Psychology is the science of mind and behavior. Psychologists study human thought, how the brain functions, behaviors, emotions, personality, and human development, and take into account all the different aspects of being a person, says Adam Borland, PsyD, a clinical psychologist at Cleveland Clinic in Ohio.
The field of psychology is categorized as a hub science as it is intertwined with medical science and social sciences. Some skeptics contend that psychology isn’t a “real" science because some theories and concepts can be harder to measure objectively than in other “harder” sciences, like biology and physics. Others counter that this doesn’t make psychology less valid, according to an article in the Los Angeles Times.
“Psychology is a science in that there are some very measurable constructs, but there is fluidity in our understanding of the mind,” says Neda F. Gould, PhD, an associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore. “The mind is something that can be challenging to quantify; the brain and behavior are more measurable,” she says.
Common Questions & Answers
What Does Personality Mean?
Personality can be described as an individual’s psychology — how does an individual think, feel, and behave? Part of what we mean by personality is how we relate to people and our surroundings, says Dr. Gould. “One way personality could be described is as a stable temperament that develops over time and is influenced by many environmental factors, as well as genetics. It dictates how we relate to people and how we experience the world,” she says.
The study of personality can be divided into two categories, according to the American Psychological Association (APA):
- Understanding individual differences in specific personality characteristics, such as sociability or irritability
- Understanding how the various parts of a person come together as a whole
There are several different models to describe what makes up personality. The most often used model began with the research of D.W. Fiske, and suggests that there are five core personality traits: openness to experience, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism, per research.
A Brief History of the Field of Psychology
The origins of the term “psychology” come from the word “psyche” — Greek for “breath, spirit, soul” — plus “ology,” meaning “study or science of.” It was first used to mean “study (or science) of the soul,” and later, “study of the mind,” according to Merriam-Webster.
Psychology’s beginning as a science, in which theories were tested using scientific methods, is traced back to 1879 in Leipzig, Germany, when Wilhelm Wundt established the first psychological laboratory in the world. He is known as the “father of psychology.” Previously, psychology was considered a branch of philosophy, but Wundt applied scientific methodology to study the conscious experience, conducting experiments on how people reacted to various outside stimuli and recording his results in a systematic way, notes SimplyPsychology.
In terms of the history of psychology in the United States, William James wrote The Principles of Psychology, which defined the budding discipline as the science of mental life; the topics and challenges he explored anticipated many areas that would be researched more than 100 years later, per Britannica.
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Major Influences on Modern Psychology
Sigmund Freud (1856–1939) is considered the founding father of psychoanalysis, a form of talk therapy that seeks to examine the unconscious motivations and desires that influence and predict human behavior. He developed a structural model of the mind that includes what he called the id, the ego, and the superego, per SimplyPsychology. His research and writings still influence American psychology in areas like personality, development, motivation, the study of mental disorders, and psychological treatment, according to the APA.
Carl Jung (1875–1961) founded the field of analytic psychology and believed the majority of human suffering derived from the distresses of the soul or psyche. He introduced the concept of introversion and extroversion, archetypes, and modern dream analysis, according to the Jung Society of Washington.
Abraham Maslow (1908–1970) posited that each individual has a hierarchy of needs that must be satisfied, beginning with the basics of food, water, warmth, and rest, and progressing to relationships, feelings of accomplishment, and ultimately, self-actualization, which he defined as a person reaching his or her full potential, according to SimplyPsychology. He helped lay the foundation for humanistic psychology, a branch of psychology that emphasizes individual human potential and strengths.
Frederick “Fritz” Perls (1893–1970) collaborated with his wife, Laura Perls, to found Gestalt therapy in the early 1950s. This approach helps clients work through issues by focusing on the present moment. Personal responsibility, self-awareness, and mindfulness are all key principles of Gestalt, per SimplyPsychology. One of the primary goals of the therapy, as defined by the New World Encyclopedia, is to make a person aware of their own negative thought patterns or behaviors that might be contributing to their unhappiness.
Aaron Beck (b. 1921) is considered the father of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). The basic premise of CBT is that the way that individuals perceive a situation is more closely connected to their reaction than the situation itself. CBT seeks to change how a person thinks and responds to situations. When people are going through a difficult time, their perspective can be inaccurate, and their thoughts might not be grounded in reality. Per the Beck Institute, this therapy seeks to help people identify when this distortion is happening, change their thinking, problem solve, and proactively work on changing their behavior.
What Shapes and Determines an Individual’s Psychology?
There are many factors that go into shaping a person’s psychology, says Dr. Borland. Genetics may give us certain tendencies, or how we’re “wired,” he says. “For example, some people might be more intense or have a shorter temper whereas other people tend to be more laid back and slow to anger,” says Borland.
