physical properties of behavior.
Psycho-physics-the branch of psychology that deals with the relationships between physical stimuli and
mental phenomena.
Quantum Physics/Quantum Psychology-Quantum physics is the study of the behavior of matter and
energyat the molecular, atomic, nuclear, and even smaller microscopic levels.
Quantum Psychology is a new paradigm bridging quantum physics and psychology. It focuses on the
 science within consciousness. Explores the relationship between spirit and matter.

View Videos on Quantum Physics and Psychology:

Seeding Change-Amit Goswami-Part 1
Seeding Change-Amit Goswami-Part 2

The Natural Sciences-Chemistry

The branch of science that deals with the identification of the substances of which matter is composed;
  the investigation of their properties and the ways in which they interact, combine, and change;
  and the use of these processes to form new substances.
The chemical composition and properties of a substance or body.


A sister science.
The medical specialty dealing with mental disorders, maladjustment, and abnormal behavior (psychopathology).

Study of brain and the nervous system and impact on psychological behavior.

Can you think about the important role that psychology's relatives play in
the field of psychology as discussed in class?


Historical Sketch of Psychology

Go to the History of Psychology Section under "Lessons" for this overview
of how psychology has evolved as a discipline over the centuries.


Old Schools of Psychology

These are schools of thought or perspectives that people shared while working in the field. Historically speaking, these schools of thought were generally led by a primary thinker with many practicing psychologists as followers. For many, their particular perspective dominated every thing they did in the field in their practice, in the way they analyzed their clients, their prescriptions for treatment, and their diagnoses. Some of these schools of thought died out due to insufficient methodologies to sustain them. Others are still around today and have been integrated into current models.

Believed that psychology's focus should be the structure of consciousness. This structure had 3 components: objective sensations, subjective feelings, and images. Structuralists wanted to know what the mind (or consciousness) contained and in what quantity. The main research tool of structuralism was a method known as "analytic introspection -- a way of isolating elements of which experiences are made.

Founders: Wilhelm Wundt of Germany. Edward Titchener (of Cornell University) brought the concept to the United States.

Emphasized the function of thought. Wanted to know the purpose of thought or consciousness.

Founders: William James of Harvard University. John Dewey and James Angell of University of Chicago are also given credit, but James was the original founder.

Believed that psychology is the science and study of behavior - not mind. Observable behavior was more important because you could not measure thinking or feeling.

Founder: John B. Watson

The focus is on the organization of perception and thinking in a "whole" sense, rather than on the individual elements of perception. It is the organization of elements rather than the elements themselves that are important.

The Gestaltists are some of the most fascinating scientists in the field. They created many interesting laws and phenomena relative to how we typically see or interpret the world around us. Much of their work is still very prevalent and relevant today. The Psychology of perception is one of the most intriguing fields in psychology today. Many artists, such as M.C. Escher, Dali and Arcimbaldo have mastered the principles and applied them to art.

Founder: Max Wertheimer

A movement launched in the 1950s. Humanists believe that people are basically good and that people have free will and the will to strive to achieve positive social goals, and the highest and best for themselves. They also believed that this was the better perspective or framework out of which psychologists should operate rather than the perspective that people were basically evil, as was espoused by Freud.

Founders: Abraham Maslow, Carl Rogers, and Rollo May.

Attempted to adapt a perspective from existential philosophy and the work of such people as Kierkegaard. Believed that human existence is in the "here and now." The past is not important nor the future. People need help with their present situations and circumstances.

The focus in explaining behavior is on the person's immediate experience, current feelings, attitudes and values; and, efforts toward finding meaning in life.

Founder: Victor Frankl (early leader).


Current Models of Psychology

Views behavior from the perspective of its biological functioning. For example, how the individual nerve
cells are connected, how we inherit certain characteristics from our parents and other ancestors
 that influence our behavior.

Examines such issues as how the body and brain create emotions, memories, and sensory
experience (Myers, 2007).

Explores how nature selects traits that promote perpetuation of one's genes and so on. Considers
 how evolution influences behavior tendencies (Myers, 2007).

Examines the extent to which genes and/or environment influences behavior.

Views behavior as motivated by inner forces over which the individual has little control.
 Views behavior as springing from unconscious drives and conflicts.

Investigates how individuals know, understand and think about the world. The model has shifted from learning about the structure of the mind, to learning about how people understand and represent the outside world within themselves; and, the impact of this understanding on behavior. Looks in detail at the human and animal information processing system - how we encode, process, store and retrieve information.

Has as a focus the observance of outward behavior rather than the inner workings of mind.
Seeks an understanding of how people learn new behaviors.

A perspective that believes that people basically strive for good. People are naturally inclined to develop toward higher levels of maturity and fulfillment, and if given the opportunity, will strive to reach their full potential. Also believes that man has free will -- the choice to make decisions about one's own life.

Examines how behavior and thinking vary across situations and cultures.


Major Issues and Questions in Psychology

I. Nature (heredity) vs. Nurture (environment)
What is behavior attributable to -- heredity or environment?

II. Conscious vs. Unconscious Determinants of Behavior
To what extent is behavior attributable to unconscious mind as compared to conscious mind?
[Controversy: Is abnormal behavior the result of unconscious factors or faulty thinking patterns?]

III. Observable Behavior vs. Internal Mental Processes.
Should psychology concentrate solely on behavior that can be seen by outside observers, or should unseen thinking processes represent the focus of the field?

IV. Freedom of Choice vs. Determinism
To what extent is behavior attributable to choices made freely by an individual as opposed to behavior largely produced by factors beyond one's willful control?

V. Individual Differences vs. Universal Principles
To what extent is behavior a consequence of the unique and special qualities that each possess or universal patterns? Do we share similar biological makeup and similar experiences?


What Psychology Understands About Human Behavior

Human Beings are biological creatures.
Every person is different, yet much the same.
People can only be understood fully only in the context of their culture, ethnic identity and gender identity.
Humans are in a continuous process of change.
Behavior is motivated.
Behavior has multiple levels of cause and effect.
Humans are largely social beings.
Human beings are creative and play a major role in creating their lives and experiences.
People and behavior can be maladaptive and adaptive.  Many people can adjust to everyday life, while others cannot and are harmful to self or others.


View Video on Overview of Psychology:

Paul Bloom: The Psychology of Everything

Revised: August 2014-All Rights Reserved-Written by Rosalyn M. King, King's Psychology Network


Gazzaniga, Michael, Todd Heatherton and Diane Halpern. (2010). Psychological Science. New York:W.W. Norton.

Gleitman, Henry. (1992). Basic Psychology, New York: WW Norton & Company.