Introducing Psychology

So, what exactly is psychology? What does it mean, and what falls under that umbrella? This article will explore the meaning and foundations of psychology and help you find answers to some of these questions:

Introducing Psychology Introducing Psychology

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Table of contents
    • What is psychology?
    • What are subfields in psychology?
    • What are some early milestones in the history of psychology?
    • What are some important theories in psychology?
    • What are some of the key areas of study in psychology?
    • What is the biopsychosocial model?

    Introducing Psychology definition

    When people study psychology, what are they looking at? It's a bit more than just the brain and not as niche as neuroscience. Psychology can be defined in many different ways, with various subfields.

    Thinking about the mind, spirit, brain, whatever people call it, was widespread throughout many cultures. Plato, Pythagoras, and Aristotle were some of the most influential philosophers who focused on the psyche, creating some of the foundations of early western philosophy and psychology. Buddhist philosophies have developed several psychological theories, making interpretations of concepts like mindfulness and aggregates!

    Studies of the brain didn't just stop with philosophy. Biological studies were also conducted before psychology officially became a science. Phrenology was influential to early psychology, despite being declared a pseudoscience nowadays. Phrenologists would feel the bumps of the skull to determine brain function, mental illnesses, and other information.

    Combine biology and philosophy, and you get what we now know is psychology.

    Psychology is the scientific study of behavior and mental processes.

    Let's take a look at what this really means. There are two major concepts in psychology: behavior and mental processes. Behavior is what we do and how we act; we will dive deeper into this soon. Mental processes are how we think. This involves taking in information, processing things we have learned, and recalling memories.

    Subfields in Psychology with examples

    Now you know what psychology generally is, but how do we transfer it into specific studies? While more and more subfields and careers in psychology are being created and studied every day, here are some of the notable ones:

    • Biological psychology: looking at the physical things happening in the brain and connecting it to behavior.

    • Clinical psychology: assessing, diagnosing, and treating mental illness.

    • Cognitive psychology: focusing on how people think, know, remember, and communicate.

    Cognitive psychologists can work in many environments but are often medical professionals that focus on developing treatments for psychological and learning disorders.

    • Counseling psychology: assessing and treating personal issues that aren’t necessarily mental illness, such as grief or school problems.

    • Developmental psychology: studying the social, cognitive, and physical changes that happen over time.

    • Educational psychology: looking at how people learn and teach.

    • Industrial-organizational psychology: help companies increase productivity and train employees.

    • Social psychology: focusing on how people influence each other.

    • Sports psychology: assessing how psychology influences athletic activities and exercise.

    Competitive sports can take a mental toll, and that's how sports psychologists can help. Rebuilding confidence after a mistake or injury and fueling a healthy drive to succeed are some of the main areas sports psychologists focus on.

    Early Milestones in Introducing Psychology

    German scientist Wilhelm Wundt is often called the "father of psychology" and is the first person to be referred to as a psychologist. His most famous book, Principles of Physiological Psychology (1873), proposed specific goals of psychology that are still used today. He said that the goal of the field was to identify and examine parts of consciousness via introspection. He also founded the first experimental psychology lab, where he and other psychologists could conduct their own research.

    Introducing Psychology, picture of Wilhelm Wundt, StudySmarterWundt, Wikimedia Commons.

    Introspection, or internal perception, is self-examining your consciousness and thought processes as objectively as possible.

    G. Stanley Hall founded the American Journal of Psychology (1887), where researchers from all disciplines share their findings. A few years later, he became the first president of the American Psychological Association (APA) and Clark University, inviting Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung to a 1909 university conference. However, Hall's work at the conference was quite controversial, given his support of racial eugenics.

    Despite the first psychology lab being open, there weren't exactly a lot of places for women in academia in the 1800s. Psychologist and philosopher Mary Whiton Calkins wanted to change that by opening the first psychology lab for women in 1891 at Wellesley College. She was also the first woman to complete the requirements for a doctoral degree in psychology through Harvard University but was denied the official degree due to her gender. This didn't stop her, as she later became the first woman to be the president of the APA.

    Introducing Psychology, picture of Mary Calkins, StudySmarter

    Mary Calkins, Wikimedia Commons

    Around the same time, the first American psychologist William James was the first to study psychology with a different goal in mind. He studied Darwin's theory of evolution and connected it to psychology. Within this theory, people adapt their behaviors to their environment to survive and thrive. This perspective is known as functionalism, which we will explore a little bit later.

