What Is Psychology?

hands untangling threads in man's head

Gary Waters / Getty Images

In This Article

What Is Psychology?

Psychology is the study of mind and behavior. It encompasses the biological influences, social pressures, and environmental factors that affect how people think, act, and feel.

Gaining a richer and deeper understanding of psychology can help people achieve insights into their own actions as well as a better understanding of other people.

Types of Psychology

Psychology is a broad and diverse field that encompasses the study of human thought, behavior, development, personality, emotion, motivation, and more. As a result, some different subfields and specialty areas have emerged. The following are some of the major areas of research and application within psychology:

  • Abnormal psychology is the study of abnormal behavior and psychopathology. This specialty area is focused on research and treatment of a variety of mental disorders and is linked to psychotherapy and clinical psychology.
  • Biological psychology (biopsychology) studies how biological processes influence the mind and behavior. This area is closely linked to neuroscience and utilizes tools such as MRI and PET scans to look at brain injury or brain abnormalities.
  • Clinical psychology is focused on the assessment, diagnosis, and treatment of mental disorders.
  • Cognitive psychology is the study of human thought processes including attention, memory, perception, decision-making, problem-solving, and language acquisition.
  • Comparative psychology is the branch of psychology concerned with the study of animal behavior.
  • Developmental psychology is an area that looks at human growth and development over the lifespan including cognitive abilities, morality, social functioning, identity, and other life areas.
  • Forensic psychology is an applied field focused on using psychological research and principles in the legal and criminal justice system.
  • Industrial-organizational psychology is a field that uses psychological research to enhance work performance and select employees.
  • Personality psychology focuses on understanding how personality develops as well as the patterns of thoughts, behaviors, and characteristics that make each individual unique.
  • Social psychology focuses on group behavior, social influences on individual behavior, attitudes, prejudice, conformity, aggression, and related topics.

Uses

The most obvious application for psychology is in the field of mental health where psychologists use principles, research, and clinical findings to help clients manage and overcome symptoms of mental distress and psychological illness. Some of the additional applications for psychology include:

  • Developing educational programs
  • Ergonomics
  • Informing public policy
  • Mental health treatment
  • Performance enhancement
  • Personal health and well-being
  • Psychological research
  • Self-help
  • Social program design
  • Understanding child development

It is difficult to capture everything that psychology encompasses in just a brief definition, but topics such as development, personality, thoughts, feelings, emotions, motivations, and social behaviors represent just a portion of what psychology seeks to understand, predict, and explain.

Impact of Psychology

Psychology is both an applied and academic field that benefits both individuals and society as a whole. A large part of psychology is devoted to the diagnosis and treatment of mental health issues, but that's just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the impact of psychology.

Some of the ways that psychology contributes to individuals and society include:

  • Improving our understanding of why people behave as they do as well
  • Understanding the different factors that can impact the human mind and behavior
  • Understanding issues that impact health, daily life, and well-being
  • Improving ergonomics to improve product design
  • Creating safer and more efficient workspaces
  • Helping motivate people to achieve their goals
  • Improving productivity

Psychologists accomplish these things by using objective scientific methods to understand, explain, and predict human behavior. Psychological studies are highly structured, beginning with a hypothesis that is then empirically tested.

Potential Pitfalls

There's a lot of confusion out there about psychology. Unfortunately, such misconceptions about psychology abound in part thanks to stereotyped portrayals of psychologists in popular media as well as the diverse career paths of those holding psychology degrees.

Sure, there are psychologists who help solve crimes, and there are plenty of professionals who help people deal with mental health issues. However, there are also psychologists who:

  • Contribute to creating healthier workplaces
  • Design and implement public health programs
  • Research airplane safety
  • Help design technology and computer programs
  • Study military life and the psychological impact of combat

No matter where psychologists work, their primary goals are to help describe, explain, predict, and influence human behavior.

History of Psychology

Early psychology evolved out of both philosophy and biology. Discussions of these two subjects date as far back as the early Greek thinkers, including Aristotle and Socrates.

The word "psychology" itself is derived from the Greek word psyche, literally meaning "life" or "breath." Derived meanings of the word include "soul" or "self."

The emergence of psychology as a separate and independent field of study truly came about when Wilhelm Wundt established the first experimental psychology lab in Leipzig, Germany in 1879.

Throughout psychology's history, various schools of thought have formed to explain the human mind and behavior. In some cases, certain schools of thought rose to dominate the field of psychology for a period of time.

The following are some of the major schools of thought in psychology.

  • Structuralism: Wundt and Titchener's structuralism was the earliest school of thought, but others soon began to emerge.
  • Functionalism: The early psychologist and philosopher William James became associated with a school of thought known as functionalism, which focused its attention on the purpose of human consciousness and behavior.
  • Psychoanalysis: Soon, these initial schools of thought gave way to several dominant and influential approaches to psychology. Sigmund Freud's psychoanalysis centered on how the unconscious mind impacted human behavior.
  • Behaviorism: The behavioral school of thought turned away from looking at internal influences on behavior and sought to make psychology the study of observable behaviors.
  • Humanistic psychology: Later, the humanistic approach centered on the importance of personal growth and self-actualization.
  • Cognitive psychology: By the 1960s and 1970s, the cognitive revolution spurred the investigation of internal mental processes such as thinking, decision-making, language development, and memory.

While these schools of thought are sometimes perceived as competing forces, each perspective has contributed to our understanding of psychology.

A Word From Verywell

As you can see, while psychology may be a relatively young science it also has a tremendous amount of both depth and breadth. The assessment, diagnosis, and treatment of mental illness are central interests of psychology, but psychology encompasses much more than mental health.

Today, psychologists seek to understand many different aspects of the human mind and behavior, adding new knowledge to our understanding of how people think as well as developing practical applications that have an important impact on everyday human lives.

Psychology works to help people improve their individual well-being and thrive in an increasingly complex world.

Was this page helpful?
Article Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  • American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th ed.. Washington, DC: Author; 2013.

  • Hothersall D. History of Psychology, 4th ed. New York: Mcgraw-Hill; 2003.