Human behavior is perhaps one of the interesting topics of any discipline as it plays significant role not only in understanding the individual’s unique personality but also his or her functioning in a complex social-cultural context. Psychology, with its major perspectives, core concepts, and recent developments unravel the mystery behind human behavior through scientific scrutiny of this topic.
History of Psychology
The earliest origins of psychology are found in the writings of ancient Greek philosophers about the nature of human life, particularly in the work of Aristotle (384 B.C.E) He used the terms psyche to refer to the essence of life. This term is translated in Greek to mean “mind,” but it is closely linked to the word “breath.”
Aristotle believed that psyche escaped in the last dying breath. Modern psychologists study the same actions, thoughts, and feeling that fascinated Aristotle. Indeed, the term psychology comes from Aristotle’s word psyche plus the Greek word logs, which means the study of.” Psychology has been described as having a long past but only a short history. Although psychology did not formally become a science until the 1870s, people have always been interested in explaining behavior. The roots of psychology can be traced back to philosophy of medicine in ancient Egypt, Greece, India, and Rome. Although these issues were not considered “psychological” at the time, doctors and philosophers debated many of the same issues that concern modern psychologists.
Definition of Psychology
Psychology is defined as the science of behavior and metal processes. This definition contains three key terms – science, behavior, and mental processes. Behavior refers to all of people’s overt actions that others directly observe. When you walk, speak or frown, you are behaving in this sense. The term mental processes refer to the private thoughts, emotions, feelings and motives that other people cannot directly observe. Your private thoughts and feelings about your dog catching a Frisbee in midair are examples of mental processes. Finally, it is considered as a science because psychologists attempts to understand people by thinking critically about careful, controlled observations.
Goals of Psychology
The four goals of the science of psychology are to describe, predict, understand, and influence behavior and mental processes.
1. Describe. Information gathered in scientific studies helps psychologists describe behavior and mental processes accurately. For Example, descriptive information gathered in survey of the frequency of sexual behavior among college students without the protection of condoms would be an important first step in designing a program to prevent the spread of sexually transmitted diseases such as AIDS.
2. Predict. Psychologists have developed tests that enable employers to predict more accurately which job applicants will perform their job well.
3. Understand. Behavior and mental processes can be understood using theories or tentative explanations of facts and relationships in science.
4. Influence. Psychologists design interventions that would help a teenage boy with severe depression; to help college students select their careers; or help parents raise a child with conduct disorder.
Early Approaches: Structuralism, Functionalism, Gestalt psychology and Psychoanalytic Theory
Traditionally, psychology’s birth is linked with the first psychology laboratory, which was establish by Wilhelm Wundt in 1879 at the University of Leipzig, in Germany. As you will see, some of the people who brought psychology into the scientific arena were trained as physicians: others were more philosophical in nature. However, these differences produces a field that was broad and complex, with many avenues of exploration.
1. Wilhelm Wundt, Edward Titchener, and Structuralism
For Wilhelm Wundt, the goal of psychology was to study conscious processes of the mind and the body. He wanted to know what thought processes enable us to experience the external world. In particular, Wundt attempted to detail the structure of our mental experiences. Like a chemist who questions what elements combine to create different substances, Wundt questioned what elements, when combine it would explains mental processes. Wundt’s view the mental experiences were created by different elements is referred to as structuralism.
To identify the structure of thought, British psychologist Titchener used a process known as Introspection that is a self - observation technique. Trained observers were presented with an event and asked to describe their mental processes. The observations were repeated many times. From these introspections, Titchener identified three basic elements of all conscious experiences; sensations, images, and feelings.
Wundt’s and Titchener’s research went beyond introspection and structuralism to encompass a very broad view of psychology. They also conducted detailed studies on color vision, visual illusions, attention, and feelings and influenced the field of psychology through their students, many of whom went on to establish psychology departments and laboratories in the United States. For example, Titchener’s first graduate student, American Margaret Washburn became the first woman awarded a doctorate in Psychology. Washburn did not share Titchener’s emphasis on structuralism, but instead investigated the connection between motor movement and the mind and conducted extensive research on animal behavior.
2. Max Wertheimer and Gestalt Psychology
Max Wertheimer, a professor of psychology at the University of Frankfurt in the early 1900s, was also interested in the nature of conscious experience. However, his ideas about consciousness were quite different from those of the structuralists. Their approach to psychology was based on German concept of Gestalt, or whole. Gestalt psychologists thought that human consciousness could not be meaningfully broken down into raw elements, as structuralist tried to do. For them, “ The whole is different from the sum of its parts.”
3. William James and the Functionalism
American psychologist and philosopher William James propose a focus on the wholeness of an event and the impact of the environment on behavior. He emphasized how a mental process operates as opposed to the structure of a mental process. He came to believe the consciousness and thought evolved through the process of natural selection, to the help the organism adapt to its environment.
James’ perspective on psychology became known as functionalism. Functionalism’s focus on the adaptive value of behavior was influenced by Charles Darwin’s Theory of evolution. Darwin’s theory speculated that certain behaviors or traits that enhance survival are naturally selected. James suggested applications of psychology to teaching, creating the field of Educational Psychology.