But genetics are only part of the picture; there are environmental influences at work as well, he says. “What was their family life like? What did they experience? What type of parenting did they have? Were there any traumatic episodes that occurred?” he says. All of those things and more influence a person’s psychology, adds Borland.
The different elements that shape human psychology include:
- Genes Genes play a role in how our brains perceive situations as well as how we behave in response. Psychological research shows that individual differences in behavior are influenced by genetic factors that result from many different genes, each with a small effect. In addition, research into the behavior and personalities of twins who were raised in different environments has shown that virtually every one of the human psychological traits, from social attitudes to mental disorders, is influenced by genetics.
- Environment The situation a person was raised in or their current environment can influence their psychology.
- Family Personality, beliefs, and values begin to be shaped by our family from the day we are born. One study suggested that the emotional support that children get during the first three and a half years of life has an impact on social life and romantic relationships in a person’s twenties and thirties.
- Social Aspects The social environment that encompasses many facets of everyday life, including government and economic systems, relative wealth, health services, cultural practices, religious institutions, education level, and social inequality, can all influence personality, notes a research letter.
- Race and Ethnicity A person’s physical characteristics and cultural traditions can impact personality development in different ways. Not only does a person’s race often give them an advantage or disadvantage in their social environment, it also shapes how a person sees themself in the world. Pew Research Center data published in 2019 suggests, for instance, that Black Americans are more likely to say their race has hurt, rather than helped, their ability to get ahead; and white, Hispanic, and Asian Americans are more likely to say their race or ethnicity has been an advantage than an impediment.
- Gender Although the degree to which personality traits differ between the “average” male and “average” female varies from study to study, they do exist. It’s likely these exist for a multitude of reasons, including the biological differences between men and women and how we’ve evolved, as well as the social environment and how the genders are treated differently, according to researchers.
- Trauma Childhood traumas can significantly impact aspects of personality, and are associated with depression, anxiety, and interpersonal problems in adulthood, research shows data also suggests that trauma experienced as an adult can affect the personality as well, causing difficulty regulating one’s emotion and feelings of numbness or detachment to what’s happening around them. It can also make a person less hopeful about the future and increase their fear that bad things will happen.
- Maturity As we grow older, our personality can change. Research suggests that many people can become more conscientious and agreeable as they age, with openness to new experiences declining slightly.
How Do Clinical Psychologists Treat Emotional and Behavioral Problems?
Clinical psychologists work to help people with a variety of mental health issues, such as depression, anxiety, anger, or how to cope with a stressful situation, such as loss of a loved one or a new job. “The way a therapist will approach an issue will vary depending on their orientation and what kind of therapy they practice,” says Gould.
For example, if a person who has anxiety goes to a psychoanalyst, they might delve into childhood and infancy and explore how experiences during that time of life could have contributed to feelings of anxiety, says Gould.
Gould uses cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and mindfulness strategies in her practice. “Those areas of therapy are the most well-researched and have the most robust support behind them, in part because the methods are more structured and so they’re easier to research,” she says.
In CBT, we look at personal or social behavior that the person is engaging in or avoiding that are maintaining or sustaining the anxiety, as well as thoughts they’re having that are unhelpful, inaccurate, or maladaptive, says Gould. “We examine the thoughts that could be maintaining or exacerbating the condition and then work to change both the thoughts and the behaviors in a systematic way to improve it,” she says.
There are many types of therapy, and some of the more common forms include:
Psychoanalysis or Psychodynamic Therapy This type of talk therapy, based on psychoanalytic theory, focuses on changing problem thoughts and behaviors by getting to the unconscious origin or motivation, often working through unresolved conflicts from childhood, says the American Psychoanalytic Association (APSAA).
Behavioral Therapy This method emphasizes the role of learning in developing helpful and unhelpful behaviors. It focuses on current problems and behaviors and solutions. Behavior therapy is a type of CBT (sometimes called “big B CBT”). Another example is behavioral activation for depression, in which people are encouraged to initiate behaviors such as getting up at a certain time and going to the gym, or reaching out to a friend even if they’re feeling down or anxious. The idea behind this kind of behavioral therapy is that doing enjoyable and important things leads to a sense of reward, which improves mood.
Humanistic Therapy This type of therapy tries to look at the whole person and is grounded in the belief that humans are innately good. As GoodTherapy points out, by emphasizing a person’s positive traits and behaviors, the therapist encourages the client to use their own instincts and strengths to find personal growth and fulfillment. Gestalt and client-centered therapy are types of the humanistic approach.
Depending on the nature of the problem or behavior, medication might be used in conjunction with therapy. Per the APA, except in a few states, most psychologists aren’t licensed to prescribe medication.
