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What is Psychology, and who are Psychologists? Part 1

What is Psychology, and who are Psychologists?

What is Psychology?

Put simply, psychology is the study of behaviour. This is very broad. Maybe a little too broad. But, it’s the most accurate description of it. For the most part, scientists in psychology are simply people interested in understanding why and how humans and animals behave the way they do.

Thinking of a psychologist might conjure the image of a late/middle-aged man wearing a tweed blazer with patches asking about your relationship with your mother. This… regrettably… isn’t wrong, but it also isn’t the complete story. It’s only one domain in a large body of scientists trying to understand why and how humans and animals act the way they do. Researchers attempting to understand the mechanisms of behaviour are cognitive psychologists. Those investigating the various forms of personality and how they develop are personality psychologists. Those who research criminal behaviour, how it develops and manifests, are forensic psychologists. – And those who attempt to diagnose and treat behaviour disorders are clinical psychologists. While this list is not exhaustive (there are many more), it does demonstrate that psychology is more than just Oedipus complexes. It is a discipline with a large body of researchers, scientists, and practitioners investigating all aspects of behaviour. 

Additionally, psychologists are responsible for the creation of most of the behaviour-related tests you see out in the world today. Francis Galton, Francis Binet, and Charles Spearman all helped develop early versions of tests measuring intelligence and mental age. Psychologist David Wechsler is the creator of the Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale, commonly referred to as the I.Q. Test. A large body of psychologists have contributed to the Big Five Personality inventory, from which most personality tests derive. Psychological associations also built, and hold the rights to, most of the tests related to mental illness and cognitive ability. Point is, if you want someone’s behaviour to be tested, best find yourself a psychologist.

But psychologists aren’t only restrained to human behaviour. I’ve known a number of peers who do research in animal behaviour. Folks like these attempt to understand the mental mechanisms by which an animal conducts a certain behaviour. For instance, one of my old professors conducted experiments on black-cap chickadees; studying how they store food during the winter months. In one particular experiment, they were interested in how these small little birds were able to track down dozens of little hoards across acres of land (Brodbeck, 1994). I’ve also known other researchers that study the behaviour of a multitude of birds, dogs, and in some cases, even insects. Animal research like this seeks to answer the “how” by which a behaviour occurs, and theorizes on what the “why” could possibly be. 

Now some of you might be wondering, 

“Why would we (humanity) possibly be interested in answers to these questions? For instance, for what possible reason would a person be interested in how ants use lights in the night’s sky to travel (Wehner, 1997)?”

The realist might say that learning about these behaviours might help humans create smarter technology. The ant example above could be used to help inspire the creation of technology that uses celestial images to help inform mapping technologies. The philosopher might say that answering these questions helps us understand the human mind. That by looking at the relationship between brain regions responsible for memory and spatial navigation in birds, we can infer our understanding of that on the human brain. My favourite answer is simply: because it’s cool. Life is absolutely wild and humans are only one of an almost infinite number of organisms that have created complex behaviour in order to survive. Psychology helps us understand the world around us by understanding how living creatures perceive and interact with it. However, psychology, as it is today, isn’t the way it’s always been. In the next blog, we’ll explore the humble beginnings of psychology.