    The APA is the largest scientific organization of psychologists in the USA. They developed the first set of ethical standards for psychology in 1953.

    Behaviorism on the Rise

    Mental health treatment was far from stellar in the 1800s, and American activist Dorothea Dix knew that. She did a statewide investigation of the treatment of lower-class, mentally ill patients in Massachusetts in prisons and asylums. She uncovered inhumane treatment and lobbied the United States Congress to give them better treatment and care!

    Sigmund Freud published his book, A General Introduction to Psychoanalysis (1922). This book became one of the most well-known texts in the field, exploring his ideas on psychoanalytic therapy. His ideas on clinical psychology are the basis of modern therapy practices.

    Introducing Psychology, a picture of Sigmund Freud, StudySmarterFreud, Wikimedia Commons.

    Behaviorism was all the rage in the 1800 and 1900s, thanks to the early work of Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov. His work on classical conditioning sparked more research into the field. John Watson, an American psychologist, built his research off of Pavlov's work. His studies at Johns Hopkins University were so influential that Watson is often called the "father of behaviorism." B.F. Skinner took the reigns of behaviorism in the later 1900s, inventing tools to study conditioned behavior in animals.

    The "Skinner box" is a container that separates the animal subject from the outside environment. Inside, there is a lever or button. When the lever or button is pressed, the box can give the animal a positive reinforcement, such as food, or a punishment, such as a loud noise.

    The second woman to be president of the American Psychological Association in 1921 and the first woman to be granted a PhD in psychology in 1894 was Margaret Floy Washburn. Her trailblazing work in animal behavior and motor theory development made her one of the most influential psychologists of the twentieth century. Her motor theory found common ground between the structuralist focus on consciousness and the rising view of behaviorism.

    Other Perspectives

    Not everyone was on board with behaviorism and liked a more humanist perspective. Carl Rogers and Abraham Maslow were the biggest proponents of humanistic psychology, helping to develop the perspective as a whole. Maslow developed the hierarchy of needs in 1943, and Carl Rogers took Maslow's work and translated it into psychotherapy, creating a more client-centered approach.

    In 1967, Ulric Neisser published his book on cognitive psychology, officially creating a new subfield. Jean Piaget, Swiss psychologist and Director of the International Bureau of Education, took on the new cognitive approach to psychology. His work focused on cognitive development and epistemology, which together create genetic epistemology.

    Genetic epistemology, or the developmental theory of knowledge, is the study of the origins and basis of knowledge. The goal is to understand the context of gained knowledge through analyzing the perception, quality, and degree of memory retention.

    There are countless other important names and theories in psychology, just like any other field. Let's take a break from the history of psychology and take a deeper look at important theories and concepts.

    Important Theories

    Since the beginning of scientific research in psychology with Wilheim Wundt in 1879, many different theories explaining certain aspects of human behavior have been developed.

    Two Main Schools of Thought

    Two early schools of thought are structuralism and functionalism.

    Wilhelm Wundt, the father of psychology, focused on structuralism and introspection. Structuralists believe that you need to break it into smaller parts to understand how the mind works. While they didn’t literally cut a brain into pieces, they segmented the brain to figure out how all the pieces fit together to make consciousness.

    What about introspection? Introspection is looking inwards to see what you are feeling. It’s more complicated than you would think to accurately describe the senses, thoughts, and emotions you are feeling. Because of this, introspection became less and less relevant in psychological studies. More complex theories eventually replaced structuralism.

    Functionalism came in and took the place of structuralism. Functionalism was created to figure out how the conscious mind relates to human behavior. The theory says that people adapt to their environments, which changes their life and behavior. However, this means that you can’t test these theories in a controlled environment.

    Functionalism, instead of being its own area of study, works more like a concept base for more scientific theories.


    Ever wondered why we do certain things? Take a look at the observable behaviors of people, and you’ll be studying behaviorism. This school of thought focuses on the observable and measurable behavior of people to both explain and predict actions. Remember John Watson, the American psychologist? He established the psychological school of behaviorism, conducting many experiments in the area. His most famous and most controversial experiment was the “Little Albert” experiment.