“One thing that I always tell my patients is that if they are coming to therapy, then they believe that change is possible,” says Borland. “People have to remind themselves that they do have a choice in all of this. Sometimes we can get bogged down in thinking that certain patterns or behaviors are inevitable — like, ‘I’ve always had a temper, and I can’t change that or control it,’” he says. “If you’re coming to therapy, there is some room for change and growth,” says Borland.
Working in Psychology: Specialties and Careers in the Field
There are many different subspecialties in psychology and dozens (and sometimes hundreds) of different kinds of jobs a person can do within each one. Here are some of the more well-known areas in psychology, as well as some careers within those disciplines:
Social Psychology How does an individual fit with the rest of the world and how does being part of a group influence human behavior? Those are the kinds of questions that are explored in social psychology.
Social psychologists can work for universities or the government to conduct research on how social influences, perception, and interactions with others impact human behavior, according to the APA. These specialists can also work in a variety of fields in the private sector, including marketing, politics, and human resources.
Forensic Psychology Thanks to shows like CSI and Criminal Minds, forensic psychology is more well known than other many specialties in this science. Forensic psychology applies the scientific research of clinical, cognitive, and social psychology to the legal arena and could include psychological assessment of people accused of crimes, threat assessment for child custody evaluations, or competency evaluations, explains the APA.
Cognitive Psychology This field focuses on how people think as well as their capacity for understanding, interpreting, and retaining different kinds of information. According to the APA, there is a huge variety in the kinds of things cognitive psychologists can study; a few examples of the diverse opportunities include how we learn new concepts and languages, how to address learning disabilities, how humans and computers interact, the breakdown of internal mental processes that happen in diseases like Alzheimer’s, or the healing power of music therapy.
Sports Psychology Sports psychologists can help athletes and teams in a wide array of settings and levels of competition, from little league to the Olympic games. These experts specialize in sport specific psychological assessment and mental skills to help athletes train and perform better in competition, according to the APA. Sports psychology encompasses counseling and clinical interventions about issues like motivation, eating disorders, depression, burnout, and career transitions.
Humanistic Psychology Humanistic psychology is based on the study of human strengths and what psychotherapy techniques can help a person function better, or “live their best life.” According to GoodTherapy, it’s based on the teaching and theories of Abraham Maslow, this field chooses to “focus on the positive,” and view humans as intrinsically good. Counseling and therapy are a main focus in this field, and people who study this often work as therapists or social workers. This branch of psychology is sometimes criticized because it relies heavily on the subjective experiences of individuals, which makes gathering and recording evidence in a traditional scientific way difficult.
Positive Psychology The term “positive psychology” was first coined by Martin E.P. Seligman, PhD, former president of the American Psychological Association, and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, PhD, a psychology professor at Claremont Graduate University in California. Dr. Seligman and Dr. Csikszentmihalyi believed that contemporary psychology focused too much on treating mental illness rather than promoting healthy mental states; their goal was to create a field that focused on how people’s strengths and virtues could improve their well-being.
Although positive psychology and the psychologists who promote it are often highlighted in popular media, critics point to a lack of hard evidence linking a positive outlook with improved health outcomes. As has been pointed out in an APA article, skeptics fear that people with conditions like cancer or depression may blame themselves for not having the “right” mindset if they don’t get better. One meta-analysis that conducted closer analysis of many studies suggests the benefits of positive psychology are often exaggerated.
Evolutionary Psychology This field considers human behavior, thoughts, and feelings through the lens of how humans have had to evolve and adapt to survive over time; the way we compete, connect, and cooperate can all be explained by our basic drive to survive and pass on our genes, according to Britannica. This specialty arose in the late 1980s as a synthesis of findings in several areas including ethology (the scientific study of animal behavior), cognitive psychology, evolutionary biology, anthropology, and social psychology. Jobs in evolutionary psychology can range from work in museums or zoos, resource management, research, or as a professor.
Resources We Love
For a deeper dive into psychology, check out these resources below:
Best Nonprofit Organizations
The APA is a scientific and professional organization that has about 150,000 members, including researchers, clinicians, and educators. A focus for the APA is public education, and you’ll find a wealth of information on stress, mental health, mindfulness, children, and more in the “Topics” tab of their website.
The American Psychiatric Association has an entire portal devoted to Patients and Families in order to understand mental health disorders, their symptoms, and potential treatments available. From anxiety disorders, coping after a disaster, personality disorders, and more, you’ll find info sheets as well as a blog about how to handle life’s everyday challenges.
Best Websites for Psychology Information
Simply Psychology was developed for psychology students but now features academic-based articles that can be read by a variety of people. Articles also include research links so you can dive more into the topic at hand.
Best Resources to Find Mental Healthcare
Not only is GoodTherapy a learning resource for psychology topics, but you can use it to find a therapist or counselor practicing in your area. GoodTherapy’s director features licensed clinical social workers, licensed addiction counselors, and licensed marriage and family therapists.