4. Sigmund Freud and Psychoanalytic Theory
Sigmund Freud is probably the best known historical figure in psychology, and his ideas inculcate Western culture in music, media, advertising, art, and humor is a testament to his influence and importance. Freud also studied medicine, focusing on neurology and disorders of the nervous system. He began studying people with all kinds of “nervous” disorder, such as an intense fear of horses or heights or the sudden paralysis of an arm. He began to interview his patients and asked them to express any thought occurred to them. Freud theorized that encouraging patients to say whatever came to their mind and allowed them to recall memories that seemed to trigger their problems. This process is known as free association, one element of psychoanalysis, the therapy that Freud developed.
From his experiences, Freud came to believe that the unconscious plays a crucial role in human behavior. For Freud, the unconscious was the part of the mind that includes impulses, behaviors, and desires that we are unaware of but influence our behavior. Freud’s focus on the unconscious was unique and led to his formulation of psychoanalytic theory. According to this theory, humans are similar to animals in that they poses basic sexual and aggressive instincts that motivate behavior. Unlike animals humans can reason and think, especially as they mature.
5. Behaviorism: A True Science of Psychology
In the 1920s, functionalism was slowly being replaced by a school of thought referred to as behaviorism. A growing number of psychologists believed that in order for psychology to be taken seriously as a true science, it must focus on observable behavior and not on the mind. In this case, you can’t see the mind or what a person thinks, you only see what a person does. Behaviorists believed that only overt, observable behaviors could truly be measured consistently from person to person.
6. John B. Watson’s Behaviorism
One of the most proponents of this school was American psychologist John B. Watson. Watson was influenced by Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov’s studies of digestion in dogs. While measuring and analyzing the first process of digestion is the Salivation. Pavlov noticed that his dogs started to salivate before he gave them meat powder. To further study this curious change in response. Pavlov performed experiments to train the dogs to salivate to other non-food stimuli.
Pavlov’s experiments were important to Watson as examples of how behavior is the product of stimuli and responses. A stimulus is any object or event that is perceived by our senses. A response is an organism’s reaction to a stimulus. To further his point, Watson and his associate, Rosalie Rayner, performed an experiment on a 9 month-old infant named Albert. Watson first presented “Little Albert” with the stimulus of a white rat. Albert played with the rat and showed no fear of it. Knowing that infants fear loud noises, Watson paired the two stimuli, first presenting the rat to Albert and then presenting a loud gong sound behind Albert’s head. Little Albert reacted to the loud noise with the startle, or fear, response. Over and over again, Watson repeated the procedure of pairing the two stimuli – presenting the rat followed by the loud gong. Then, when Watson presented the rat to Albert with no gong, the infant responded with earlier without fear. This demonstrated for Watson that observable stimuli and responses should be the focus of psychology. Unfortunately for Watson, a personal scandal resulted in his dismissal as the chair of the psychology department at Johns Hopkins University.
7. B.F. Skinner and Behavioral Consequences
Skinner, like Watson, Believed that psychology should focus on observable behavior. But Skinner added a dimension to Watson’s framework: consequences. He believed that psychologists should look not only at the stimuli in the environment that cause a particular response but also at what happens to a person or animal after the response – what Skinner called the consequence of the behavior. Feeling less fear or anxiety is a good consequence, or outcome. Whenever Albert saw the rat again, he probably move away even faster. Skinner asserted that positive consequences, such as the reduction of Albert’s anxiety, would lead him to engage in the same behavior again. Negative consequences, or outcomes that are not liked, would lessen Albert’s desire to engage in the behavior again.
Beyond Behaviorism: Humanism, Cognitive Psychology, and the Birth of Positive Psychology
Behaviorism was a dominant force in American Psychology until 1960s. By that time, it became evident that this one theory could not account for all behaviors. Behaviors such as feelings and thoughts could not easily be reduced to stimuli and responses. This criticism combined with the social climate of the time, opened the door for other views on behavior and a willingness to explore topics previously ignored.
1. The Humanists
Discontent with behaviorism and the social upheaval of the 1960s led to a growing interest in an approach toward treatment called humanism. Many psychologists did not accept the behaviorists’ view that humans were governed by stimuli and responses, with no will of their own to change their behavior. In the 1960s, societal values were rapidly changing, and the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War sparked widespread civil disobedience. Many young Americans were endorsing women’s rights, free love, and free will. Psychology was changing too, and humanists emphasized that everyone possesses inner resources for personal growth and development. The goal of humanistic therapy, therefore, would be to help people use these inner resources to make healthier choices and thus lead better lives. Humanism stressed the free will of individuals to choose their own patterns of behavior.
2. Cognitive Psychology
While humanism was changing how psychologists were treating clients, changes were also occurring in researchers were becoming disenchanted with the limits of testing stimuli, responses, and consequences in the laboratory, and there was renewed interest in the study of mental processes. Research expanded to subjects such as memory, problem solving, and decision making. However, unlike the earlier functionalism and structuralism, this new study of mental processes was based on more objective experimental methods. Acknowledging that mental processes are not directly observable to the eye, scientists believed that reasonable inferences about mental processes could be made from performance data. By the 1980s, the study of cognitive processes, or cognitive psychology became part of the mainstream psychology.
