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All the colour and unpredictability of other human beings can be studied in psychology. This photo was taken by Patrick L in Vietnam, 2009. It is used with his permission.

Psychology gives us a window onto all the intriguing variety, unpredictability and colour of the human character. It is a subject without limits: we can never know everything.

Psychology is the study of human behaviour, thoughts and feelings. Through scientific observation and experimentation, rather than wild guessing, researchers try to discover how humans behave, think and feel – and why. They work out theories and hypotheses and then try to determine, as impartially as possible, whether these are supported by the evidence they glean from their studies.

Clothed man with naked man

Every human being is unique. Psychologists try to explain why each person has developed the specific traits or qualities they have.

Photo: Clothed man with naked man in New York, kindly provided by Mimi_K at flickr.com

This is a slow, careful and meticulous enterprise, but not a particularly old one. Psychology is a relatively modern discipline, especially if you compare it with philosophy or medicine. Perhaps that is one reason that it is so interesting.

Why is psychology worthwhile? I like to think that knowledge and understanding are worthwhile for their own sake, but psychology has four general goals, according to the experts:

Passionately pink in Bangkok

Describing human behaviour is the first goal of psychology.

Photo: Passionately pink in Bangkok, kindly provided by Mimi_K at flickr.com

The first is to describe behaviour, thoughts and feelings. This is the simplest goal, but it isn’t always simple.

The second is to explain behaviour, thoughts and feelings. This is far harder. To do this, one must figure out why people are the way they are. Are they influenced by their genetic inheritance, their parents, their friends, their education, the situation they find themselves in? There are many factors that could influence any single behaviour, ability, personality trait or way of thinking.

Explaining behaviour: Why does this man spend an hour every day solving the sudoku in "The Age"? What drives or motivates him? What makes humans want to do tricky or difficult puzzles that require concentration and logic?

Explaining behaviour: Why does this man spend an hour every day solving the sudoku in "The Age"? What drives or motivates him? What makes humans want to do tricky or difficult puzzles that require concentration and logic?

The third goal of psychology is to predict behaviour, thoughts and feelings. If you can predict behaviour, you can forestall problems before they arise. You might, for instance, be able to take action when you realise that a situation could endanger a person emotionally.

This picture is in the public domain. It shows a soldier fighting during the Battle of the Somme in 1916, a devastating battle in which thousands died. During WW1 many men suffered from debilitating emotional symptoms which were often labelled "shell shock". After the Vietnam War, many veterans were diagnosed with a disorder that had never had a name before: "Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder". Trying to help people deal with such traumatic experiences after they occur is an important role for psychologists. If it were possible to predict people's reactions and take action before they experienced the worst symptoms, this might prevent great emotional suffering. (On the other hand, if men are sent to wars like the one above, it is possible that no predictions could alleviate the pain of the experience.)

This picture is in the public domain. It shows a soldier fighting during the Battle of the Somme in 1916, a devastating battle in which thousands died. During WW1 many men suffered from debilitating emotional symptoms which were often labelled "shell shock". After the Vietnam War, many veterans were diagnosed with a disorder that had never had a name before: "Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder". Trying to help people deal with such traumatic experiences after they occur is an important role for psychologists. If it were possible to predict people's reactions and take action before they experienced the worst symptoms, this might prevent great emotional suffering. (On the other hand, if men are sent to wars like the one above, it is possible that no predictions could alleviate the pain of the experience.)

The final goal of psychology is also rather difficult: to control behaviour, thoughts and feelings. This doesn’t mean controlling behaviour against another person’s will. It means giving people the power to change behaviour that is hurting their lives in some way. For instance, a person who has OCD might find that she is so anxious about germs that she is unable to go to work. If she could only control that anxiety, she might be able to go back to work and have a relatively normal life.

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