What Is Psychology

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The word psychology comes from the Greek word psyche, which means the vital breath/human soul (from the Greek goddess Psykhe, the goddess of the soul). The American Psychological Association (APA) defines psychology simply as the study of the human mind and behavior.

Psychology encompasses all aspects of the human experience, and the study of psychology encompasses all the elements involved in understanding behavior, and more precisely, the factors that motivate behavior.

Psychology is the study of mental processes, behavior, and the relationship between the two. Mental processes in psychology refer to learning, motivation, reasoning, and emotion, among others. In other words, the study of psychology involves learning how humans think, feel, learn, interact, perceive, and understand, whether alone or when interacting with other people or the environment.

Psychology is both a natural science concerned with innate factors and primal drives that align with the laws of nature, and a social science concerned with the study of behaviors, feelings, and thoughts, and the environmental factors that contribute to them.

Unlike other disciplines that typically deal only in the realm of the physically tangible, psychology is concerned with thoughts, emotions, memories, and perceptions, bringing a unique level of nuance and complexity to psychological study, research and practice.

Psychology is a field most often associated with mental health counseling and intervention, however, the APA is quick to point out that this discipline is also a multifaceted research based science – the science of behavior, science of cognition, and science of emotion.

What is a Psychologist?

Psychologists are scientists, researchers, therapists and clinicians whose study of human behavior helps to addresses many contemporary issues related to interpersonal relationships, public health, crime and terrorism, education, the economy, and healthcare, just to name a few. According to the APA, psychology plays a large role in health, wellness, and individual and organizational effectiveness.

In simplest terms, today’s psychologists in their various roles work to:

  • Conduct basic and applied research
  • Serve as consultants to communities and organizations
  • Diagnose and treat people
  • Teach future psychologists
  • Test intelligence and personality

Through the examination of the relationships between brain function and behavior, and the environment and behavior, psychologists find ways to improve our understanding of the world around us. Psychologists contribute very real and measurable benefits to cotemporary society:

  • Public health organizations now use psychological research tools to assess public health programs, policies, and organizations, thereby improving their effectiveness.
  • Doctors and psychologists now have a better understanding of the unique mental health needs of our nation’s soldiers, veterans, and their families.
  • The federal government has been able to gain valuable insight into terrorist threats from a social and behavioral science perspective so as to formulate strategies to mitigate risk.

Despite the nuances and intricacies of psychology, experts argue that it’s not that different from other sciences. While other sciences make use of tangible data, human behavior itself is the raw data that psychologists use. Although psychologists are unable to directly observe the mind, they can study our actions, feelings, and thoughts—all of which are influenced by our functioning minds.

The APA recognizes five proficiencies in professional psychology:

  • Psychopharmacology
  • Treatment of alcohol and other psychoactive substance use disorders
  • Sports psychology
  • Assessment and treatment of serious mental illness
  • Personality assessment

But psychology’s wide scope doesn’t end there. In fact, there are no fewer than 54 divisions and psychology interest groups organized by APA members. Many divisions represent subdisciplines of psychology, while others focus on topical issues like trauma or aging. Psychologists study and often focus their careers on a vast array of contemporary topics, such as:

  • Addictions
  • Autism
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Bullying
  • Eating disorders
  • Ethics
  • Hate crimes
  • Human rights
  • Kids and the media
  • Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender
  • Race
  • Socioeconomic status
  • Teens
  • Stress
  • Violence

APA-Recognized Specialties in Professional Psychology

The study and practice of psychology draws from a number of disciplines, including medicine, sociology, biology, anthropology, and linguistics, among others, which is why there are so many subspecialties. The American Psychological Association recognizes the following specialties in professional psychology:

  • Clinical neuropsychology
  • Clinical health psychology
  • Psychoanalysis in psychology
  • School psychology
  • Clinical psychology
  • Clinical child psychology
  • Counseling psychology
  • Industrial-organizational psychology
  • Behavioral and cognitive psychology
  • Forensic psychology
  • Family psychology
  • Professional geropsychology
  • Police and public safety psychology
  • Sleep psychology
  • Rehabilitation psychology

Some of the specialties in professional psychology getting the most attention in the 21st century are:

Clinical Psychology

Clinical psychology integrates science and theory with practice. Psychology at the clinical level involves applying scientific findings in an effort to understand, predict, and relieve distress or dysfunction among patients so as to promote their well-being and personal development. Clinical psychology examines all aspects of human performance, including biological, psychological, intellectual, emotional, and behavioral aspects and factors.

