The journey of twelve lectures and a hundred forty six thousand words sets sail with a definition. Psychology is the scientific study of behavior and the mental processes.
If ever there was one, this definition is broad. It extends from the behavior of baseball fans at the Yankee Stadium to what happens when you’re alone in bed, asleep and dreaming—but this sounds like a creepy place I prefer to avoid. The definition extends from the behavior of commuters packed in the IND station at 161st St. after the mighty Yankees trounced the hapless Red Sox nine to nothing to when you’re drowsing on the train on the ride home and having a fantasy—but this is another creepy place to avoid.
Psychology is a field that possesses a lot of prestige and power in society—or so psychologists keep telling people. When I tell people I’m a psychologist they become interested in what I have to say. If I don’t tell people I’m a psychologist they don’t show any interest in what I have to say. Psychology has been one of the most popular undergraduate majors for decades. Psychology is big business. Think of the billions spent in psychotherapy. Think of the billions spent in publishing. If you go into a Barnes & Noble bookstore you’ll see a section called “psychology.” Next to it is a section of watered-down psychology called “self-improvement.” This section use to be called “self help,” but the stores changed the name when they realized customers don’t like to think they need “help.” “Improvement” is okay, “help” is not okay. (The difference between “improvement” and “help” is the difference between a tune up and an overhaul.) Next to self-improvement is the “parenting and childcare” section. Next to parenting and childcare is a section called “sexuality.” In former years middle-aged men in raincoats hung around the sexuality section. In our time yuppie couples in bright clothing stake out the sexuality shelves.
As I say, psychology packs a lot of prestige and power. Psychologists are intimately involved in the education system. Psychologists evaluate students who have trouble learning. They advise whether or not to place children in special education. Psychologists are intimately involved in the business world. Think of the role of psychology in human resources. Psychologists hire, fire, and train people. Think of the art of managing people. Good managers are good psychologists. They get employees to work until they drop. On the way to the floor the employees thank the managers for the opportunities.
Psychology is intimately involved in criminal justice and the legal system. You may not know this, but in divorce cases psychologists play a crucial role in determining which parent gets custody of the children. Psychologists serve as consultants on such issues as eyewitness testimony and the competence of defendants to stand trial.
Obviously, psychology is intimately involved in issues of mental health and clinical practice. Psychologists diagnose disorders and engage in psychotherapy.
Psychology is popular because people are the most complex creation we know of. We are intrinsically motivated to find out who and what we are. We want to know the kind of person he is and the kind of person she is. We want to know what makes him tick and what makes her tick. For that matter, we want to know what makes us tick. From the time our ancestors started walking on two legs we have been curious about what makes people do the things they do. This curiosity started in the Garden of Eden with Adam and Eve asking themselves where they went wrong. Things may have worked out better if there was a family therapist in Eden.
Throughout the history of humanity people have addressed this question—“what does it mean to know ourselves?” The answers to this question are currently phrased in scientific terms. In former years the answers were mostly phrased in religious terms. The answers were also phrased in philosophy and in fiction. Think of all the holy books of the various religions—they are full of psychology. Think of great writers like Shakespeare, Poe, and Twain—their works are full of psychology. The writers of the great books—the writers of the not-so-great books as well—acted like psychologists in the sense that they observed behavior and commented on the meaning of human existence. Of course, these writers did not see themselves as psychologists.
There is another reason for the popularity of psychology. We live in a stressed-out, nerve-wracking, and dangerous world. Everyone feels anxious. Everyone feels on edge. People need to find comfort and security. People need to find explanations for the bad things that happen—strangely, we’re less motivated to find explanations for the good things that happen. We want to know why a person did something bad. We want to avoid similar incidents in the future. We want to find people prone to bad acts before they commit them. Psychology addresses these issues. Psychology provides explanations. Psychology claims it can treat people so disposed. And psychology claims to be able to diagnose these people before they do something vicious or violent. There’s a lot of comfort in psychology. That’s why people like it and come to it.
Psychology has always been an individual affair, as in the case of the great writers. As an institution—as something we study and attend classes in and get degrees in psychology began in the late nineteenth century when the people of the time got the idea they could study human beings with the same methods that were used to study rocks and plants and animals. In the nineteenth century psychology gravitated from the individual preoccupation of gifted and thoughtful people to an institution located in universities. We like to think that the people in universities are gifted and thoughtful.
Psychology began with the rise of the now dominant scientific worldview. Psychology contributed significantly to this development. For example, psychology made substantial contributions in methodology and in experimental design. Some people revel in the scientific methods. Other people revolt against them. For the purposes of this course the empiricism that underlies the methods of science simply means that psychologists have to do research and provide evidence for their claims about behavior and the mental processes.
Psychology in America started in a small way. Literally, it involved a small number of men and women—mostly men—most of them known to one another. This was pretty much true until after World War Two when psychology boomed, especially the clinical fields that were founded to help veterans. The professional organization in America is the American Psychological Association, commonly abbreviated APA. The APA is comparable to the American Medical Association and to the American Bar Association. It publishes books and journals, sponsors conferences and conventions, provides professional training, and addresses insurance issues and financial counseling. The APA is heavily involved with clinical issues. A sister organization, the American Psychological Society, focuses on the professional needs of psychologists not involved in the mental health field.
We can observe the growth of psychology in the membership of the APA. When it began in the 1890s, there were a few hundred members. Currently, the membership is well over a hundred thousand.