Psychology is a branch of science that deals with behavior and the mind. People who study psychology (known as psychologists) study why people behave in certain ways under certain conditions. They are also interested in developing a set of principles for all human action. Psychology is a relatively new academic discipline as it has only been developed in the last 150 years or so. Prior to psychology, questions about human thought and behavior were handled by philosophers. In fact, the first psychologists could be said to be Aristotle, Plato, and the other Ancient Greek philosophers.
The first psychologist in the modern sense of the word was Wilhelm Wundt. Up to this point, psychology was not treated like a scientific branch. To be considered science experiments, hypotheses and repeatable results must be had. Wundt was the first person to set up a psychology lab in which behavior and thought could be observed. Wundt’s overall goal was to break down mental processes into their most basic components. This early school of psychological thought came to be known as structuralism.
Psychology is characterized by many different types, or schools, of thought. There is not one overarching theory or set of principles that all psychologists agree on. In fact, psychological thoughts can be traced over time based on their popularity. Following the structuralist school, functionalism became the predominant way to view psychology. Functionalism focused on understanding the mind so that people could benefit from discoveries. Psychologists such as John Dewey and Ivan Pavlov focused their research on the way humans learn. Their research became a very important tenant of psychology and served as the basis for later schools of thought.
Psychoanalysis, championed by Sigmund Freud, behaviorism, humanism, gestalt, existentialism, cognitivism and many others are all different schools of psychological thought. Some have gained in popularity over time while others have been discarded or weakened due to new discoveries. They all place a different emphasis on how humans learn, think, and behave.
For example, Sigmund Freud did a lot of research in repression, sexuality, and thinking patterns that he eventually developed into a type of therapy known as psychotherapy. While his theories have been largely discarded by most of the respected psychological community today, his fame helped the field of psychology grow.
Today, psychology is a field that has applications in a multitude of industries. Applied psychology has relevance to education, health, industry, management and almost any other subcategory of professional work today. Modern psychologists work in clinical settings, help businesses maximize their employees and client relations, work in schools while helping students, train managers to be more effective and nearly any other field that requires an understanding of why people behave in a certain way.
Psychology has received some criticism by others in the scientific professions due to its reputation as a “soft” science. While psychologists try to work with hard data as much as possible, much of that data comes from experimental methods like observation (both controlled and uncontrolled), surveys, questionnaires, tests, and other similar techniques. While some psychologists that focus on neurobiology don’t fall under that critique, psychology has sometimes struggled to gain respect among its scientific brethren, like chemistry and biology.
All in all, psychology aims to answer the large questions of humanity in as scientific a way as possible. It’s easy to see why the original psychologists were likely to be philosophers as the questions they struggled with speak to the very basic meaning of humanity. Why do we think the way we do? Why do we act this way? What does it mean to be happy and how can we live better lives?