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Defining Psychology

Defining Psychology

Author: Erick Taggart

Recognize the purpose of psychology.

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Hello, class, and welcome to your Introduction to Psychology. Over the course of this unit, we'll be taking a look at what psychology actually is, as well as the different philosophies, the therapies, and the different specialties that are involved in this vast field. And then, over the course of this entire class, you're going to be looking at all the different facets of psychology as well.

So to start us off, let's first take a look at what psychology actually is. Now the word psychology comes from the word psyche, which is a Greek word which means the mind or soul, as well as the word logos, which refers to reason, or argument, or the study of. So quite literally, psychology is the study of the human mind and behavior.

So notice, I mentioned two different parts of this definition, which is to say, we study the mind, which are all the different sorts of mental processing, the things that are occurring within our brain, which we experience every single day-- as well as the behaviors that we can observe outside of the mind itself, the things that we can actually take a look at. Now the second part is important, because psychology is a scientific study. Which is to say that we try to look at things in a very scientific, or observable, kind of way. It's not something like philosophy, which takes a look at things that are more related to reason, or they can be more subjective. Science and psychology are more objective.

OK, now psychology often examines things which we consider to be sort of common sense. These are commonplace things that people generally feel like they understand. So a lot of times, when you're studying psychology, you might find that you're looking at something and thinking, well, that's something that I already knew. And while this is true to some degree, remember, we're talking about science, so we're trying to test the validity of these kinds of things. Let me give you an example.

Some people say that birds of a feather flock together. This is a common saying that we have in English. But there's a completely opposite saying, which is to say that opposites attract. Just to say in the first saying, we say that similar people tend to gravitate towards each other, or we might find somebody, or try to have a relationship with somebody that's like us. Whereas opposites attract means the complete different people tend to gravitate towards each other.

So which one do we actually believe? Well, in psychology, we're able to take a look at both of these sayings, and to find that, in fact, actually, people tend to gravitate towards people that are more similar to them. So the first one is actually more accurate. So while both seem common sense, we're actually studying and trying to determine the objective truth of those kinds of things.

Now when we look at psychology, the overall goal of it is to try to gain knowledge about the mind and the behavior, especially things that might be helpful for people, things that can benefit them overall. Especially when we take a look at something like clinical psychology, which studies psychopathology and mental disorders, we're trying to figure out things about the mind so we can help people out. More specifically, we have four different goals of psychology that we want to take a look at. These four goals are description, prediction, understanding, and control.

So what we want to do is we want to be able to examine both the mind and behavior in a good enough way that, first, we can describe what's actually happening within the person, which is to say, we can say what's occurring within the mind, or what we see happening with behavior. We can also want to try to predict what's going to happen next, which is to say that we understand it well enough that we can say, with reasonable certainty, what would happen within a given situation with the person. Third, we want to be able to understand, which is to say, not just to say what it is, but to say what are the underlying causes of it. What's actually occurring, both within the brain or within the body, to affect these things, and to make them actually occur.

Finally, we want to be able to control them, which gets to the final point and the overall goal, which is to say, we want to try to help people out with these kinds of things. We want to try to benefit people by understanding these things well enough that we can control the more negative or problematic aspects of psychology. So I hope you enjoy your study of psychology over this course.

Terms to Know

Any human activity.

Empirical Evidence

Information acquired by direct observation or measurement, such as testing, lab work, electrical metering, etc.


The scientific study of mental activities and behavior.

Scientific Observation

Planned, systematic, use of empirical evidence to study the world in an intersubjective fashion.