    Freudian Psychology

    Psychoanalytic therapy, often called Freudian psychology, is the foundation of modern talk therapy. Freud's work focused on the unconscious mind, especially dreams, to help explain and treat mental stress and disorders. He described the unconscious mind as a collection of strong thoughts and feelings that you are not directly aware of but significantly impact daily life. Sigmund Freud founded a specific type of therapy called psychoanalysis, which focuses on self-exploration. Unconscious fantasies, sexual desires, and dreams are all explored to uncover deeper meanings.

    Humanistic Psychology

    Many psychologists in the 1950s felt that psychoanalysis and behaviorist thinking was limiting. This dissatisfaction with the current schools of thought lead to the rise of humanism. If you believe that all people have both free will and the ability to grow and develop, then you might follow the humanistic approach. This approach states that everyone is trying to reach their full potential and is deeply rooted in psychotherapy. Humanism emphasizes person-centered and goal-oriented thinking and growth.

    Psychology Concepts

    There's a classic debate in psychology called "Nature vs Nurture." You'll return to this idea again and again during your psychology studies. Are traits and behaviors inherited or learned?

    Nature refers to genetic or hereditary factors, like physical appearance and personality (to an extent). Nurture refers to environmental factors, like experiences, social relationships, and culture.

    Different branches of psychology will focus on one side of this debate over the other. Biological psychology focuses on, you guessed it, genetics and biological influences. Behaviorism focuses more on the environment and its impact on behavior. Philosophers like Plato and Descartes believed that certain things are inherent and would occur regardless of the environment. Later versions of this belief included the idea that all characteristics and behaviors are a result of evolution. The opposing side includes John Locke and other well-known thinkers that believe that the mind starts out as a blank slate. According to this, who we are is determined by our experiences.

    Mind-Body Dualism

    Descartes developed the idea of mind-body dualism, which separates consciousness from the physical body. Descartes believed that human beings are flesh and bones, along with thoughts and emotions. Thoughts and emotions aren't physical; you can't reach out and touch them, so he believed that they are different than physical matter.

    Mind-body dualism is the viewpoint that the mind and physical body are fundamentally different.


    Monism came about in the eighteenth century, created by German philosopher Christian Wolff, claiming that everything is either purely mental or purely physical. With this single category of being, monism is also connected to the philosophies of idealism and materialism.

    The Biopsychosocial Model

    One of the best diagnostic tools in clinical psychology was developed by George Engel in 1977. He proposed the idea that a person's medical condition is a combination of biological, psychological, and social factors. This model is often used with patients dealing with chronic pain. Cognition, emotional factors, physical and somatic pain, and social factors are all important to keep in mind when treating patients. Stressors often do not perfectly fit into one category. For instance, there are both biological and social factors at play in stress. Family relationships and trauma involve both social and psychological factors.

    • Biological: physiological pathology, including physical health, disability, and genetic vulnerabilities.

    • Psychological: thoughts, emotions, and behaviors.

    • Social: economic, environmental, and cultural factors.

    Introducing Psychology - Key takeaways

    • Psychology is the study of mental behavior and processes, with roots in biology and philosophy.

    • Structuralism breaks down the mind into smaller parts to understand how they work together. Structuralism aims to understand thoughts and emotions.

    • Behaviorism focuses on studying, explaining, modifying, and predicting observable behaviors.

    • Functionalism looks at the conscious mind more than the unconscious in how people adapt to their environments.

    • Psychoanalytic approaches, or Freudian psychology, focus on the unconscious mind in various ways.

    • Humanistic psychology focuses on the individual and their own goals and growth.

    Frequently Asked Questions about Introducing Psychology

    Which doctoral degree in psychology was first introduced in 1973?

    The doctoral in psychology (Psy.D) was first introduced in 1973 at the Vail conference.

    When were ethical guidelines introduced in psychology?

    Ethical guidelines were introduced in psychology in 1953 by the American Psychological Association. 

    When was sports psychology introduced?

    Sports psychology was introduced in the late 19th century.

    Who introduced cognitive approach in psychology?

    The cognitive approach in psychology was introduced by Ulric Neisser. He published his book "Cognitive Psychology" in 1967, officially marking the beginning of cognitive psychology.

    Who introduced behaviorism psychology?

    Behavorism in psychology was pioneered by Ivan Pavlov in the 1800s and 1900s.

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