Clinical psychology involves psychological assessment and psychotherapy, although clinicians may also lend their expertise in forensic testimony, research, and training, among others.

The work of clinical psychologists includes:

  • Considering any number of diagnoses and interventions
  • Understanding psychopathology and mental health issues across the lifespan
  • Assessing patients by integrating data with standardized assessment measures
  • Consulting with professionals in the field regarding psychopathology
  • Engaging in research and reviewing scientific data and psychological research studies

Developmental Psychology (Clinical Child Psychology)

Developmental psychology involves the psychological changes that occur across the lifespan, from birth to death, although this area of psychology originally focused mainly on infancy and childhood. The scope of developmental psychology encompasses psychological factors that change over the lifetime, such as motor skills, problem solving, language acquisition, and identity formation, among others.

Developmental psychologists may study how mental structures affect learning, how environmental factors impact development, or the evolution of a person’s characteristics. On a larger scale, developmental psychology attempts to explain changes in cultures or populations over time.

The research of developmental psychologists is far-reaching, including such topics as:

  • Neurobiological development
  • Emotional and social development
  • Cognitive-intellectual development
  • Language acquisition

Developmental psychologists often work in academic settings, clinics, schools, and hospitals, among others.

Cognitive Psychology

Cognitive psychology investigates how we learn, how we communicate, and how we think, among others. Therefore, this psychology discipline involves understanding internal mental processes, such as

  • Perception
  • Reasoning
  • Language
  • Decision-making
  • Memory
  • Conceptual development

The core of cognitive psychology involves the study of intelligence – or how people acquire, process, and store information. The contemporary study of cognitive psychology involves viewing the brain as a complex computing system.

Forensic Psychology

Forensic psychology is one of the fastest growing areas of psychology. It involves applying psychological principles to criminal investigation and the law. Forensic psychologists practice their craft within the criminal and civil courts, working alongside attorneys, offenders, families, and witnesses, and in settings like rehabilitation centers, jails and prisons, and police departments.

Forensic psychologists may also focus their work on research, working for colleges, universities, and government agencies where they examine the interaction of human behavior in criminology and the legal system.

The work of forensic psychologists often involves:

  • Providing court testimony
  • Performing psychological assessments
  • Performing court-ordered evaluations
  • Attending to the mental health needs of inmates (screening, therapy groups, inpatient rounds, etc.)
  • Consulting with prison staff, inmate attorneys, court systems, and court advocates
  • Providing counseling or crisis management services for police departments

Occupational Psychology (Industrial-Organizational Psychology)

Occupational psychology (often called industrial-organizational (I-O) psychology) studies how organizations function and how people in those organizations behave and work. The ultimate goal of occupational psychology is to ensure optimal efficiency and satisfaction among workers or groups of workers.

Occupational psychologists usually provide their services to large companies or organizations. Company owners and high-level administrators often call in the help of occupational psychologists, usually as consultants, to solve specific or broad problems related to employee retention, company morale, or overall efficiency.

Business leaders may seek assistance regarding any number of relevant business issues, such as organizational development or leadership training, or they may use the expertise of occupational psychologists during periods of change, such as during a merger or acquisition.

Clinical Neuropsychology

Neuropsychology specializes in the assessment and treatment of patients with brain diseases or injuries. Neuropsychologists have a deep understanding of the brain, including the anatomy of the brain and neurological diseases. This has made neuropsychology particularly relevant to understanding and attempting to address the psycho-behavioral effects of traumatic head injuries, which have become the all too common among soldiers and combat veterans. Neuropsychologists have also been at the forefront of research related to CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy) in football players and other athletes that suffer from repetitive head trauma.

Clinical neuropsychologists use neuropsychological tests to assess, manage, and treat cognitively impaired patients. Outside of clinical practice, neuropsychologists carry out research in large groups and compare those with cognitive impairments with those who have healthy brains.

Neuropsychologists may work with specific populations (e.g., children, the elderly, specific cultures, etc.), in policy planning, and in any number of rehabilitative settings, where they work alongside a multidisciplinary health team that includes physical therapists, occupational therapists, and speech pathologists.

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