The CDC’s mental health page has a variety of tools and resources. First, check out their “How Are You Feeling These Days” quiz to better understand common emotions you may be experiencing and how to cope. You’ll also want to check out the “People Seeking Help” section (part of the “Tools and Resources” tab), which provides a wealth of helpline numbers and websites that connect you with help right now, as well as where to find treatment.
If you want to listen to a psychology-based podcast, jump into these entertaining (and insightful) episodes. Lead by Yale professor Laurie Santos, PhD, The Happiness Lab is based on her extremely popular course at the University. She talks about science-backed ways to cultivate happiness. Now in its sixth season, recent podcasts have covered finding a “good enough” job, giving money to others, and how to raise happy kids.
When you want to dive more into the history and concepts of psychology and personality but lack the time for formal study, this book is a great overview of psychology concepts that are broken down into easy-to-digest pieces of information. Learn about areas of psychology, such as developmental psychology, psychotherapy, cognitive psychology, and more, as well as the history and study of psychology.
Editorial Sources and Fact-Checking
- Wilson TD. Stop Bullying the “Soft” Sciences. Los Angeles Times. July 12, 2012.
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- Power RA, Pluess M. Heritability Estimates of the Big Five Personality Traits Based on Common Genetic Variants. Translational Psychiatry. July 2015.
- Psychology. Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, 11th Edition.
- Mcloed S. Wilhelm Wundt: Father of Psychology. SimplyPsychology. February 15, 2023.
- Mischel W. Psychology. Encylopaedia Brittanica.
- Mcloed S. Sigmund Freud: Theories and Influence on Psychology. SimplyPsychology. February 20, 2023.
- Benjamin LT. Psychoanalysis, American Style. American Psychological Association. September 2009.
- Who Is Carl Jung? Jung Society of Washington.
- Mcloed S. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Simply Psychology. March 21, 2023.
- Fritz Perls. New World Encyclopedia.
- Cognitive Behavior Therapy. Beck Institute.
- Kendler KS, Greenspan RJ. The Nature of Genetic Influences on Behavior: Lessons From “Simpler” Organisms. American Journal of Psychiatry. October 2006.
- Johnson W, Turkheimer E, Gottesman II, Bouchard, TJ Jr. Beyond Heritability: Twin Studies in Behavioral Research. Current Directions in Psychological Science. August 2010.
- Raby KL, Roisman GI, Fraley C, Simpson JA. The Enduring Predictive Significance of Early Maternal Sensitivity: Social and Academic Competence Through Age 32 Years. Child Development. December 17, 2014.
- Barnett E, Casper M. A Definition of “Social Environment.” American Journal of Public Health. March 2001.
- Race and Ethnicity. Psychology Today.
- Weisberg YJ, DeYoung CG, Hirsh JB. Gender Differences in Personality Across the Ten Aspects of the Big Five. Frontiers in Psychology. August 1, 2011.
- Huh HJ, Kim S-Y, Yu JJ, Chae JH. Childhood Trauma and Adult Interpersonal Relationship Problems in Patients With Depression and Anxiety Disorders. Annals of General Psychiatry. 2014.
- Chapter 3: Understanding the Impact of Trauma. Trauma-Informed Care in Behavioral Health Services. 2014.
- Srivastava S, John OP. Development of Personality in Early and Middle Adulthood: Set Like Plaster or Persistent Change? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 2003.
- About Psychoanalysis. American Psychoanalytic Association.
- Humanistic Psychology (Humanism). GoodTherapy. March 8, 2018.
- About Prescribing Psychologists. American Psychological Association. January 2022.
- Pursuing a Career in Social Psychology. American Psychological Association. 2014.
- Ward JT. What Is Forensic Psychology? American Psychological Association. September 2013.
- Psychology: Science in Action — A Career in Cognitive Psychology. American Psychological Association.
- Sport Psychology. American Psychological Association.
- Azar B. Positive Psychology Advances, With Growing Pains. American Psychological Association. April 2011.
- White CA, Uttl B, Holder MD. Meta-Analyses of Positive Psychology Interventions: The Effects Are Much Smaller Than Previously Reported. PLoS One. May 2019.
- Kenrick DT. Evolutionary Psychology. Encyclopaedia Britannica.
- Wilhelm Wundt. Encyclopaedia Britannica.
- Fordham MSM. Carl Jung. Encyclopaedia Britannica.
- Guy-Evans O. What Is Gestalt Therapy? Simply Psychology. March 9, 2022.
- Horowitz JM, Brown A, and Cox K. The Role of Race and Ethnicity in Americans’ Personal Lives. Pew Research Center. April 9, 2019.
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