3. The Birth of Positive Psychology
Focusing on how we think, particularly whether our thoughts are pessimistic or optimistic in nature, soon led to a growing emphasis on human strengths and on how humans attain happiness, called positive psychology. Led by American Psychologists Martin Seligman and Ed Diener, positive psychology has produced an explosion of research over the past decade describing the factors that contribute to happiness, positive emotions, and well-being. By scientifically studying positive aspects is to enable individuals, families, and communities to thrive.
Modern Perspectives and the Eclectic Approach
Psychologists who adopt a biological perspective look for a physical cause for a particular behavior. Such psychologists examine genetic, biochemical, and nervous system relationships to behavior has enables neuroscientists to develop devices to assist people with severe motor deficits or spinal cord injuries.
Closely aligned to the biological perspective is the evolutionary perspective. This approach is similar to the biological approach in that both see the cause of behavior as biological. However, this is where the similarity ends. The evolutionary perspective proposes that natural selection is the process at work. Behaviors that increase your chances of surviving are favored or selected over behaviors that decrease your chances of surviving. Remember James’ functionalism? One could say that James was an early evolutionary psychologist. Similarly this approach analyzes whether a particular behavior increases a person’s ability to adapt to the environment, thus increases a person’s ability to adapt to the environment, thus increasing the chances of surviving, reproducing and passing one’s genes on to future generations.
The cognitive perspective explains behavior with an emphasis on thoughts and interpretations based on memory, expectations, beliefs, problem solving, or decision making. A cognitive view focuses on how people process information and on how that process may influence behavior. For example, in explaining depression, a cognitive approach focuses on how people who are depressed think and perceive the world differently from people who are not depressed.
The psychodynamic perspective is a collective term that refers to those assumptions about behavior originally conceived by Freud, which have been modified by his followers. The psychodynamic view focuses on internal, often unconscious mental processes, motives, and desires or childhood conflicts to explain behavior. For example, many children lie to or explain behavior. For example, many children lie to or manipulate parents to get what they want. It may also suggest that such behavior is an unconscious expression of feelings of powerlessness and lack of control that all children face from time to time.
The behavioral perspective focuses on external causes of behavior. It looks at how stimuli in our environment and/or the rewards and punishments we receive influence our behavior and mental processes. This approach suggests that behavior is learned and is influenced by other people and events. For example, if a student studies and then aces an exam, that reward may encourage her to study again the next time. If she only gets an average score, merely passing the test may not be rewarding enough to encourage the student to study for the future exams. This perspective stems from Watson’s and Skinner’s behaviorist views.
The sociocultural perspective adopts a wider view of the impact of the environment on behavior and mental processes. It suggests that your society or culture influences your actions. Consider, for example, that from 1996 to 2006 the United States had a higher teen birth and abortion rate than Canada, Sweden and England/Wales. The sociocultural perspective would attribute this phenomenon to aspects of society that may differ in these countries such as sexual values, contraceptive availability and use, and exposure to sex education.
The humanistic perspective explains behavior as stemming from your choices and free will. These choices are influenced by your self-concept and by your self-esteem. This view of the self and these feelings toward the self will lead you to choose certain behaviors over others. For example, if you see yourself as a low achiever in school, you may be less likely to take challenging courses or to apply yourself in the courses that you do like.
Many psychologists do not rigidly adhere to just one of these perspectives but are likely to take what is referred to as an eclectic approach when explaining behavior. An eclectic approach integrates or combines several perspectives to provide a more complete and complex picture of behavior.
Areas of Specialization in Psychology
1. Behavioral Neuroscience – focuses on biological processes, especially the brain’s role in behavior.
2. Cognitive Psychology – examines attention, consciousness, information processing, and memory. It also focuses on cognitive skills and abilities such as problem solving, decision making, expertise, and intelligence.
3. Development Psychology – examines how people become who they are, from conception to death, concentrating on biological and environmental factors.
4. Health Psychology – emphasizes psychological factors, lifestyle, and behavior that influence physical health.
5. Industrial and Organization psychology applies findings in all areas of psychology in the workplace.
6. Community Psychology is concerned with providing accessible care for people with psychological problems. Community-based mental health centers are one means of delivering such services as outreach programs.
7. Environmental psychology explores the effects of physical settings in most major areas of psychology including perception, cognition, learning, and others.
8. Forensic Psychology applies psychology to legal system. Forensic psychologists might help with jury selection or provide expert testimonies in trials.
9. Personality Psychology focuses on the relatively enduring characteristics of individuals including traits, goals, motives, genetics, and personality development (King, 2013)
10. Clinical Psychology. Psychologist understand and treat serious emotional and behavioral problems
11. Counselling Psychology. Specialist in this field helps people with personal or school problems and with career choices.
12. Social Psychology study the influence of other people on our behavior; interpersonal attraction and intimate relationships; and attitudes and prejudice toward others (Lahey, 2012).
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