What you should know: Psychology
Carol Enns, professor of psychology
Psychology is an interdisciplinary, diverse, and integrative science.
Psychologists explore themes that cover a wide spectrum ranging from molecular, neural bases of behavior to human reactions that are embedded in groups, organizations, communities, and global cultures. Psychologists often operate on the borders and intersections between the natural sciences, social sciences, humanities, and fine arts. The tools of psychologists range from subjective self-analysis to objective experimental methods as psychologists make interconnections with the diversity of disciplines that study human and animal behavior, as well as artificial intelligence.
Psychology promotes critical thinking, problem-solving skills, and social sensitivity.
Psychology is a research-based discipline that promotes tools for examining and evaluating academic sources. It also provides individuals with tools for evaluating claims made by pop psychology, on the Internet, in advertisements, and in media sources (including wisdom conveyed by Oprah, Dr. Laura, and Dr. Phil). In addition, the study of psychology supports skills and empathic attitudes for dealing effectively with daily problems in living in areas such as intimate relationships and parenting.
It’s not just about Freud.
Freud was one of the influential figures of early European psychology, and his theories have had widespread influence on many disciplines. Today, the practices of psychologists who define their approaches as psychoanalytic or psychodynamic hold very little resemblance to the “patient on the couch” approach of Freud. Contemporary applied psychologists are most likely to define their approaches as cognitive, humanistic, existential, behavioral, eclectic, or integrative.
Psychology is about health and development.
Research on normal and optimal human development that occurs over a lifespan is central to the work of psychologists. Psychologists are concerned with studying resilience and how people develop “psychological antibodies.” Hardship can limit growth but can also become a foundation for developing productive coping skills. “Positive” approaches to psychology encourage us to ask “why do people thrive in difficult circumstances?” as well as “what contributed to this person’s difficulty?”
Humans are vulnerable to biases, stereotyping, and inhumane behavior.
The study of cognition reveals that individuals develop schemas, or “shortcuts,” to make information processing and decision-making more efficient. Although beneficial for many daily tasks, this form of efficiency can support “automatic pilot” behavior and the creation of stereotypes (e.g., gendered expectations or prejudices toward minority groups) because individuals may miss crucial information about individuals or circumstances, or merely confirm knowledge based on previous experience (confirmation bias). The studies of social psychologists reveal that even ordinary and well-intentioned people, when placed in situations in which they hold significant power over others, can act abusively toward others. Furthermore, biased attitudes are often subtle and nonconscious. The study of racism and prejudice, gender issues, and cross-cultural and multicultural psychology, provide tools for avoiding these types of problems by facilitating self-awareness and culturally sensitive communication and knowledge.